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For nearly half a decade, Nintendo developed some of its most creative and exciting games for one of its biggest hardware failures. Graphically underpowered and aesthetically confused, the Wii U was such a flop that some analysts speculated it would mark the beginning of the end for Nintendo’s time in the console business. Its standout games never had a chance.
Thankfully, Nintendo has been rectifying that mistake over the last year, bringing the best Wii U games to new platforms. Build-your-own-Mario-game Super Mario Maker came to the 3DS in December, and earlier this year the gravity-defying Mario Kart 8 was ported to the Nintendo’s massively popular Switch. Later this week, it will be joined by Splatoon 2, the sequel to not only one of the best Wii U games, but one of the best Nintendo releases in the 2010s. And it’s even better on the portable console.
Splatoon 2 hews very closely to the blueprint drawn by the original. The core of the game is identical: a four-on-four competitive multiplayer shooter that plays like a cross between Call of Duty, paintball, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater graffiti mode. You fire paint instead of bullets and reload by swimming through the colorful goop. Weapons include squirt guns, paint rollers, buckets, and comically large brushes.
Each match drops players into an urban arena, and the goal is to paint as much of the stage in your team’s color as possible before time runs out. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of traditional shooters, a chaotic mess of headshots and special weapons that recharge the longer you stay alive. But shooting other players is only half of the experience; the other half is spent strategically hurling globs of paint at walls and floors, cutting into enemy territory.
This structure makes both Splatoon and its sequel a great experience, even if you don’t typically enjoy the often toxic, unwelcoming world of online shooters. If you aren’t good at shooting other players, you can still help the team by simply painting the walls. Adding globs of pink paint to cover up your opponent’s hard work was — and still is — just as satisfying as picking off an enemy with a well-placed shot.
For the most part, Splatoon is a much more enjoyable experience on the Switch, but there are a few areas where the sequel doesn’t work quite as well.
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Given the nature of the game, one of the most important aspects of Splatoon is the map. It’s where you can check to see if your team is winning, and scope out areas of the level that you need to paint to gain advantage. On the Wii U you simply had to look down at the Gamepad’s screen for a quick update, but without a second screen, Splatoon 2 forces you to divert your attention from the match by overlaying a map on your screen. I found myself only checking the map while I was waiting to respawn, which meant I was missing out on crucial information much of the time.
Similarly, while the sequel introduces voice chat to online multiplayer, it does so in the most complex way possible. In fact, I haven’t even been able to test it out yet, because Splatoon 2 voice chat requires a separate mobile app, which doesn’t launch until the game does on July 21st. Even if it works perfectly, Nintendo’s solution is needlessly complicated. It’s a good thing Splatoon isn’t the kind of shooter that necessitates voice chat.
Like many other games — whether it’s a sprawling open world like Breath of the Wild or a tiny puzzle game like Puyo Puyo Tetris — the flexibility of the Switch is a great fit for Splatoon 2. One of my favorite parts of the game is its speed; a single match of the main “turf war” mode lasts just three minutes. That means it’s easy to squeeze in a round or two when you otherwise probably wouldn’t have time to play another game. And it’s that much more convenient on a device that isn’t tethered to your television. While I’ve played plenty of Splatoon 2 on the couch, I’ve also found myself getting in matches while doing everything from making coffee in the morning to waiting for my kids to finish their bath at night. You also get a lot more control options on the Switch. Instead of being forced to use the Wii U’s Gamepad, you can try multiple configurations of the Joy-Con controllers, the Switch Pro Controller, or even third-party options.
The sequel also introduces a new mode that feels perfect on the Switch. The co-operative “salmon run” mode tasks you with fighting off waves of enemies with up to three other players. You can play it online with friends, of course, but it’s especially fun if you play locally by linking up multiple Switch units. Playing “salmon run” like this reminds me of some of my best portable gaming memories, like racing with strangers in Mario Kart DS, or going exploring with friends in Dragon Quest IX. And while I haven’t had the chance to try it, Splatoon 2 also supports “turf war” battles across LAN play, letting you connect up to 10 systems via a wired connection.
Splatoon 2 improves on the original in a few other ways as well. The single-player campaign feels more robust, with inventive, puzzle-like levels and challenging boss battles. There are also some useful new weapons, including my personal favorite, a pair of paint pistols you can dual-wield. There’s new clothing and gear to buy, and overall the game looks much more vibrant and detailed. I found myself stopping in levels just to ogle the scenery.
None of these changes are as big or as important as the move to the Switch, though. Splatoon was already a great game, and its combination of welcoming action and wonderful style made it the sixth best-selling title on the Wii U. But it still sold fewer than 5 million copies, which is respectable, but far less than a typical Nintendo hit. The Switch, which is on a solid trajectory to surpass its underperforming predecessor, might just be the place for the inklings to reach the audience they deserve.
Splatoon 2 launches on Nintendo Switch on July 21st.
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