What Salmon Run says about the current state of play at Nintendo
Looking back, the release of Splatoon seems increasingly like one of the most significant milestones in Nintendo’s recent history. It was the first successful return from the company’s internal development program, Garage, the self-styled ‘afterschool club’ set up to allow younger developers the opportunity to brainstorm ideas under Miyamoto’s supervision. With hindsight, this was the start of Nintendo’s slow changing of the guard, which over the course of the last couple of years has seen older figures depart (one, of course, well before his time) and fresh faces taking their place – and, more significantly, shaping the company’s creative direction.
Since much of Splatoon 2 is familiar, it’s Salmon Run that exemplifies where Nintendo currently stands. Its art direction alone says much: with its dark skies and toxic waters, its sickly mix of lurid paint and the slime green trails of the strikingly ugly Salmonid, it’s a look that definitely skews away from Nintendo’s bigger brands, and even puts a little distance between itself and the happy vibrancy elsewhere in Inkopolis. It’s weirder, more threatening, more dangerous: a sign not just of a new generation of artists and designers starting to come through and express themselves, but of a desire to appeal to a different market. Nintendo surely recognises that very young players are more likely to be given a tablet rather than a console these days to keep them occupied; this feels like an acknowledgement of a need to reach a slightly older audience.
Introducing a horde mode variant as one of the main attractions for returning players shows once again that Nintendo has been looking at other games for inspiration. Just as Breath Of The Wild took an askance look at established open world ideas, and ARMS sought to reinvent the one-on-one fighter, Salmon Run presents a very Nintendo spin on genre standards. In setting you quotas of golden eggs to be retrieved, it doesn’t allow you to simply dig in and play defensively: eventually you’re going to have to run (or swim) headlong towards the melee and hope you make it back. The objective and the time limit combine to add extra pressure without simply resorting to throwing more enemies at you – though it does that anyway, and doesn’t wait until you’re 10 minutes in before the action reaches fever pitch. It’s a distillation of what works elsewhere, focusing the fun and tension into a little over five exhilarating minutes. It makes the game both more convenient to play and incredibly moreish.
Nintendo has rarely been afraid of demanding plenty from players, but there’s been a clear step up in the difficulty of its games since the friendlier, more welcoming years of the Wii and DS, as it re-embraces its arcade-era sensibilities. You could see a glimpse of it in NintendoLand, especially the testing Donkey Kong’s Crash Course levels. The final stage in Super Mario 3D World, Champion’s Road, is considered one of the toughest levels in any Mario game. And make no mistake, at the top level Salmon Run is up there with The Lost Levels and its ilk, among the most difficult Nintendo games ever made. The third-highest hazard level will likely defeat most players, and the penalties are severe: failure will see you drop a pay grade.
That alone marks an intriguing step: Nintendo’s not one for punishing players quite like this. You could say it’s no different from dropping a rank in the fiercelyfought competitive modes, though at least there you can blame other people rather than Nintendo’s designers. But the fact that Nintendo feels confident in setting players that kind of challenge shows that it recognises a game originally aimed at welcoming newcomers to online shooters – as opposed to alienating less experienced or less capable players – has become, for want of a better term, hardcore.
It bears some of its maker’s more polarising idiosyncrasies, too. Though it’s not bound to the same two-hour rota as the other multiplayer modes, it will only be available to play online at limited times. The official line is that it’s supposed to echo the spawning patterns of real-world salmon, but a more likely excuse is either to avoid server overload, or to ensure the player base isn’t too widely split between the various modes, in order to cut down on matchmaking times. It’s a sign that while Nintendo is prepared to take some risks, it’s still cautious when it comes to online: it would be a surprise if Splatoon 2’ s sales didn’t quickly eclipse the first game, which would render such a move unnecessary. Then again, maybe it knows exactly what it’s doing – after all, Nintendo’s strategy of withholding features was what kept a lot of players coming back to the original. If it worked before, why change things?
In a game designed to incentivise teamwork and communication, you could argue that limiting its online availability helps shift the focus onto its permanentlyavailable local play option, where Salmon Run will really come into its own. But that decision reveals another truth: Nintendo knows well enough that Japanese players are more likely to gather together for multiplayer sessions than their counterparts overseas. It’s a reminder that, while it may be looking more closely at western games, in terms of its audience Nintendo’s chief focus is, as it always has been, Japan. It goes without saying that you can tell a lot about a developer from the games it makes, but for a famously inscrutable company like Nintendo, Salmon Run feels particularly revealing about where it stands – with a few clues, perhaps, to where it’s heading.
In setting you quotas of golden eggs to be retrieved, it doesn’t allow you to simply dig in and play defensively