The Inklings in action in the new “Splatoon.” (Courtesy of Nintendo)

Developed by: Nintendo
Published by: Nintendo
Available on: Wii U

OVER THE past decade, the rise in development costs for blockbuster video games has made executives loath to green-light titles that don’t fit into proven trends. (A new zombie game, anyone?) And another industry truism is that while Microsoft and Sony have been locked in a technological contest of oneupmanship, Nintendo has trundled down its own path, producing games unlike those on its competitors’ platforms.

The Kyoto-based company has had to make do with a dearth of third-party support from companies, like Electronics Arts and Ubisoft, that have been dissatisfied with Nintendo’s overall market share, But that has not prevented the Wii U from amassing an arguably more august library of exclusives, developed by Nintendo and its close partners, than can be found on either the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One (see: “Bayonetta 2,” “Mario Kart 8,” “Super Mario 3D Land,” “Nintendo Land,” “Super Smash Brothers,” etc.).

Inklings assemble. (Courtesy of Nintendo)

Still, the majority of those titles are sequels. And it’s been more than 14 years since the Entertainment Analysis & Development Division (EAD) — the crown jewel of Nintendo’s internal development studios, headed by the venerable Shigeru Miyamoto — introduced a new character-driven franchise. But spend a few minutes with the EAD’s latest creation, “Splatoon,” and it’s apparent that the years spent keeping Nintendo’s other series humming have not impeded the studio’s capacity to dream up new gameplay experiences.

Mixing elements of paintball with territory-control-style gameplay, “Splatoon” is a shooter marketed to all age groups. The game laces players into the sneakers of Inklings, young teenagers who have the ability to transform into cutesy-looking squids. In human form, the Inklings use ink-splattering devices — ranging from Super Soaker-type guns to giant paint rollers — to blanket an environment in a vibrant hue, while their opponents try to do the same in a different color. Moving through an opponent’s ink radically slows you down. Take enough ink splotches, and the dance is up.

“Splatoon.” (Courtesy of Nintendo)

The amount of ink you can sling is limited by the size of the transparent container strapped to your avatar’s back. This can be upgraded along with your other gear so as to gain special abilities, such as speedier respawn times or added projectile damage. Ink can be refilled by clicking on the GamePad’s left trigger, which also changes your character into a squid who can swim through his or her own matching colored ink. In practice, this mechanic is as fluid as melted butter and as satisfying as the shoot-and-dash mechanics in “Vanquish.”

No doubt, the game’s stellar controls are the fruit of Nintendo EAD’s emphasis on ergonomics. Speaking with the game’s developers, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata noted that “the way that (Shigeru) Miyamoto-san and the EAD make games, the idea comes not from the design, but from the function. The design comes after.”

Ludologists, or people who theorize about games, often speak of “flow” as a state of absorption whereby ego and selfhood dwindle away and the player fuses with a given activity. The designers at Nintendo deeply understand the concept of flow. They care less about pushing the most advanced graphics onto your screen than about creating games that feel so good in your hands that you’re liable to forget you have them.
In “Splatoon’s” single-player campaign, players must help the city of Inkopolis recover its Great Zapfish, a source of power for the city that was stolen by the Octarians — octopi who bear a grudge against the squids, with whom they have been engaged in a perpetual turf war. Over the course of more than two-dozen levels, players square off against a legion of assorted paint-chucking enemies whose overarching similarity in appearance was one of the only things that underwhelmed me, aside from the game’s execrable writing, which comes across like an old fogey trying on teenage idioms only vaguely recollected from some TV show. By way of illustration, one of the game’s announcers describes the avian dwellers on the multiplayer level Urchin Underpass as “totes adorbs,” to which her none-too-witty co-host responds, “So you’re … Team Bird, then?” Say it with me, friends: Ha.

Fortunately, one doesn’t play the single-player mode so much for the combat as for the pleasure of navigating the stages themselves, which are full of approachable platforming challenges that will have you swimming up walks, cresting on top of paint geysers, and inflating levitating sponges with paint to hop through the air. None of the stages in the single or multiplayer mode has the memorable singularity of, say, one of the tracks in “Mario Kart 8,” but the thrill I found in the game’s core gameplay — and in watching all that viscous, neon-bright liquid fill the screen — never dissipated.

On an aesthetic level, “Splatoon” brilliantly conveys the childlike potential of paint as something full of beautiful, transforming energy.

Those more in the mood for action as opposed to platforming challenges should gravitate toward the multiplayer, which I enjoyed immensely. The game supports one-vs.-one matches, though I stuck with the four-vs.-four battles. Teams compete across a modest number of maps to see who can ink the most territory. Because the ultimate goal is to lay down the most paint, headshots, kill/death ratios and the other morbid accoutrements that usually go with shooters take a back seat. That’s not to say there isn’t a great stealth game to be found here. Swimming through ink, then catching an opponent unawares, is bliss.

Although it may sound like an oxymoron, “Splatoon” is a family shooter done right.

“Splatoon.” (courtesy of Nintendo)

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