It’s not every day that big video game companies create new IP, instead preferring to rely on the name impact of existing, highly successful titles instead. This is why Mario has his face on so many Nintendo titles. Creating new IP is adding extra risk to what is, admittedly, a highly costly business. So it’s with no surprise, really, that we learn that Mario was originally supposed to be the face of Splatoon, Nintendo’s new third-person online battle arena game. I fill my super soaker with multicoloured ink, dunk my paint roller, and head for the urban parkways to see what Splatoon is all about.

For the sake of full disclosure, this review covers the media preview version of Splatoon, and not the full retail copy; this media preview copy was limited to Turf War online battle mode only. I’ll update the review as needed when the retail version of Splatoon launches. So, let’s begin. I’ve had time to play around with the full version of the game, so I’ve updated to indicate my newer thoughts. Splatoon features a race of strange anthropomorphic squid creatures, called Inklings, that can shift between human and squid shape at will. The legend goes that these Inklings battle it out, four-on-four, across arenas, trying to make sure that their team is the one that leaves their mark on the world—quite literally.

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The action centres around the urban arenas of Inkopolis, and vary from skate parks, warehouses, and even a shopping mall. The Inklings themselves battle with various weapons that spread splats of ink all over the place. The ink serves multiple purposes: claiming territory, a place to hide, a way to refill the ink tanks, and a way of traversing terrain. The Inklings are much faster in their native squid form than in human form, and by spraying ink up walls, the Inklings can reach higher locations by swimming up the ink dripping on the wall. You control the Inkling exclusively with the Gamepad.

The biggest part of the game is the online battle mode, and you can easily access the online lobby with a tap on the gamepad. You can also access shops and the equip menus the same way. Once you’re in the lobby the game attempts to matchmake you with seven other players until a quota of eight players is reached, whereupon battle commences (at least, with the only mode that was available to me, Turf War). And this is where I encountered my first big issue with the game. There’s no way to quit back to the lobby or to Inkopolis once matchmaking has started. If a player isn’t found when the timer hits zero, you’re kicked back into the lobby, even if you had seven players ready to go. There’s no way to add AI players to fill out the roster so that the lot of you can just play. And since each additional player adds time to the countdown, you can end up waiting a ridiculous amount of time to just get kicked to the lobby again. On the other hand, if there are a lot of players, you don’t encounter this problem, and post launch, I don’t expect my experience to be the norm. Post launch, this was never an issue. Matches were found almost instantly, and the wait time in the lobby has seldom gone for more than a minute. You can quite happily go from battle to battle without the frustration of waiting.

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Once you’re in battle, lag is minimal, and I know this because I was also having Internet trouble while reviewing this title, with pings well into the thousands. Still, Splatoon managed under this horrible connection, so on a regular connection things should remain fairly stable. Sadly, post launch, the number of connection issues have increased, mostly due to overflowing servers. There were a number of times I was dropped from a match, and the vague message “Problem with connection” didn’t help much. The big, big downside of this is that there will be occasions where you will find yourself short one player. I’ve discovered that a single person makes a ridiculously massive difference to the game’s balance. And the game doesn’t let you know that a teammate won’t be helping you deck the halls paint the walls. You tend to discover this while losing ground.

The various weapons all have pros and cons and you have to rely on your teammates a lot. For example, the splat roller (called one of the unbalanced weapons in the game) spreads paint ridiculously quickly, but can’t get the Inkling up walls with ease. The splattershot, on the other hand, sprays a lot of smaller ink balls and is good for quickly taking out opposing Inklings from a medium distance, but is useless for getting a good spread of ink around the arena. Battle is a surprising amount of fun, even without the ability to communicate with your teammates. You sort of infer what they’re doing and go with it. If you get splatted by someone from the opposing team, you respawn at the start point. You can get back into the battle quickly by tapping one of your teammates on the GamePad, and your Inkling will launch into the air to the side of your ally. Once the three-minute time limit is up, the amount of ground covered in your team color ink is converted into a percentage, and obviously the win goes to whichever team covered the most ground. Matchmaking does not taking into account the levels of the players, so for example, at low levels, you won’t find yourself matched with only low level players: you’ll be placed with a mix of high and low level players, and in my run it wasn’t unusual to see a mix of players from levels one upwards.

Once you reach a high enough level, you’re allowed access to Ranked Battles. These battles features a different mode to Turf War, and plays more as a King of the Hill style game, where your Inkling team have to maintain the colour on a specific, marked out bit of the arena. Ranked Mode, my friends, is absolutely brutal, and the emphasis is completely different. Since you’re trying to hold ground, you see a much greater variety of weapons and uses here, and the emphasis is more on splatting opponents, since you’re not going for a percentage of the ground. It’s also ridiculously all-or-nothing: if you lose, you don’t get a single experience point for your troubles. Personally, I think this is horribly unfair, but that’s how it works. Go big or go play Turf War–a kiddies playground by comparison. Nintendo promises new modes in the future, so we’ll see how those go down.

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In terms of local play, there’s the ability to play turf war one-on-one with another local player. It’s not precisely the same, as instead of going for percentage of ground covered, you’re going for the most balloons popped. It’s not as much fun as the online mode, but it’s something local, I guess. The game would benefit from a full, two-on-two offline battle mode.

Splatoon also has a single player campaign mode where you try to help Captain Cuttlefish repel the Octarian menace. The single player campaign was more fully featured and fun than I thought it would be, and has a more story- and battle-oriented mode of play than the “cover the terrain with ink” mechanic from Turf War. The campaign covers a series of levels with diverse kinds of terrain from moving blocks to invisible platforms, and in each level your objective is the Zapfish, which powers Inkopolis. The single player mode is a nice, gentle way to introduce you to the control scheme of Splatoon, and in fact, you’ll learn techniques here that come in very handy during the online battles. More than anything, you’ll learn very quickly how to use your ink to get around. I don’t have any big issues with the campaign, other than the fact that it was short, but brilliant. There’s some replayability here because the collectibles in each level translate into plans for more weapons at the shop, but once you’ve got all the plans, there’s no real reason to come back here unless Nintendo releases extra story mode campaigns, something I’d personally love to see very much.

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The game supports special, Splatoon Amiibo, but since I haven’t got my hands on them yet, I could not review the Amiibo challenges. We will update the review as new information becomes available.

From what I played–and I played a fair bit because it’s a great deal of fun!–Splatoon looks like it’s going to be is a winner. I don’t imagine that my score of the inkfest will downgrade from from the full retail version, so I award Splatoon a tentacle-tive score of  After I’ve had time to mull over it, I believe that Splatoon may be one the greatest games ever to hit a Nintendo console. It takes the entire MOBA genre and turns it on its head. Some people have complained about the lack of voice chat, but I for one see two great positives in it: skiddies aren’t yelling profanities at you, and you’re not limited to playing with and against foreign opponents. I certainly hope that Splatoon is going to be the thing that makes the Playstation and Xbox loyalists sit up and notice, because there’s definitely something to pay attention to here.

Interim Verdict: 9 Prawn Warriors out of 10

Detailed Information:
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Distributor: Nintendo South Africa
Platform: Wii U
Release Date: 29 May 2015
RRP: R599 (standalone), R699 (with Squid amiibo bundled)
Website: https://www.nintendo.co.za/Games/Wii-U/Splatoon-892510.html