Nintendo's four-on-four third-person shooter is super competitive and super fun.
There were plenty of wacky moments during Nintendo's E3 Direct on Tuesday morning, but one that definitely made me do a double-take was the announcement of Splatoon. Not because it looked like an outstanding game-it might have, but I was too busy wondering why on Earth two game designers would be wondering what it was like to be a squid in their spare time. Regardless of the inspiration, Splatoon turned out to be some of the most fun I've had so far at this year's E3.
Splatoon kind of plays like a shooter, but the point isn't to shoot other people. You can shoot them if you want, of course, whether it's to get them out of the way or just because you're sadistic, but taking out foes in the four-on-four matches isn't going to lead your team to victory.
That didn't stop me from shooting half-squid-half-kid hybrids from the opposing team every chance I got. I'm just saying, it won't get you the win.
No, to win you have to cover as much of the level as humanly (squidly?) possible with paint. That's what you're shooting: not bullets, but very colorful paint. Each team has its own color, so you can tell where your territory is marked and where you need to take over. The GamePad screen gives a top-down view of the level, including where the other characters are and how the paint is falling, but it's hard to pay attention to that screen when there's so much action happening on the TV screen.
Not knowing exactly who's in the lead creates a lot of tension in the final seconds, and even more so after the match is over and you're waiting for a winner to be declared. I definitely held my breath as the scroll bar counted up each team's percentage of area covered in paint; two out of three times, we dominated.
The first time was the only one we lost, and I'd like to think it was a fluke. Aiming with the GamePad took some getting used to; I tried to move the thumbsticks like a traditional shooter, and found myself shooting into the air a whole lot. Not a bad way to paint the town, but also not a great way to defend yourself. I quickly realized my mistake; while the thumbstick is useful for aiming or moving the camera left and right, you have to physically move the GamePad up and down to aim in those directions. At first, it felt wonky, but by my second match I was taking out those blue-spewing jerks on the opposite team with ease.
Since you're shooting paint, ink is your ammo, and that runs out quick. That's where being part squid comes in handy; with the push of a button, you'll turn into the sea-dwelling creature and suck up ink from the ground, replenishing your supply. That only works when you're in your own colored territory, though; the opposing team's colors will just slow you down. And you can be shot and forced to respawn in squid mode, so don't squid down in a panic expecting to be safe. Trust me, it won't work,
For a light-hearted game, Splatoon gets really competitive, really quick. Our own Greg Tito was on my team, and I leaned over to him at the start of our second match and said, "Don't screw this up for me!" I found myself biting my lip to keep from yelling the obscenities that usually escape during deathmatches. Throughout it all, though, all eight players on both teams were laughing and cheering each other on.
Splatoon is one of those pleasant E3 surprises I love finding: something I didn't expect to see at the beginning of the show, but ended up being one of the most memorable experiences. Will that competitive-but-friendly spirit be easy to replicate in my living room? Well, I'm not so sure, but I'm willing to give it a try.
Like many of the games Nintendo announced this week, Splatoon is due out in 2015.