Prepare To Dye
Nintendo’s riotous territorial online shooter is preparing to make an indelible mark on the genre
How Nintendo is planning to make an indelible mark on the shooter genre with Splatoon
every year, Splatoon co-director Yusuke
Amano goes fishing for squid. It’s a common enough pastime in his home nation, the creatures’ year-end spawning and subsequent migration north across the Sea Of Japan for summer creating ideal conditions for the sport. Yet despite the grin on his face as he announces this, we get the impression the break might have been less restful than usual lately. Wind back to circa 2013 and his then-new project, a four-versus-four multiplayer game full of squid, was in trouble. In trouble with Nintendo’s higher-ups.
“[After] the prototype phase, we had all these ideas about the height, the ink, the characters, and the image of the character and the squid,” says co-director
Tsubasa Sakaguchi. “But we couldn’t kind of filter it down to a final result that would result in a simple, fun game. And during this period, we were being scolded by Mr Miyamoto all the time.”
“He was saying, ‘I don’t understand. What do you want to do? There’s no appeal to this game,’” clarifies producer
Hisashi Nogami, clad in an identical Splatoon T-shirt to the one the Mario creator wore when he spoke to us in E271. Clearly, Miyamoto’s opinion has changed.
With good reason: the brand-new development build we play today drips with allure. Inkopolis Plaza, the game’s staging area, is especially vibrant and welcoming. Inklings throng the crosswalk, their glossy ‘hair’ tentacles dangling out from under snorkels, caps, beanies and oversized cans, no two alike. The sun beats down through perfect blue skies on the neon-green Inkopolis Tower, through whose doors you’ll access a free-for-all Turf War or enter a pitched Ranked Battle online. To the left is an array of glassfronted shops, while to the right, poking out of a shaded manhole cover by a vending machine, are the peaked cap and bulbous eyes of Cap’n Cuttlefish, inviting us down to face the Octarian threat in the singleplayer Hero mode.
It’s sorely tempting, but we’re spun around and our eyes directed to an even more incongruous sight: giant Amiibo packaging freestanding by a graffiticovered wall. This is where you summon the game’s three figures – an Inkling male brimming with attitude, a female with lively locks, and a green squid leaping out of a splash of ink – each with a payload of 15 singleplayer challenges that will unlock five rare pieces of gear. The figures we’re shown are highly detailed, too, a sheen on the humanoids’ hair and half-filled ink tanks on their backs, colours popping through the clear plastic cylinders.
Diving into Turf War, all the varnish reveals itself to be lacquered on top of substance. Viewed in thirdperson and built around a dual moveset that separates out periods of surging momentum and gyroscopic shooting, Splatoon eschews years of FPS muscle memory to deliver something delightfully energetic. With the left trigger held down to enter squid form, you dart through your team’s ink, slip up painted walls, and press X to arc gracefully through the air. What happens when you press the right trigger is highly dependant on the gun in your hand, but whether you’re spraying out great globules of ink or squelching a paint roller down on someone’s head, attacking is met with chunky feedback. You have a sub weapon on the right bumper, while a press of the right stick triggers a special (assuming you’ve filled its gauge by covering enough ground), which might wrap you in a temporary shield, or grant you the Inkzooka, which fires deadly dervishes that leave bold streaks across the arena.
The energy to a match is addictive, and there’s plenty of tactical nuance to delve into. Squids are practically invisible if they
“MIYAMOTO WAS SAYING, ‘I DON’T UNDERSTAND. THERE’S NO APPEAL TO THIS’”
stay still while submerged in their own ink, for instance, only the ripples of their movement giving them away, but enemy ink is like tar, so staying put for too long easily results in being cut off or exposed. Tap a friendly on the map to super jump to their position, eliminating downtime, but risking falling right into crossfire.
The result is gameplay as riotously colourful as the plaza, that’s often chaotic but never feels random. Indeed, spawning in with your three teammates, each geared up with their own weapon loadouts and clad in stat-boosting garb, the objective ahead of you could not be simpler: when the timer runs out, be the team that has inked the most of the map’s floor.
Yet it wasn’t always like this. Back when the game attracted Miyamoto’s wagging finger, the team agreed they had diluted its clarity. Born of the Garage group – one of many such incubators that Nogami says has been “a done thing for a long time” at Nintendo – the prototype had been necessarily focused. It had the inking mechanic that had so caught Nogami’s imagination. It had the concept of being invisible when on top of your own ink. But the player characters were just blocks, and being invisible meant automatically vanishing on the spot. The trio recognised how readable having ink made the action, but it was obvious the game needed more something.
“We had the basics,” Amano says. “And then we were like, ‘Let’s add the hiding [in ink] feature; let’s add jumping; we need height, because it’s a 3D map.’ And then we thought, ‘We need to be able to shoot up and down.’ And we realised we’d added all this stuff, and we got confused. We didn’t know what the game was about.”
The prototype’s mechanics had character, but they needed characters – two of them, to be precise. This wouldn’t come easily, either. Squirting ink is inextricably linked with squid in Japan, so the team joked about putting one on the box art. Yet they needed a humanoid to hold the guns. Sakaguchi sketches out a squid-headed man as the two men beside him chuckle. “At the beginning, we’d only been thinking of a humanoid character moving around and shooting,” Amano explains. “And when the idea of the squid came, we were thinking: ‘A human squid; that probably won’t sell.’”
Sakaguchi and Amano spent a lot of time getting nowhere. “It was one of the longest parts of development,” Amano says, his smile broadening, if anything, “and we were crying in our evenings – like, ‘How can the characters make this game really fun?”
Then an epiphany: what if they took the GamePad’s two triggers and the two types of character they wanted and married one of each to the other, splitting movement powers and shooting across the controller? “We thought, ‘This is it!’” says Sakaguchi. “The genre is action-shooting, but unlike a lot of other games out there where it’s an amalgamation, this game has action and shooting as its two pillars, and the user can switch between either.”
Things would change rapidly after that. “I remember the exact date,” says Sakaguchi. “On January 6, 2014, I was like, ‘OK, we need to organise and filter this down.’ We started thinking, ‘As the
03 Hisashi Nogami, producer, EAD Group 2 manager
02 Co-director Tsubasa Sakaguchi.
01 Co-director Yusuke Amano.
Hero mode’s tentacle-coiffed Octolings can be tough, but they’re comparatively normal next to walking torpedoes and ink stamps you have to shoot once they slam onto the floor