‘Splatoon 3’ Refines a Great Idea But Fails to Innovate

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Splatoon has always been an odd series—a competitive, third-person shooter produced by Nintendo, which stars children who can turn into squids and octopi. Upon the first game’s release, it felt like a real experiment by Nintendo. It was putting the full weight of its company behind a gyroscope aiming third person shooter, designed to be played on the bulkiest controller-handheld hybrid in the history of console gaming. It, in spite of everything, was a huge success.

Nintendo has previously prided itself on innovation and experimentation—a pride which, on its worst days, resembles an obsession with gimmicks. The DS’ eponymous dual screens, the 3DS’ eponymous 3D, the Wii’s signature motion controls, and the WiiU’s tablet controller. The Nintendo Switch, a hybrid between handhelds and a home console, is perhaps one of the more comparatively normal devices Nintendo released in the last two decades. But this experimentation is always rooted in form, but never the content itself. Nowhere is that more true than in Splatoon 3—the latest entry in an innovative series that has been utterly uninterested in developing beyond its, admittedly excellent, central conceit.

One could make the argument that Splatoon’s core innovation, its hybrid between gyroscopic aiming and traditional stick aim, is itself a gimmick—but this undersells how completely it changes console shooter combat and affects the series’ design. The general imprecision of stick aim (which can be minimized by playing with very high sensitivity) has relegated most competitive shooters to PC, where keyboard and mouse allow players to more quickly maximize their reaction speed and accuracy. Gyroscopic aim, despite how awkward it can be at first, allows for that same level of precision. This facilitates Splatoon’s surprisingly quick time-to-kill, and allows for high accuracy, reflex driven play with a high competitive skill ceiling.

The series compliments this high skill ceiling with immediately readable, objective driven play. Getting kills in Splatoon is important, sure, but the game, like virtually all competitive shooters, is all about controlling space. Splatoon’s signature objective driven game mode, Turf War, makes this explicit. It doesn’t matter how many kills you get, all that matters is that you cover the maximum amount of territory with your team’s ink.

However, even in the game’s more traditional objective modes, the ability to visualize who has control over what parts of the map allows Splatoon to immediately surface its competitive depth. Games like Valorant or Counter-Strike are all about controlling sight lines and angles, but how space is taken and controlled is rarely readable to an audience. Splatoon makes it extremely clear. If your enemy’s ink is on the ground in front of you, then they can see you. If you are surrounded by it, they can kill you. The ink trails left by a charger will tell you where a sniper has eyes, which gives you a way of playing around your opponents and their particular weapons.

This focus on space control allows support players to really shine, while their deadly allies can protect them, create openings, and maintain the space they’ve fought for. This allows Splatoon to walk the extremely narrow line between casual joy, and competitive depth. A line which virtually every other competitive shooter has utterly failed to walk. This gives Splatoon a tremendous amount of potential, a potential which Nintendo has seemed to consistently squander.

Splatoon was released on the WiiU, a platform which failed to take off. Splatoon 2 managed to course correct by bringing the series to the more powerful, portable, and better suited to motion controls Switch—but failed to bring essential quality of life improvements to the series, causing the overall experience to fall short. Splatoon 3 manages to improve upon 2’s foundation, but leaves the series where it should’ve been on its first outing: as a truly unique shooter with a functional online system. It feels like an update to the second game, one which it should’ve gotten several years ago.

Where Splatoon 3 fails is its disinterest in doing anything new with this finally stable foundation. Unlike Splatoon 2, which added the Salmon Run co-op horde mode, Splatoon 3 doesn’t introduce anything to the series. Its single player campaign is good and frequently creative, but at no point does it do anything beyond what the prior games have attempted. Even its new weapons, the Stringer and Splatana feel like minor additions to the game. Both weapons are high damage, charge focused, and long range. They are faster, more interesting alternatives to the Charger weapon class, but they do not feel like they actually change anything about how Splatoon is played.

This extends all the way to the series’ signature fashion, which is focused on hypebeast, techwear aesthetics. Splatoon excels at this, and the game’s clothing options remain excellent. However, they fail to experiment or develop beyond that simple foundation. The game’s new brands are so similar to the old that I could barely distinguish them without the game’s companion app, where the brand is more clearly listed.

Splatoon 3 is a good video game, excluding its utterly inexplicable online interface. It feels like an iteration on the previous titles, but so gradual an iteration as to feel totally inconsequential. Nintedo’s willingness to commit to the core identities of its franchises would be commendable, if it did not so frequently hold them back. If there is a Splatoon 4, I hope it has even a fragment of the ambition the series began with.

Vice

Renata Price

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