Splatoon: drawing a postmodern path for Nintendo

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I’m not a shooter guy — and Splatoon is no shooter, at least not in the conventional sense.(To fall back on an earlier borrowed analogy, it’s to shooters what Super Mario Kart was to racing games — sort of.

Everything about Splatoon is unconventional. Hardcore gamergate-style bro gamers who fancy themselves digital warriors-in-waiting may decry it as juvenile or silly, but that usually stems from the assumption that a game of this kind, with people running around and trying to hit each other with things, needs to have R-rated hyper-realism and voice chat to be generally entertaining. Splatoon delivers the goods, if in a very different kind of package: As an “Inkling,” a species of squid that can morph at will into a young humanoid, you aren’t focused on shooting the enemy (although you can), but rather on covering as much of the battlefield as possible with your team’s shade of ink before the opposing side can do the same. It’s strategically demanding, and addicting.

Mechanics and tactics aside, even the marketing for Splatoon has been revolutionary, for today’s Nintendo anyway. (They’ve done some pretty clever and subversive things to advertise their games in the past, after all.) But that edgy strategy took a back seat to a tamer bandwagon approach that aimed at converting non-gamers into casual gamers back in the Wii days.

In the latest update ahead of this past weekend’s second “Splatfest” event (go team Roller Coaster, woo!), one of the new weapons was the N-ZAP ’89, a variation on the N-ZAP ’85, which itself was based on the Zapper light-gun accessory for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The 1985 version of the Zapper was a “realistic” grey and white, while the 1989 re-issue added a bright neon orange to make it look less like a real gun.

Nintendo’s official Splatoon Tumblr blog, Live From Squid Research Lab, had fun with this bit of Eighties parental panic lore:


Continuing in this self-referential mode, a recent course description by the game’s “Inkopolis News” presenters Callie and Marie referenced both the original Pokemon GameBoy game (“super effective!”) and the Pokemon cartoon theme song (“the very best, like no one ever was!”). And never mind the names Callie and Marie — a riff on calamari that I didn’t even get until it dawned on me last week. It’s one of the little touches that show’s the thought that went into this game’s overall experience.

Via reddit
Via reddit

The biggest drawback to Splatoon in my house so far has been no any of these things, but something even more maddening and elemental than graphics or interteam communication challenges. It’s that my son and I can’t play the game’s core online “Turf War” mode together using the same Wii U — a result of the importance of the GamePad’s touchscreen to each individual player. I’m not sure this is something that will ever change, and the two-player Dojo’s balloon battles just don’t cut it; we want Turf War! The ink must flow …

It’s these Spatfests that show Nintendo is aware of an image problem and going to great lengths to do something about it, but not by just throwing stuff on the wall and seeing what sticks, and not by, well, not being Nintendo.

Much has been made of Nintendo’s recent struggles in the Console Wars and how it needs to “do better” and “keep up” with the PlayStations and Xboxes. But Nintendo hasn’t failed because it’s mission isn’t to outdo anyone or even to sell games — its mission is to make games, and it’s always done so in surprising and, yes, sometimes perplexing ways. The moment it stops doing that and starts doing what everyone else does just because that’s what they’re doing now — up to and including delivering broken games that doesn’t work, like others we could mention — that will be the moment Nintendo fails, and dies.

In the words of Callie and Marie: “Stay fresh!”


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Jayson Peters
Digital, social and print media pro. Nerdvana's founder, curator and editor.