Gaming giant Nintendo is no stranger to online play, but its online play usually comes with distinct limitations on the game that features it. The Animal Crossing series takes the best advantage of online play, creating small, shared worlds (player towns) where players can interact and actually talk to each other through direct text input and voice chat. Even so, many game options, such as doing chores for your neighbors, shut off and are replaced by different sorts of activities (like mini-games).
True to Nintendo’s usual style, communication in game is almost non-existent. The Wii U game pad has a mic and often works via a touch-pad keyboard, but Splatoon has no text or voice chat, just pre-written comments/voice acting, akin to Hearthstone. But in a shooter that focuses on painting the environment and enemies with your team’s color by way of calling a win, I’d say it’s probably acceptable.
The painting mechanic is also where things get interesting: The scoring isn’t heavily based on just kills. I am usually pretty bad at console shooters, but in my playthroughs, I was able to snag more kills than deaths… and still ranked low on the final scoreboard. I wasn’t kill-obsessed either, but it certainly seems as if the scoring system uses a less traditional method, one that probably helps newbie players feel as if they’re contributing.
I’m a self-identified player-killer, but not a particularly competitive one. I like being out in the world, doing another task, and having PvP just happen. Trying to paint a wall in Splatoon and suddenly seeing a giant paint-squid coming at me certainly creates a similar feeling.
Indeed, Splatoon shines brightest not in its mechanics but in the mood and emotions it evokes. I’m a longtime Nintendo fan, but the art and overall style feels more modern than Nintendo’s usual motifs. There are strong Japanese influences, but the art seems to be directly Asian-inspired rather than pure anime. And there’s a distinct Animal Crossing vibe in the game’s customization too. Any piece of clothing that looks cool can be ordered for in-game currency and be “top tier.” Real players aren’t in your lobby area of the game, but their avatars are, and they carry their Miiverse (it’s like Nintendo Facebook) message or art. The latter is especially important, since fan art is used as graffiti in both the lobby and the arenas you fight in.
Nintendo’s still fairly restrictive with its players. The servers handled launch with very few hiccups, which was quite impressive. Nintendo doesn’t fully “get” online yet, though. For example, it’s not yet letting players change their loadouts and options or cancel out of the game when queued.
However, the setting is original, as is the vague story with its faint Adventure Time undertones. While I had fun with the competitive matches in my test demo, the long queues make me realize that Nintendo has been wise enough to wait for more people to hit the entrance cap before opening it to the public, just like gating raid or arena content in a new MMO. The overall gameplay is familiar with a fun twist, and while I’m waiting for a full Animal Crossing Online, Nintendo’s at least shown that it can make a functional online game that’s well balanced and entertaining.
The company’s about 20 years behind in the shooter scene, but perhaps in four or five more years, we’ll finally see it try to tackle a full-fledged MMO.
Update: Splatoon has since released ranked play, a new map, plus a new weapon, and at least for now, I’ve been able to find matches even during off hours due to the global nature of the game in a couple of minutes at most.