Two and a half years into the Wii U's lifespan, the best games have been entries in tried-and-true franchises. Super Mario 3D World. Mario Kart 8. Super Smash Bros. And The Legend of Zelda is by far the biggest game still on the horizon.
Splatoon is the rare anomaly: a first-party Nintendo game that doesn't star Mario and isn't peppered with franchise fan service - and also thankfully isn't an awkward tech demo for the GamePad (although the default, motion-centric control scheme is pretty rough). It's a totally new game for the company that takes a familiar, popular genre and gives it a strong, properly Nintendo-esque twist.
Truly, Splatoon's distinctive elements don't feel like a thin coat of paint atop an existing formula. However, while the game definitely has a unique style and flair, the appeal of this multiplayer paint-blaster chips away much faster than expected.
Splatoon starts with the third-person, squad-based shooter framework, but strips out the violence and machismo to leave a good-natured experience – or the messiest game of paintball you've ever seen. You're a cartoonish human/squid creature, and in the eight-player online skirmishes, your job is to cover every bit of the ground with your team's ink colour.
You can still splatter enemies by dousing them with your hue, but deaths don't add to a team tally or directly further your cause - beyond making the opposing team less effective for several seconds, of course. Still, there's added incentive to plastering the floors with your paint: you can submerse your character within a puddle, letting you sneak around the world while also refilling your paint blaster.
Stealth is a strategic element, and so is weapon selection. A standard machinegun-like blaster might be a good all-around pick for combat, but it's not a great option for painting surfaces. Meanwhile, a giant paint roller is perfect for laying down heavy, solid streaks on the ground, but you'll have to run right up to an enemy to knock him or her down. Sniper rifle and grenade launcher-inspired options help shake things up, plus the gear you equip – hats, shirts, and shoes – can lightly enhance your abilities, as well.
Primarily, you'll apply your painting skills in the online Turf War mode, which finds your four-squid team battling another for control of a map. Whether it's an oil rig or skate park, you'll have three minutes to coat your surroundings and finish the showdown with the highest percentage splattered.
Eventually, a ranked mode unlocks with a second offering – Splat Zones, which has you battling for control of a much smaller area of each map, almost akin to Domination in Call of Duty. Those matches can run a little longer, and the back-and-forth dynamic is clearer in the moment, making it a nice change of pace from Turf War. (Ranked mode unlocks when a certain number of worldwide players hit level 10 – we have no idea how long that will take.)
In both modes, the action is fast and fluid, and the bite-sized matches keep things frenzied. The sole focus on painting terrain does limit Splatoon's lasting appeal, but it's energetic, quick-hit fun. Weirdly, nearly everything about the online experience outside of the gameplay itself is a real exercise in frustration.
Nintendo has never been known for its user-friendly online experiences, and that hasn't changed with Splatoon. Matches won't start without a full eight players in the room, which makes sense - but if you find yourself in a lobby that isn't likely to fill up, you can't escape. There's no way to exit; you can't even hit the Home button of the GamePad to jump to the Wii U menu. Either you wait for the timer to tick down (at which point everyone is punted out), or you power down your console and restart.
What's worse is that you can't change your weapons and gear between matches without leaving the lobby – so if you find yourself in a good streak of matches and don't want to leave, you can't touch your loadout at all. Player progression can be painfully slow, as well, and the wait between level upgrades just gets slower and slower each time. (Pray Nintendo knows what double XP weekends are.)
Splatoon also takes the bizarre approach of only providing two levels to play in each game mode for seemingly hours at a time. So if you're settling down to play Turf War for a couple hours, you may bounce between the same two maps over and over again. And only six maps are currently included in total, although Nintendo says more are coming for free. That might make Splatoon seem fuller in time, but for now, two play modes and a handful of maps doesn’t feel like much.
Splatoon's single-player mode features a loosely assembled collection of challenge levels without much of a narrative pull or driving hook to it. The stages explore some additional mechanics and very light puzzle-solving aspects not seen in the multiplayer modes, but it largely seems like obligatory, adequate padding to make Splatoon a more appealing retail package.
Mostly, you'll clear areas of foes by using your paint to creatively navigate the world or surprise enemies, while the boss battles have something of a Mario-esque feel about them: there's an obvious weak point to exploit in each, but you'll need to play smart to actually succeed. In fact, those fights recall Super Mario Galaxy's bosses, albeit without Galaxy's incredible charm. At least you can unlock some special weapons exclusively via the solo mode.
Additional challenge stages can also be unlocked with the special Splatoon Amiibo figurines – sorry, your Mario or Pikachu toys don't do squat – plus there's a local one-on-one mode that lets one player use the GamePad screen and the other use a separate controller with the TV. That's always a welcome touch for Wii U games.
Nintendo does a nice job of painting outside the lines with its own third-person shooter, but then muddles the final product with meager content, frustrating online design, and an unremarkable single-player offering.
In some ways, Splatoon seems like it would be an ideal free-to-play game – especially with the rotating map selection and limited, straightforward matches – or perhaps a low-cost, multiplayer-only digital game. But by positioning it as a full boxed game instead Nintendo has made Splatoon's frustrations sting a little more than they otherwise might.