Monday, July 31, 2017

Splatoon


I feel as if I've been confessing my inexperience with certain genres a little too much recently, but regardless, I can't say I particularly care for shooters. It's not because I'm squeamish or don't even find them fun, but they feel, more than anything, absolutely tired. The assembly-line identity of Call of Duty and its ilk certainly contribute to that, but that's not even getting how many frame themselves within wars, zombies or alien invasions. The claim that they're creatively bankrupt feels a little unfair when considering recent hits like Overwatch, but it cannot be stressed enough that a) I am really goddamn sick of zombies and b) I wish that maybe shooters would step out of their comfort zone a little.

Perhaps this is why for the past two years I have been absolutely taken with Nintendo's own attempt in Splatoon, which as the game itself would say is absolutely "fresh" in every way that matters. That I'm "taken" with it probably won't last much longer, seeing as how Splatoon 2 came out just the other day, but it's not hard to see how it made such a splash: while turf war and paintball games and the like have been around for some time, none reach the inspired heights of Splatoon's "kids who turn into squids" concept, married to a 90's-inspired dwelling in downtown Shibuya where the kids ("Inklings") splatter each other with Nickelodeon-esque ink, follow idols and dress themselves in "fresh" clothing.


It's a concept as fascinating to watch as it is to play: a game of Splatoon's imagination must put imagery to work, and you have Inklings utilizing not merely toy guns and rifles but paint rollers, brushes and buckets to spreading their color-coded ink around, all the while swimming through said ink as a squid. Through repeated experimentation of each and every weapon, you'll eventually find your own niche in best serving your team, be it full-frontal assault (Splattershot), vantage points (Chargers) or clean-up duty (Rollers).

Let it be reminded that this is not a game about killing the other player: yes, Inklings can be "splatted" through weapons and whatnot, but this is first and foremost a game focusing on inking as much territory as possible. You ink walls to climb up via squid form, you'll scrub over as much enemy ink as possible to lessen their territorial foothold and you'll definitely find yourself cleaning up the home base your team forgot to ink at the start.

This isn't to dismiss splatting as an afterthought: it's an inevitable consequence in every match, and the thrill of surprise attacks are not to be forgotten. But it's this emphasis on turf control that grant Splatoon some advantages; image-wise, ink renders Splatoon the least cynical shooting game on the market. Not that a game about kids and squids who look as if they popped right of a Nicktoon would feature the same grittiness as Halo, but for a world so conceptually different, it's automatically relatable in its context: adolescents engaging in their favorite past-time.

From a gameplay standpoint, it's the best possible hook Splatoon could ask for. Toss any controller at the player new to Call of Duty, and it's all too likely they'll fumble with the HUD, controls and aiming before they get a hang of it. Give them a GamePad for Splatoon, and the premise is immediately understood: drench everything in sight with ink and you'll help your team win. It's a concept as approachable to the weathered octogenarian as it is to the fledgling preschooler.



Really, it's amazing how fun it is just to ink things. Being the point of the game, of course, you're compelled to ink every dry surface and opposing ink in sight, even if it places you at a tactical advantage, and you often find yourself asking such questions like, "do I go after that crowd of uncovered patches to bolster our lead, or clean up the messy warfare going on at the center?" Perhaps this is why Rollers are my weapon of choice: they're designed not for battle (fun as it is to squish enemy Inklings from behind!), but to clean-up whatever territory our team missed, and so Rollers are often left to their own devices.

It helps the stage list is generally quite solid. While there are some obviously better than others--the likes of Walleye Warehouse and Arowana Mall have never thrilled me too much--I've grown to recognize it's difficult to forge a top five list considering how many I enjoy. I could elaborate on a number of favorites, but Saltspray Rig is an obvious highlight, with its king-of-the-hill set-up prime for Sprinkler weapons and heated splatting. Meanwhile, Moray Towers displays the variety in arena design, with both towering, vertical home bases opposing the other in a defensive showdown.

That Splatoon is Nintendo's first primarily-online game makes it all the more a wonder it works as well as it does. As we'll discuss momentarily, the absence of voice chat was a misstep, and yet I can't find myself getting too mad at that: again, Splatoon's visual intuition is key here, as all it takes is one look at your map to see where your services are best needed: either back up your teammates in a heated turf war, or go scrub up some empty turf.


Going off-track for a moment, said map is what helps make Splatoon a winner; after three years of trying to figure out what do with the damn GamePad, Splatoon finally makes Nintendo's first--albeit far too late--case of a game designed around the screen-equipped controller. While a traditionally-controlled Splatoon available if you want it --the option of turning off gyro controls is present--I can't possibly imagine going without without said gyro controls, which are super precise and undoubtedly faster in their aiming. In a game designed around marking turf, such innate movement and accuracy is vital to whipping about in the fastest manner possible, rendering the gyro essential for anyone desiring to play the game at a competitive level. While it wouldn't be until Super Mario Maker that the screen itself would prove essential, the conveniences found in Splatoon make us what wonder what Wii U could've been like had Nintendo actually focused on the GamePad concept in the system's earlier years.

Of course, Nintendo and online being what they are, basic fundamental mistakes are made that no one else would make; for starters, what's up with not being able to switch weapons between matches? What should be a common-sense feature is absent, and needless to say, it's quite frustrating having to leave a room just to switch Rollers. The absence of voice chat at least got something of an explanation, and while Nintendo's desire to create a family-friendly environment for young players is understandable, that it's the player's choice renders it irrelevant; that, too, is simply far too viable in a team shooter like this. And the less said about matchmaking with friends, the happier I'll be.

