“A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once.”
This quote by Mario creator and Nintendo guru Shigeru Miyamoto is smart and interesting, but more than anything else it may help us to understand the man and company he has embodied for the past thirty years. Once you strip the nostalgia, the branding, the classic visual motifs, Nintendo games are often unique in how they play. Their best games are ones that do not feel like a collection of arbitrary gimmicks but instead are perfectly interconnected. Every part of Super Mario World works in conjunction, and part of the excitement over Breath of the Wild comes from seeing systems within that game influencing each other so extensively.
Thinking about this, and Miyamoto’s quote in particular, has made me decide to start a new series, “Holism.” The word comes from a broad philosophical idea based around the notion that a complex entity – be it an society, environment, culture – should be seen as a whole, rather than a set of individual parts. It’s something you can see in particular Nintendo games, and in this series I’ll be analyzing particular games to show how even basic or innocuous elements can embody and empower the rest of the work. But instead of using a classic game to start this, I’d like to start with something recent. Specifically Splatoon, the 2015 competitive third-person shooter. It’s one of the Wii U’s few genuine success stories, and it has managed to become iconic surprisingly quickly. But why? I’d suggest that beyond its excellent visual style or zany camp, it all comes down to the ink.
Much in the same was as how platformers emphasize movement and puzzle games often coalesce around a grand mystery, shooters are based around, well, the shooting. The player interacts with the world down a gun barrel, and that orientation has led to many of the genre’s most iconic elements: cold, advanced visors, punishing worlds, and stories about glory and survival. Shooting is incredibly satisfying mechanically; Video game controllers have slowly evolved to better facilitate people’s desire to “point and click” their way through situations, and the appeal of aiming and shooting has been a major part of game design all the way back to Asteroids. However, it’s also fair to say that many shooters have felt tired as of late, due to an increasingly oversaturated market. They play the same, move the same, have the same heroes and monsters…in some ways, the entire genre’s due for a reconstruction. That’s what Splatoon provides in spades.
For those who have not played the game, the premise is deceptively simple. You play as an “Inkling,” a sort of pre-teen squid person who partakes in lighthearted cooperative shooting matches with paint guns (or other implements, like paint rollers). In the default “turf war” mode, your four-person team wins by covering more terrain with your team’s ink than your opponent’s, with each type of weapon being better at certain things than others. Rollers are deadly up close and can cover ground quickly, while Chargers (essentially sniper rifles mixed with rocket launchers) can make entire avenues safe from afar. This goal of “turf” over “kills” allows Nintendo to make a reasonably competitive game that can still appeal to a more casual or less skilled level of play, because every member of the team can contribute. If you’re poor at combat, you can stay out of the heavier firefights and lay down paint. Conversely, a talented “hunter” can seek out opponents to give his or her partners more time.
Now if it were that alone, Splatoon would still be interesting and unique, and admirable in its attempt to bridge casual and competitive arenas. But far more exciting is how it fundamentally links the two main mechanics of a shooter game, the moving and the shooting. Unlike other shooters, the only way to refill your tank of ammo is by letting it naturally reload. Normally, it’s a painfully slow process, but you can speed it up super quickly by turning into a squid and swimming through your team’s ink – which also makes you move much faster and turn invisible, but only while in your ink. You can even climb walls you’ve covered, allowing a skilled player to circumvent dangerous territory. This means that playing Splatoon evokes something similar to emergent gameplay, a unique situation created by the interaction of two distinct mechanics.
Like another Nintendo classic (and future entry to this series), Metroid Prime, the game looks at the shooting less as an instrument of completing objectives or an easily exploitable genre than a fundamental part of the world. There isn’t a part of the game’s picturesque city of Inkopolis that isn’t tied to firing and manipulating ink, which keeps the shooting and sense of competition central. If everyone is on the same page, aren’t we all trying to carve out a little space of victory for ourselves and our friends?
But the ink’s uses don’t even end there! Splatoon is a fast-paced multiplayer game, and its two minute matches demand clear visual signals about how the matches are going. So having a literal symbol of how well the match is going tells you how much turf your team has, where your problem areas and weak points are, and whether there are unclaimed patches you can claim. Instead of using lives or points (though it does have more traditional gameplay modes with those), your actual progress and skill are shown in a visually explicit and dynamic way.
This use of ink, color, and shooting pervades every element of Splatoon and its unique take on shooter staples like guns, arena design, and the use of space. The concept of leaving a distinct impression on the world may even have influenced the importance of fashion, where clothing choices can slightly alter your individual stats. While the Wii U’s gyroscopic controls can limit the precision of tradition shooters, there’s something fun in an almost primal way about firing ink all over the ground. It’s marking your territory, much as my dad would unload clip after clip into the walls of Goldeneye levels.
It’s worth noting that the squid design was only added later; the preliminary testing concept involved blocks of tofu hiding in the ink. It all started with the idea of a character firing and being visually obscured in ink, an intriguing mechanic that could also be easily explained to players. But by expanding what the ink actually did and how it could be used, it was able to tie all the other elements of the game together.
On paper, Splatoon feels like a hodgepodge of pointless gimmicks tied together in a half-assed attempt at a kid-friendly shooter. What makes it soar as a game is how these ideas synergize almost perfectly. This is what makes it so satisfying, and that is central to what makes many of the best Nintendo games so great.