There was so much to love about the original Splatoon. I reviewed the last one and was pretty excited about the new one. In fact, it was one of the main reasons I bought a Switch. Splatoon may not have been an MMO, but for Nintendo’s first try, it had a lot of things that made it feel bigger than it was. A graphical lobby filled with not only players Miiverse “tweets,” but tons of player art as well, which also appeared in the game’s levels. New content – weapons, levels, and game modes – were pumped out for a bit more than a year after release and came free of charge. It was far from perfect, but it felt unique and “fresh,” a term the game’s mascots frequently used. It’s a hard game to live up to, and maybe that’s Splatoon 2’s biggest downfall.
The Problem With Sequels
Splatoon 2 has a lot in common with the first game and builds a little on this. For example, we once again have a mostly online game with a relatively short story mode. Again, the single player is a platformer that emphasizes mental flexibility, trying to get the player to interact with levels in creative ways. There’s no carry over this time though, in that you don’t need to play the single player mode to unlock a bunch of multiplayer weapons. You can get food truck tickets, which give boosts like 50% boost to xp gains for 20 matches but otherwise, there’s less of a reason to jump into it. For people who want to explore Splatoon’s world and lore first hand, it’s still great fun. Cameos from the last game and puns turned up to 11 had me laughing and getting hungry at the same time. The unrelenting, shameless puns, especially revolving around sea critters and food, helps keep the mood light. Even if you’re short on time like I was, I’d suggest at least playing through once.
For those who enjoy single player though, there are some bonuses this time around. Not only are the lore based Sunken Scrolls back, but there’s a new currency called “Sardinium” used to upgrade your gear (only in single player mode). There’s one in every level, plus the overworld maps, giving players plenty of reason to explore. Even better, the aforementioned food truck tickets aren’t hinted at prior to levels. They’re just something I kept bumping into while searching for scrolls and sardines, suddenly appearing instead of my actual targets. I was rarely disappointed though, but always genuinely and pleasantly surprised.
However, the content of the scrolls was more “modern.” While the first Splatoon was new and needed a way to deliver backstory for the world, Splatoon 2 is mostly talking about what’s happened since the last game, which isn’t quite as exciting. There are still some juicy ones, but I’ll leave that up to the community to explore.
Basic control is mostly the same. You can completely turn off the motion control now, but especially as a PC gamer used to a mouse, the motion control with the sensitivity turned to max feels just right, though the loss of the controller’s screen on the Wii U is tragic. The information conveyed on it, namely the game map, now has to be brought up manually, taking over the entire screen in the process. As a game that’s mostly based on painted territory, asking the playing to give up all their sight to essentially check the score seems not only harsh but backwards. Touching the second screen to jump to other players (a fast travel option, especially useful after being killed) or to select targets for my favorite special attack, the tactical nuke “Inkstrike,” was fun. Inkstrike is gone now, and the new fast travel UI, with players having simple arrows next to their position, makes my UI assessment senses tingle with pleasure, but I wouldn’t describe any of this as “fun.”
Local, single console multiplayer is completely gone, replaced by local multiplayer battles which I’d seen at E3. As I don’t live near any of the other MMOGames writers, I wasn’t able to tackle this mode. I’m sure there are people out there that can do LAN parties with their Switches but at local events, I only see people playing their Switches by themselves, including multiplayer titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. It could be my local scene or the tragic fate of adult Nintendo fans, but I honestly struggled to find local multiplayer partners both in Japan and in America.
All this would be forgivable if Splatoon 2’s online features had been enhanced. What impressed me so much about the first game was that it felt like Nintendo “got” the online scene more. At launch, I didn’t miss voice chat as much because it was something we were all still getting used to. I didn’t think about how seriously the meta might develop for something that was uniquely fun but certainly skill-based, and Nintendo’s new emphasis on Splatoon 2’s potential as an esport shows that they see this too now. However, what they’ve done to address it is too little too late.
Fish Out of Water
The complaints people had about Splatoon 1 are mostly still applicable. There’s a voice chat option but, as Kotaku points out in their hands on discussion, it’s both unwieldy and highly restrictive. Nintendo asks that you have a smart phone with its app, a headset with a splitter, and friends you’ve traded codes with, as long as you don’t have the app running in the background and play the correct game modes. The impending death of Nintendo’s Miiverse is sad because it really felt like a good start for a Nintendo-based social media system. In its place is the new Nintendo Switch app. While we can’t message players on our friends list on the Switch itself, this is the app that will allow voice chat. And checking other people’s stats. Plus our own. And seeing what’s available in the story. Things you’d want to do while queued up but can’t. You still can’t practice while waiting, change your gear/weapons, and with the Wii U’s second screen controller gone, we don’t have our retro games to help pass the time. There’s some music… thing we can do with the controller, but it’s not even a game, just an easter egg.
I will say that Nintendo’s mobile game feels strong. I played a lot of Miitomo, had to stay away from Super Mario Run because it felt like it could suck up my free time, and I have a bit of an addiction to Fire Emblem Heroes. All three games do things that, with a little work, could actually be used in an MMO to enhance its multiplayer environment while supporting single player fans. This app, however, doesn’t do that, and it’s a little sad to think that Nintendo, one of the original console creators, can’t get console right enough to function without reliance on mobile technology. While it’s nice that I can order some Orca High-tops and have them delivered to my game while I’m in line at the super market, when I get home, I want my console game to feel complete.
