Friday, June 12, 2015

Splatoon Embodies Nintendo’s Creativity

Nintendo’s developers have a collective gift of coming up with a single unique gameplay mechanic and building an entire experience around it. In the case of the recently-released Splatoon, this concept was as simple as shooting ink. After deciding that a squid-human hybrid that could change between the two forms could, logically, shoot the ink as a human and swim through it as a squid, they then built an entire world out of the concept. The last Nintendo game I played before Splatoon that made me really think about just how creative the Japanese developer can be when given total freedom was Pikmin. A couple of years ago, when I sat down and really got into the Pikmin series for the first time, I was struck by not only the uniqueness of the actions I was performing in the games, but by the rich, fleshed out world the Pikmin lived in. I really had never experienced anything like Pikmin before (or since). And while parallels can be drawn between everything from the Super Mario series to SpongeBob SquarePants (and oh have people drawn those parallels), I feel quite similarly when it comes to Splatoon.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Nintendo’s games hold such a special place in my heart is because they capitalize on the medium’s core strength, interactivity, by taking a central gameplay concept and building a whole universe around it. In addition to this, when they’re at their best, Nintendo often shows me things I’ve never seen, even in familiar series. In Splatoon, evolved sea creatures live in a very human-looking city known as Inkopolis. At the center of this bustling metropolis is a plaza where the city’s youth engage in this world’s freshest sport: Turf Wars. Two teams of four “Inklings” (what the aforementioned human-squid, or kid-squid if you will, hybrids are called) compete to cover the ground with as much of their team’s colored ink as they can in defined arenas. When not inking and splatting each other, the kids buy clothing and shoes from all the most popular brands (and yes, there are multiple fictional clothing brands, each complete with their own unique logos) in a mall run by a colorful group of shopkeepers, including a giant shrimp in a beanie cap wearing sneakers on his many appendages and a bashful sea anemone with a rude clown fish living in her hair. On the other side of the plaza are a pair of Inkling newscasters named Callie and Marie (get it?) who are local celebrities among the other Inklings, as well as a shady humanoid sea urchin lounging in an alleyway, a pile of terrified-looking shelled creatures by his side (as well as a few suspiciously empty shells). As soon as I got the chance to explore this vibrant plaza, I immediately got the urge to leave it, to branch out and see more of Inkopolis. This world has its own language, its own slang, its own youth culture and celebrities. Not only that, but it has quite an involved history, which I’ll get into in a bit. The world Nintendo has built for what is at its core an online multiplayer shooter is so interesting and unprecedented that all I could think about was wanting to learn more about it and see more of it upon first booting up the game.

I thought the personality and culture seen in the main plaza was as far as the detail would go, but Splatoon’s developers went even further and decided to let curious players learn bits and pieces of the history of this world. Splatoon has a single-player mode, tucked unceremoniously out of the way, accessed from an unassuming storm drain in one corner of Inkopolis Plaza. The single-player adventure tasks the player’s Inkling with tracking down the missing “Zapfish”, electric catfish that power Inkopolis, which we are told have been stolen by the Octarians, an Octopus-inspired race that are apparently the natural enemies of the Inklings. We travel to their home of “Octo Valley”, and via giant tea kettles, explore bizarre underground spheres with artificial suns suspended from their rocky ceilings and fake skylines projected by dozens of giant monitors lining their walls. If this all sounds delightfully original and weird, it’s because it is. The level layouts themselves are well-crafted, taking ample inspiration from EAD Tokyo Super Mario games (Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 3D World, etc.), and presenting plenty of creative gimmicks that make good use of the core concept of splattering ink around and swimming through it. There are giant inflatable sponges, inkrails, invisible walkways, spinning splatforms, and all manner of Octarian-built machines that try to splat our little Inkling with purple goop. The gameplay involves an interesting mix of stealth combat and ink-fueled platforming that makes for an engaging and novel design. The level aesthetics could be better (as interesting as the concept of the Octarians’ world is, most of the levels sort of blend together and all end up looking like similar mishmashes of floating junk by the end; while there are some more visually-distinct levels along the way, they all feel more like something akin to obstacle courses or test chambers than an actual world) and the music, while very creative in style, vocals, and instrumentation throughout the game as a whole, is very lacking in variety for most of the single-player adventure (you’ll be listening to the same two short tracks for most of the single-player levels unfortunately), but it’s a decent adventure nonetheless with fun stages and some truly fantastic boss fights being the absolute highlights (the final boss deserves special mention for being a boisterous, jubilant rave party of a finale that’s some of the most pure, blood-pumping, intense fun I’ve had in a game in a while). But while the single-player gameplay experience is a colorful, abstract journey about blasting at cartoonish anthropomorphized tentacle creatures, the completely optional “Sunken Scrolls”, one of which is hidden in each level, hold a much more intriguing tale. These notes start out by giving nifty little factoids about the world of the Inklings, with some gorgeous artwork accompanying them to boot, but end up telling a fairly detailed account of the surprisingly dark history of this fascinating world.

Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers (or still haven’t found all of the Sunken Scrolls yourself). Still here? Apparently, it turns out that the world of Splatoon is actually a post-apocalyptic version of our own (you might be surprised by how many of Nintendo’s colorful worlds are hinted, theorized, or confirmed to be post-apocalypse scenarios of our own…including Kirby) where humans ignored warnings of climate change and rising sea levels and eventually became extinct (yeah, there’s a message about climate change nestled in Splatoon; keep ignoring global warming people and we’ll soon be replaced by a bunch of fresh, paintballing squid kids!). In a world mostly consumed by the ocean, all manner of sea creatures sought the light of the surface and crawled out of the sea to occupy the now abandoned land (maybe it doesn’t make the most sense, but hey, it’s a neat story). Gradually over thousands and thousands of years, squids evolved into Inklings and Jellyfish evolved into…Jellyfish with eyeballs. In the beginning, the Inklings and the Octarians got along swimmingly (when talking about Splatoon, one must strive to use as many aquatic puns as possible), but as sea levels continued to rise evermore and the available land dwindled, the two dominant species began a real “Turf War”, with the victors (it’s implied partly accidentally) ending up being the Inklings. The Octarians were driven underground to live in caverns deep beneath the sea, while the Inklings and a variety of other species (who were apparently fresh enough to live aboveground with the Inklings) thrived and built the sprawling Inkopolis…or possibly just took over Tokyo, Japan, which Inkopolis is clearly inspired by, and renamed it. In the present day, while the Inklings enjoy engaging in less serious Turf Wars for sport and fun in majestic Inkopolis, with ample energy supplied by the bountiful Zapfish, the Octarians struggle to survive underground. Faced with an energy crisis in the form of a dwindling supply of electricity, coupled with an overall deteriorating society (the Octarians’ world is full of failing technology, lights and electronic signs shorting out, lopsided buildings, and an overall aesthetic that brings to mind a junkyard; the complete opposite of the bright and bustling Inkopolis above), the Octarians sought to steal the Zapfish from the Inklings. All this is told through text and lovingly composed, detailed artwork, ranging from diagrams showing the evolution and anatomy of the Inklings to old black and white war photos showing more realistic-looking adult Inklings holding old-world weapons during the Great Turf War. There’s also something about a cryogenically-sealed cat from the human era in there. I’m not kidding, this is actually the narrative to this game about kids that turn into squids and shoot each other with rainbow ink for fun. Needless to say, this aspect of the game took me completely by surprise, and I am very happily surprised. The contrast between the game’s colorful nature and this rather serious backstory is another part of the experience’s charm, and something that Nintendo often likes to do in their games. There’s tons of potential to explore this universe further, and maybe I’m the only one who cares about all this (as opposed to just ignoring that sewer grate and jumping into the online and splatting ink about), but I only hope a more expansive single-player is in the eventual sequel, where we get to explore less abstract environments and instead more of this world’s locales that feel like real places, and learn about more of this fishy universe.

Every inch of Splatoon is considered and designed to bring the vision of this unique world to life: the colorful visuals, the wacky and creative soundtrack, the character designs, and the core gameplay, which has been obsessively polished to a fine, tentacled point. It is abundantly apparent that the developers rigorously obsessed over making sure the way the ink effects felt was perfect, and it really shows: the way it looks when you splat it around, the sound effects when you plunk into it and swim around in it, the squelching sounds your messy footsteps make, it’s all so perfectly polished that I feel like I can smell the ink, and am immediately brought back to the experience of finger painting as a child. Satisfying is the word that comes to mind when thinking about Splatoon and its ink; it just feels so damn satisfying. This game-feel is something Nintendo always nails with its games, and perhaps this, combined with their often understated ability to craft unique, living, breathing worlds (when they really put the effort in) is perhaps why I keep coming back to them. And won’t shut up about their games.

Splatoon isn’t perfectly-executed, and there’s still tons of untapped potential here, but through its imaginative world-building, sense of style, music, level design, character design, and gameplay, Splatoon embodies Nintendo’s creativity, and represents their enormous potential for delivering brilliantly-unique new experiences when they branch away from their already established, safe worlds and characters. I’m not saying that the likes of Mario and Zelda haven’t been delivering creative new ideas for years as well, just that there’s nothing quite like an entirely new universe, new characters, new atmosphere, etc. with brand new gameplay concepts to boot, and it’s something I want to see more of from Nintendo. Given Splatoon’s success and current popularity, I’m happy that the potential for not only an expansion of Inkopolis, but for even more new worlds in the future is a definite possibility. Stay fresh, Nintendo.

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