Splatoon and the Case of Gameplay vs. Gunplay

Before this year’s E3 event, if you had told me that one of the most promising “shooter” announcements of 2014 would come from Nintendo, I would have suggested that you consult a psychiatrist. GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark are but distant …

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Before this year’s E3 event, if you had told me that one of the most promising “shooter” announcements of 2014 would come from Nintendo, I would have suggested that you consult a psychiatrist. GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark are but distant memories, and Samus Aran’s last solo outing was closer to a Bayonetta than it was to a Metroid Prime. Nintendo proper was seemingly uninterested in an in-house attempt at tackling the genre, with the general assumption being that the modern shooter’s gritty aesthetic and focus on gunplay didn’t mesh well with their all ages fare.

And yet, here we are. E3 has come and gone, and Splatoon, an eight player (with squads of four vs. four) third-person online Wii U shooter from Nintendo’s EAD group No.2 – the very same developers that brought us such titles as Wii Sports and Animal Crossing – has emerged from the depths as one of the most lauded titles of the show, if critical acclaim and internet chatter are any metrics to go by.

splatoon screenshot1

In a convention year that brought us new games from huge franchises like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Battlefield: Hardline, on hardware with far more coverage and mind share, this was no easy feat.

How, then, were  they able to accomplish this? And what differentiates Splatoon from the seemingly endless stream of sci-fi and military gunplay focused shooters that appear on a yearly basis?

For one, the concept of Splatoon doesn’t hinge on maintaining a kill-streak. Instead, the player characters (many of which, at least in the available build, appear to be female) use ink filled Super Soakers to mark turf on a map, with the Wii U’s GamePad displaying player position and ground gained in real time. And yes, you can ink your opposition as well, but splattering your opponent results in them bursting in a neon spray of your team’s color, adding ever slightly to your claim.

But this deconstruction of the modern shooter doesn’t end there. Once the rules were set in place, Nintendo did what they do best. They created a vibrant character and used it as a vehicle for fun and unique gameplay.

During an inspired meeting during Splatoon’s early days of development, the Producer, Hisashi Nogami, insisted that the player characters should be squids, and as the game progressed, it was decided that they should have the ability to change from squid to human form and back again.

The zany ideas began to snowball from there: As a human you can use the ink gun spoken of above, but your movement rate when trotting through your own ink is merely average, and slowed considerably when mucking through the ink of your opponents. As a squid, you no longer have access to your blaster, but you swim much faster (even up walls) and can perform other useful moves, like leaping into the air and passing through otherwise impenetrable grates.

These moves, when combined in an intelligent fashion, allow for a number of interesting techniques such as spraying the wall in front of you, turning into a squid in order to climb it and leaping from its peak, switching back to a human upon your descent and spraying the ground as you fall, and turning back into a squid to dive into the area you just inked. And if you want to be a stealthy little sneak, you can stay submerged until an opponent draws near, transform, and give them a nice little splat on the back as they pass by unaware.


This is all wonderful from a gamer’s perspective. The shooter (whether it be first-person, third-person or a mix of the two) is a well traveled genre with firmly established conventions. A shake up in the gameplay department is a welcome thing indeed.

But will it succeed in the marketplace? That’s the big question. It’s no secret that the Wii U has struggled to gain acceptance. And it’s also well known that the PS4 and Xbox One will soon be home to a glut of traditional shooters. If Splatoon doesn’t see some measure of success, there is a chance that the innovations it brings will be seen as toxic, and won’t be appropriated by other developers in the AAA industry.

One of the major reasons why publishers in this genre are so adverse to change beyond the cosmetic is the belief that altering things too much would scare away the user base they need to maintain these multimillion dollar franchises. But risk vs. reward is a constant flux, and stagnation brings with it the  potential for genre fatigue. With more titles being released but fewer chances being taken we could see what happened to the music genre of last generation, or, for a more apt comparison, the side scrolling shooter of the 16-Bit era, happen to this cycle’s stalwart.

And that, my friends, would be a terrible waste.

Brian Anthony Thornton's career as a writer and critic began at age 14 when he created a fanzine called The Super Nintendo War Journal for his schoolyard chums. Since those humble beginnings he has worked as a community manager for several gaming forums, has had short fiction published in literary magazines, and has even covered a convention or two.