This small issue wouldn’t be nearly as bad if the new special abilities felt, well, more special. Perhaps it’s because I’m a Splatfest veteran, but I really miss my old specials. While the new ones may be more balanced, the Hulk-smash of the Splashdown doesn’t pack quite the wonder or amazement of my Inkstrike. Inkarmor instantly being given to allies and absorbing a single attack works but lacks the fun of the old Bubbler’s damage reduction, increased weakness to knockback, and the ability to spread it to allies by touching them. These were fun mechanics and it feels like Nintendo has sold fun for esports viability, which for regular players, just might not be fun.
Nintendo often feels like they’re at their best when they’re focused on entertainment. They may be tone deaf to modern adult gamers and some mainstream practices, but their innovations tend to give us a reason to let this pass more often than we’d allow from other companies. Instead, what I feel like I’m seeing in Splatoon 2 is an increase in balance at the cost of fun.
Stay Off the Hook
While I may have said a lot that I dislike about Splatoon 2, there’s plenty to like as well. Interestingly enough, one of the new mascots is not only black but an octoling, the bad guys from Splatoon 1. She doesn’t follow certain stereotypes I’d expect from a black character either, while inverting a few at the same time. I could go on about this all day but it hints at themes and maybe even cultural understandings I don’t tend to consider with Japanese game makers, let alone Nintendo.
Mechanically though, the new “gear scrubbing” is Nintendo at their finest. Being able to get rid of abilities on gear (represented with modern, sometimes fashionable clothing) you don’t like and saving their “chunks” to spend in other gear essentially gives the player real control over customization. It’s not quite transmog, but it’s something I really wanted in the first Splatoon where we had to “reroll” all of our earned bonuses at the same time. It made min-maxing near impossible, which may be “fun” to some players, but for players like me, it was a waking RNG nightmare. The new system still gives us a currency sink without it feeling like a crapshoot.
While Miiverse may be dying, Nintendo is still smart enough to be using social media. Pictures you create can be posted on Twitter as well, however at the time of my testing, this has been disabled, though it worked during the test weekend for Splatfest, another area that’s seen innovation. Splatfest, the game’s battle-vote system that has players choose one of two sides (like Ice Cream vs. Cake) and battle it out to decide which is “better,” apparently from a legal standpoint in Inkopolis. Before, you’d have top ranked players dumped in with regular shmoes like myself and they stood out like a penguin at a pig party. Now, however, you have a faction score, not to be confused with your faction rank. The score pits you against others with similar scores, which hopefully indicates your skill.
This may also be working in the new casual mode. Turf War has always been a mixed bag, but I’ve noticed that each of my weapons now have a score that goes up and down with my wins and losses. While Turf War may be casual, no one wants to lose constantly. Having a visual indication of how high you “rank” may help offset the feeling that you’re getting stuck with bad players if your score isn’t very high. So would a death counter, but at least publicly, this has been removed, instead showing the player’s kills with their basic weapons vs. special attack… use? I’m not entirely sure how tactical specials, like Inkarmor, are getting counted but they are. It’s a change that can help players stay motivated to play, rather than get down on themselves or others.
Despite everything I’ve said, at its core, I love Splatoon 2. The basic gameplay – paint as not only a weapon but as the environment, a scoring system, even a mode of transportation, is unique and fun, and nothing about Splatoon 2 diminishes this. The new customization options are icing on that cake.
It’s hard to say there’s a lot of innovation going on here. While the mobile app has some neat things, and the ink gameplay is still fresh and unique except for the existence of the first game, Splatoon 2’s lobby costs it points, especially with Nintendo now having more experience under its belt and, surprisingly, feeling like it “gets” the mobile market but not quite console at this point in time. It’s downright confusing.
I’m basing this score mostly on social media and especially from the weekend Splatfest as the game hasn’t gone live yet. Media is unable to use the features that allow us to “tweet” messages and images we draw in-game. That being said, what I saw prior to and during Splatfest reminded me of why I loved the first game. A lot of funny, upbeat people with great art skills. I even got a pity “like” on my primary Twitter handle from a former student. It does worry me thinking about what voice chat could do to the community, but at the same time, I still wish it was integrated better so that those of us who get along can more easily bond.
Like past Nintendo games I’ve reviewed, I’m awarding full points. Remember, I’m kind of jaded when it comes to most graphics and music. The Splatoon world, however, has always had a great musical score and the visuals are refreshingly creative. Paint dripping from ceilings onto the floor, the inviting but sadly deadly water is inviting, and some of the underwater denizens look real enough to eat.
Splatoon 2 is fun in the very basic sense of the word. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s unique and easy enough to learn, but wonderfully complex once you get the hang of it. It may be vying for esports stardom but it doesn’t need it. It’s only a shame that Nintendo still hasn’t brought the social features up to take advantage of their audience and cut single console local player.