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Friday, June 21, 2024

'Splatoon 3' Takes Shooting Games a Little Less Seriously

In Splatoon 3, the latest in Nintendo’s shooter series, pitched battles are fought with all the gravity of water gun fights between children. Big-eyed cartoon kids in colorful streetwear run into combat in open-air industrial wreckage, firing paint bullets and lobbing ink-filled grenades at the terrain and one another before transforming into floppy squids and back into anthropomorphic form again. They pelt one another with splashes of bright goop, aiming with Nerf-style sniper rifles, pistols, and machine guns. Players explode into nonexistence when soaked through in rival colors and fly back into the fight after a few seconds on the sidelines spent checking the loadout of the person responsible for their defeat.

The format, if not the form, of Splatoon 3 may sound familiar. That’s because it’s a modern shooter, despite being one whose familiar rhythms of lizard-brained action and team tactics are communicated through a brash, bouncy cartoon-pop aesthetic completely unlike the more familiar military theme that dominates the rest of the genre.

From its single-player and cooperative modes to its real highlight—competitive matches that pit color-coded teams against one another to see which side can soak more of the battlefield with their side’s paint—Splatoon includes many of the trappings that might be expected of a Call of Duty multiplayer mode or a Fortnite menu’s wide catalog of character appearance customization options.

The big difference is that Splatoon does away with the realistically modeled assault rifles and emphasis on corporation-friendly branded costumes of those games in favor of stores that unlock more creative fare—like Looney Tunes-style weapons (including a giant paintbrush and bucket) and character attribute-boosting shoes, hats, and tops. (Splatoon, unfortunately, isn’t entirely immune to the allure of brand crossovers. Thankfully, its advertising collaborations are still rare enough to come across as novelties and not cornerstone features whose inclusion dominates the game’s look and feel.)

Like most modern multiplayer shooters, Splatoon 3 keeps its players invested through the intertwined promises that time spent with the game will make them more skilled at shooting enemies and that every match will lead to a steady stream of experience points useful for unlocking new weapons and appearance options. Unlike those games, though, Splatoon is designed to offer constant, surface-level rewards to audiences who aren’t interested in high-stakes competition.

Even on its third entry, the game is constantly energetic, bursting with a kind of margin doodle creativity and childlike desire to simply splash colors on various surfaces. Characters wear mischievous smirks as they bounce through levels flinging paint in every direction, emerging from matches to stroll a hub city modeled after the dense, skyscraper-hedged and neon sign-festooned downtowns of real urban centers.

Per Splatoon’s cheerful post-apocalyptic, post-human oceanic theme, weapons and clothes are bought from stores run by a brawny, talking crab (Mr. Coco’s “Crush Station”) or fashionista jellyfish (Jel La Fleur’s “Man-o’-Wardrobe”). The most committed, highest-level players aren’t decked out in ghillie suits, body armor, or costumes that make them look like Marvel superheroes; in Splatoon, a devoted player might signify their expertise by arriving to battle in a pair of particularly killer sneakers or a sweet hat sold to them by a bipedal nautilus named Gnarly Eddy.

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There’s an inviting quality to the inherent silliness of Splatoon’s design that carries through every aspect of the game. Matches can be intensely competitive, but they can also be enjoyed on a fundamental level as opportunities to use a digital environment like a coloring book. Even losing badly in a round is, in this sense, a pretty good time.

The serious competitor can take part in ranked matches and special tournaments, but in Splatoon 3, the stakes are always lowered through context. A close match is still going to be called by two squishy round cats holding up signs marking the percentage of a map each team managed to cover with their color of paint. The outcome of a tournament series is still based on players pledging allegiance to teams fighting for the glory of, say, ketchup versus mayonnaise, cake versus ice cream, or, in Splatoon 3’s expanded format, rock versus scissors versus paper.

The impact of these aesthetic choices can’t be overstated. The simplicity of Splatoon 3’s design—a few dozen single-player missions, cooperative endurance tests that pit players against waves of shambling fish-people, and competitive battles with straightforward objectives—helps ease players into a genre whose jargon-filled menus and nested multiplayer modes lead to matches often too fiercely, self-seriously complex and competitive to seem welcoming.

By using the modern online shooter’s design as a foundation to build upon rather than a blueprint to replicate, Splatoon 3 makes itself either an approachable entry point to the genre or an alternative to the games that dominate it. That the series has maintained this friendly feeling now that it’s three games in—that it’s added new features and characters without losing its sense of creativity and simplicity—is an achievement that means Splatoon is still deserving of recognition.

Shooters are always going to be appealing because they’re designed to replicate actions as instinctually enjoyable as aiming an object at a target or outwitting—through a combination of tactics, strategy, skill, and luck—rival opponents in any kind of sport. While militaristic shooting games are worthwhile narrative expressions of this action, the endless, numbingly decontextualized violent multiplayer modes of a Call of Duty or Battlefield shouldn’t represent the only option available to players interested in this kind of play.

What Splatoon 3 shows is that the genre’s possibilities are only limited by the imaginations of those who create within it. Instead of a John Wick costume or a hard-bitten soldier skin, it gives players cartoon squid kids with great wardrobes. In the place of unlockable sub-machine gun models, it provides oversized paint rollers. Rather than the blasted-out wastelands of real-world warzones, the sounds of explosions and passing bullets filling the speakers, it offers frenetic pop music and kaleidoscope bursts of brightly colored paint.

The novelty of these choices makes Splatoon 3 a welcome change of pace, and a reminder that there are still plenty of different directions for shooters to take in the future.

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