My heyday with competitive shooters were the summers during high school, when Halo dominated me and my friends, and no one ever said no to another match of capture the flag in Blood Gulch. Eventually, it seemed the genre had passed me by. Time had taken its toll, as it does with so many things. That was fine, of course, except for when I felt the pull. Maybe I was waiting for the right game.
Splatoon shouldn't have worked. Until recently, Nintendo, a company best known for family-friendly games in familiar and stable genres, wouldn't have been on anyone's list for reinventing the competitive shooter. But Splatoon, released a little over two years ago, generated a hardcore following, even though it was for the "failed" Wii U. It helped make competitive shooters appealing to a wider audience, without losing what makes them click. Like Overwatch, Splatoon was incredibly good at making you feel welcome. The characters being extremely cute didn't hurt.
Anyone that's followed my work over the years knows I've continued to beat a very specific drum: trying new games. As one's age ticks up, it's easy to fall into the trap of playing the same types of games over and over, and I've worked hard to fight against that calcification of taste. Case in point: Dark Souls, XCOM, Spelunky, and most recently and most shockingly, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.
Even when you identify a genre (or style of game) to take on, though, lack of interest might not be the biggest problem; many of these games aren't designed for newcomers, making them a steep, if not impossible, climb. There's not enough appreciation for games that manage to thread the needle, finding a way to onboard the inexperienced, indoctrinating them to complicated concepts and intertwined mechanics, without falling prey to oversimplification.
Splatoon 2, like Splatoon before it, is one of those games: an easily accessible shooter, yet one with an enormous amount of depth for those who seek it. It rewards different types of players. Are you a sharpshooter, capable of flicking an analog stick around with ease, and sniping someone across the way? You have a place. Then again, you have a place in most games. Are you someone who's more interested in supporting the team, knowing you'll be useless in a firefight? You have a place, too—just focus on soaking the world in as much ink as possible. (And chances are you'll end up finding a weapon that suits you, whatever your skill level.)
It only makes sense Nintendo would fastrack a sequel for Switch, a machine that's proven infinitely more popular than its predecessor. It's also, for better or worse, the most traditional sequel Nintendo's made in a while, largely because Nintendo doesn't make many games that fit the every-other-year sequel template that defines most shooter franchises. No one blinks when there's a new Call of Duty every year, but a major Nintendo sequel that looks a lot like the game that came before it? Splatoon 2 isn't a reinvention, but that's on purpose, and it's fine.
Splatoon 2's premise remains the same, with ink at the heart of everything. Shooting ink is how you defeat enemies, while plastering the world with your team's ink is how you establish dominance. Players control inklings, upsettingly cute human/squid hybrids capable of fully transforming into a squid. When players are human, they move slowly but wield a gun loaded with ink. (You can move through enemy ink, but it's basically quicksand and hurts you.) As a squid you're defenseless, but you can move extremely fast, swim up walls, jump through fences, and refill your weapon's ink. (It's still possible to get shot while submerged, but it's much harder.)
It's possible to jump into a set of multiplayer matches and figure things out, but one of Splatoon's most underrated elements, continued and improved here, is single-player. Besides acting as lengthy tutorial, a useful way to spend time with the game's weapons and become familiar with their quirky rhythms, it's a supremely clever campaign. Even if one has zero interest in a round of multiplayer, after spending a few hours in single-player, you'd be surprised at how prepared you'd be.
Splatoon 2's solo levels are tight, contained experiences, with most of them taking no more than 10 minutes to complete. But there's a fun catch, as the developers have hidden two collectibles in each stage: a scroll, which reveals cute lore about the game's universe, and "sardinium," required to upgrade your campaign weapons. In the past, I've made the argument that no developer is smarter about collectibles than Nintendo. The company has never embraced an equivalent to trophies or achievements, but took note of players interested in going above and beyond. This was especially true in games like Super Mario 3D Land and World.
These collectibles often mask the true cleverness of the level designers, a dance played with those who decide to entertain it. Splatoon 2 continues this recent but welcomed tradition, and I encourage you to follow. I almost never moved forward without first finding everything a Splatoon 2 level had to offer, and was usually rewarded for the effort; it often meant flexing the camera at an odd angle or slipping around a corner that most people wouldn't have noticed. A-ha.
And in a world where boss battles are, with the exception of Souls-like games, seemingly falling out of vogue, Splatoon 2 makes an argument it's only because of lacking creativity. Each of the game's five worlds hides a wholly unique monstrosity, demanding players exploit the game's mechanics in a different way. Even if Nintendo hadn't asked me to keep quiet about the nature of the Splatoon 2's bosses (in the third world and beyond) I'd still be loathe to spoil the game's best surprises.
And yet, I can't help but discuss an early favorite, the game's second boss: Octo Samurai. Armed with an enormous version of the game's splat roller, which allows the player to whip ink or blanket the space in front of them, it presses the player to contend with one of the game's core tenets: territory control. Octo Samurai is both capable of drenching the arena with ink and deploying attacks that sweep large areas. Combined, the player must be vigilant about deploying their own, hospitable ink and making sure it's applied in direction that will give you a chance to avoid an incoming attack. It's a tutorial where lessons are taught through play.
I don't have much to say about Splatoon 2's multiplayer because I haven't spent enough time with it. Plus, it always seems goofy to say too much about before the masses get a chance to join in. Suffice to say, it seems like Splatoon—in a good way.
Maybe I'm reaching here, but hear me out. Splatoon was one of Nintendo's most inventive games in years. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is, possibly, one of the best games Nintendo's ever made. Both were cut from the same cloth, in which Nintendo studied the rest of the industry, put their own spin on it, and clowned them—effortlessly. There's something in the water at Nintendo, as if they have something to prove all over again, despite their age. I like it.