It's safe to say Nintendo might be the teensiest bit backwards in some respects. But since they don't chase down fads immediately, any attempt of theirs to hone in on a popular trend usually comes with a higher degree of thoughtfulness. (Well, if you excuse those Amiibo shortages--and you probably won't.)
I'll admit, I had absolutely no interest in free-to-play games until Rusty's Real Deal Baseball came along--check out my 3DS now, and you'll see that I've unlocked every piece of content over the past year with my hard-earned dollars. And while I'm not quite as averse to competitive shooters, Nintendo's entry into this space isn't exactly striking while the iron's hot--it's more like striking while the iron's stone-cold and discarded. Close to two decades ago, this certainly wasn't the case when Goldeneye 007 served as a multiplayer staple and one of the Nintendo 64's biggest highlights, but the company never successfully recaptured this phenomenon over the passing generations. Splatoon isn't really in the position to reach the same level of living room ubiquity, but Nintendo's stab at competitive shooters gives this familiar experience a charming personality that's uniquely theirs.
While Splatoon sells itself primarily as a multiplayer experience, a recent hands-on session I had with the game focused on its single player component, which makes up a smaller (but not insignificant) part of the experience. Instead of taking place in the standard arenas, these solo adventures unfold via platforming levels that play out like Super Mario Sunshine. From my experience, these short-burst (roughly 5-10 minute) levels are designed to both train you for multiplayer, and to challenge you with tasks that wouldn't really make sense in a competitive context.
These tiny chunks of Splatoon exist in their own bubble outside the multiplayer component, which means the progress you make in them won't benefit your competitive-focused character in any way. You could view this content as a way for Nintendo to make Splatoon an easier sell, but the portions I played offered a lot of inventiveness, and even if they stuck me with the most basic weapon, I slowly learned how to approach its collection of slimy foes to make their inky demises more efficient. (There's even a humanoid enemy that tries its best to feel like it's being controlled by an actual human--sort of like the CPU invaders in Dark Souls.)
Of course, the biggest draw for single-player Splatoon comes in how this mode interacts with its three Amiibo figures, due to ship alongside the game--and hopefully, in high quantities. Readers of USgamer know I've been a little down on Amiibos, but Splatoon's use of them feels like Nintendo's best attempt to make these accessories worthwhile. Yes, you get the standard alternate costumes a la Mario Kart 8, but each figurine unlocks 20 unique challenge levels--a healthy amount of content, even if it happens to be hiding on the disc.
Each of these levels acts as an alternative version of a single-player stage (which you have to clear before attempting the remix) that forces players to use a weapon other than the solo standard. One of them, for example, dropped Splatoon's version of a sniper rifle in my hands, making long-range attacks a breeze, but short-range ones a lot more difficult. Granted, these challenges might not make for the most ambitious Amiibo-based DLC, but regardless, I'd much rather have more game than a fancy new skin for my character.
Nintendo has been a little tight-lipped about the specifics of Splatoon's online progression system, but what I saw felt like a right step for the company, even if it's a tiny one. Splatoon features a strong focus on character customization, with each equippable item offering some sort of slight bonus other than its fashionability, and as you rise through the levels, more gear becomes available. That may sound like it would give experienced players an edge, but Splatoon will ideally match you with players around your current level--making it so your competition will have similarly powered loadouts. Simple as it may be, Splatoon's experience system at least reflects what you've invested in the game--an element that would have made Mario Kart 8's multiplayer the slightest bit appealing to me.
If I have any reservations about Splatoon, they can be found in how it prioritizes the GamePad over other input methods. To be fair, my degree of movement was hampered by the fact the the demo station had its GamePad tethered to the console itself, but it didn't feel quite as responsive as I wanted it to be. I could easily see using the motion controls of the GamePad in tandem with the right analog stick for an ideal setup, but bafflingly, Splatoon only lets you move said stick left and right while the standard GamePad controls are activated--up and down don't move the camera an inch. Because of that design decision, I had a much easier time using the standard two analog sticks for control--but it may be a matter of personal taste, as another journo at my same session vastly preferred the motion-based input.
At this point, it's tough to tell if Splatoon will be a success, since we haven't yet seen how well it responds to an online ecosystem with thousands of people playing at once. But what I've seen so far offers a solid foundation for an experience that hopefully won't be hampered by the same issues that hamstring a lot of online multiplayer games. Its irresistible charm and vibrant, Nintendo-based silliness have me hoping for the best, though. We haven't had original, console-based IP from Nintendo in a long time, and I'd hate to see a rocky launch wreck Splatoon's chances of becoming one of Nintendo's familiar franchises.