Just like Disney isn't about to become known for its R-rated movies, Nintendo isn't about to turn Mario into a killer. So what happens when a family-friendly video game company puts their own twist on a multiplayer shooter?
The result is Splatoon, a multiplayer game that simply oozes charm. Soldiers are replaced with squids and bullets are replaced with paint in a game that's highly competitive without ever feeling violent. Splatoon manages to feel incredibly fresh in a market over-saturated with team-based shooters, but most importantly, it's some of the most fun I've had with a multiplayer game in a good long time.
Note: This review is for a multiplayer-focused game that isn't out yet, based on my experience with non-public online servers. Based on recent launch-day troubles with other multiplayer-only games, and given Nintendo's lack of a significant track record when it comes to online multiplayer, you wouldn't be blamed for waiting to make sure the servers can handle the player load before jumping into Splatoon.
Splatoon's main attraction is a four-on-four team-based game called Turf War, and it's all about territory control. While you can splatter your opponents with ink (temporarily taking them out of the game), doing so isn't your goal. You want to coat as much of the environment as possible in your team's paint color, claiming it for your team. Once the timer has ticked down and the match has ended, the team that covered more of the ground in the level wins.
But the paint isn't just there to look colorful. When you're on top of you team's color of ink, you can turn into a squid by holding down a button ... which is kind of a weird sentence to type. As a squid, though, you can swim through the ink as if it's a body of water. This is a huge part of moving around, because swimming isn't just faster than running, it also lets you go places you wouldn't be able to reach otherwise. For example, you can swim under a gate or even up a wall as long as it's been properly painted first. If you're clever, you can also use ink to hide from your opponents and surprise them.
Be careful, though. If you try to move through ink of your enemy's color you'll come to a screeching halt.
One of Splatoon's greatest accomplishments is that it's very approachable. You don't need lightning-fast reflexes or the ability to pull off tricky shots in order to have a good time, and the rules of the game are easy to pick up.
The game also defaults to motion controls, allowing you to aim by tilting the Wii U GamePad instead of using the right analog stick like you would in a shooting game on other platforms. You can turn these motion controls off if you'd like (I did), but they might be a more user-friendly option for people who don't play a lot of first- or third-person action games.
You have a lot of weapons to choose from, like the basic Splattershot (which looks like a classic Super Soaker) and a giant paint roller, each of which work in very different ways. You can't switch between weapons during a match, but that's probably for the best. It's one less thing to worry about in the heat of the moment.
If online multiplayer isn't your thing, Splatoon does have a surprisingly fun single-player story mode. It's relatively short, so it won't keep you occupied for too long, but this mode is a great way to get a feel for how Splatoon works and hone your skills before jumping into multiplayer. You'll make your way through a bunch of different stages while fighting some enemies along the way, and you'll also run into some memorable and inventive bosses that you'll have to take down through clever use of paint.
One of Splatoon's few significant problems is its lack of content. As of the game's release there are only a handful maps to play on, and the game actually limits which maps you can play at any given time. There are only two maps per game mode in the rotation at a time, meaning that you can sit and play several Turf Wars matches for an hour, but you'll be repeating the same two maps over and over. Nintendo plans to release more free stages throughout the summer, but it's a shame there's not more available from the get-go. Still, the maps that are here are great, and I still haven't grown tired of them after playing the game for a couple weeks.
You can unlock a bit of extra content by buying Splatoon amiibo figures (three of which Nintendo provided for this review).
There's not much to do with friends in the same room as you, either. Splatoon's only local multiplayer mode is a one-on-one battle in which you and your opponent try to shoot balloons that will appear all over the level. Compared to the rest of the game it's not very exciting.
Splatoon is going to live or die by the online community it will hopefully attract. A match will only begin once a full group of eight people is matched up, and if the game can't find enough opponents for you you're going to wait ... and wait ... and wait. Hopefully this won't be a problem in the long run, but if nobody is playing the game a few months from now there won't be anything worthwhile to come back to.
Despite its short single-player and current lack of maps, I've found myself coming back to Splatoon more often than most other multiplayer-focused games I've played lately. There's a ton of cool gear to collect and fun new weapons to unlock as you complete matches, but most importantly Splatoon is just a blast to play. It's fun, it's charming and it feels unlike any other game available right now. As long as there are other players online, I expect to be splattering ink everywhere for a long time to come.