At the same time, the way Nintendo emphasized the game's online community is to be commended. The Miiverse posts hovering above the Inklings wandering about Inkopolis were naturally prime for memes, and I can't help but imagine it mirrors the contextual interests of the Inklings themselves. The Splatfests, themed contests in which players choose between two sides like Pokémon Red vs Pokémon Blue, were also immensely interesting in how each region (America/Japan/Europe) had exclusive contests specifically tailored towards each country's native interests, going as far to license  from non-gaming properties  (to provide an American example, having once been the world's biggest Spongebob Squarepants fan, it made me immensely happy they not only hosted a "Spongebob vs Patrick" contest to capitalize upon the game's nautical theme, but the localization team made the effort to include the show's best quote, as seen below.)



While I'm at it, Splatoon possesses one of my favorite Treehouse localizations in recent memory. Naturally it's filled to the brim with squid puns and the like, but while the design of Splatoon's characters alone would capture our attention--the shy anemone-adorned hat shop owner bossed around by a demand clownfish host being the highlight-- the dialogue is what instantly renders them memorable, be it the stone-cold sass of Marie or how the final boss--a DJ octopus--literally screams "I'mma remix your face!" Much as that one is cited as the best, however, my personal vote goes to "Please to understand,"uttered grammatically-confused jellyfish owner of Jelly Fresh in a reference to the late Satoru Iwata's favorite phrase. 

Let us not forget the ingenuity found in the game's clothing: hats, shirts and shoes all provide bonuses unlocked through gradually playing battles and earning points, so players are encouraged to purchase all sorts of clothing and mix 'em up to suit their Turf War preferences. We could harp on about endless styles of eye-catching fashion, but what's undeniably the coolest thing abut it is how Nintendo invented all these brands behind every single article of clothing, all of with their own emphasis on a different bonus; Inkline's assembly of outdoor gear, for instance, focuses on Defense Up buffs

A similar route is taking with the "bands" behind the game's music, although those are elaborated upon within the official soundtrack and whatnot. Nay, what's more important is so much of Splatoon's character is expressed in sound, courtesy of Toru Minegishi and Shiho Fujii in what is absolutely the highlight of the former's long career at Nintendo. Guitars, chiptunes, synth and fictional vocals all come together to perfectly encapsulate the competitive drive of youth, complemented by a dash of tropical reggae.


It can't be emphasized enough how earwormy Splatoon's music is: much of this is thanks to the aforementioned made-up vocals, composed of the Inklings' nebulous language. Just compare and contrast the two following battle themes -- Splattack! (the game's main theme) and Kraken Up -- and note how they immediately become ingrained in memory. Both take different approaches in their guitar/vocal qualities: you have the former, which takes a steady, yet not too languid, method in complementing the turf war, never being too overt in its rhythm but keeping it afloat to linger; the latter, which takes an immediate "gung-ho!" plunge in its vocal opening, in turn casting an instant drive to go out here and splat about. 

Those two represent perhaps the best of the guitar/vocal mixes, although the chiptune songs must also be praised: aside from deliberate homages in Super Mario Maker and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (which, coincidentally, all hail from the same release period), I can't begin to recall such active use of chiptune in modern Nintendo history, and it works wonderfully; I'm particularly fond of Shellfie, the most frantic of the bunch that draws synth and vocals. But let us also not forget Now or Never!, the one-minute frenzy that concludes each and every match with an adrenaline-pumping beat, one that either draws one last stand in the face of overwhelming odds or confidence in maintaining a crushing lead.

I could continue to harp on about my love of the score -- I also dig the mesmerizing minalism of Inkopolis Square -- but really, my point is that everything surrounding Splatoon's core gameplay and much of its presentation is generally pretty perfect, and that's why I continue to wish the rest of the game was up to snuff.  There is a single-player campaign, for instance, involving an underground war against the dastardly Octolings. It's tongue-in-cheek and fun and all that, and yet I could never shake the impression it was little more than a tutorial for the main game, with hardly any of it being recalled to memory. Others feel differently, most commonly referring to the final boss fight as a masterpiece; myself, other than the show-stopping vocal finale theme, I thought it was just fine. (Instead, I would point to the main attraction as the collectible Sunken Scrolls, which detail the origins and lore of Splatoon's world; being a cat lover, it goes without saying the origin of Judd, the corpulent kitty referee, made me unironically well up).


Meanwhile, I would describe Splatoon's presentation as, in a word, snappy, but I use that term with some hesitation. Let us not downplay how Inkopolis is just compact enough for player convenience and to remain interesting in itself, or the quick-jump interface with the touch screen, but there are other things that are not so "convenient". Case in point: the Squid Sisters' obligatory stage announcements that arrive every time the game boots up, and have remained unskippable in the two years since launch. Truth be told, while I have not only grown accustomed to these messages but even look forward to them much as one would for a pre-game show, I cannot help but sympathize with those who'd instead choose to skip it and discover the stage list for themselves. Splatoon is convenient, yes, but only within the confines of the rules it sets for itself, even if they are against the interests of the player.

The most unfortunate detail is that, alas, Splatoon has an expiration date: as it's primarily online, it'll go down one day, and its core appeal as a product will cease. Even more than that, with Miiverse likely to shut down soon, it seems those delightful user posts will be going away too, and soon Splatoon will rendered a silenced online experience 'till the day of its death. There is an offline multiplayer mode, but the whole balloon thing is hardly in the same league as the main online game; needless to say, preservation of the game seems unlikely, and I'll certainly mourn its passing.

But until that day arrives, and even afterwards, let us bask in how Nintendo has reinvented the wheel with the world's most popular gaming genre with Splatoon. This is, by all accounts, not merely the most addictive game on Wii U (only Super Smash Bros. for Wii U provides a close tie), but the most fascinating concept to arrive from Nintendo since the GameCube era, and that such an uncynical idea continues to successfully penetrate the gaming sphere is nothing less than remarkable. It is, quite simply, ink-redible.


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