Splatoon: Nintendo unveils a family-friendly shooter game

In creating the world of Inkopolis, Nintendo hopes it's found its next big thing in the uncharted waters of online gaming.

Funky soundtrack, mischievous grins propel a remarkable undertaking

An Inkling fires a Splattershot in Nintendo's new Splatoon. (Nintendo)

Nintendo's Splatoon is the all-ages online shooter no one else dared to make. The game represents a major shift for Nintendo, figuratively and literally.

The competitive online shooter for the Wii U console, which launched on Friday, looks like nothing else the venerable Japanese video game company has put out in years. 

Welcome to Inkopolis, a hip town where the local youth spend their time spraying gallons of fluorescent ink at each other in a four-vs-four competitive environment. To win, your team has to cover the arena in more ink than your opponents.

Except these kids carrying Splattershot water guns and mischievous grins aren't really kids at all: they're Inklings, which can transform into squid-like creatures with the press of a button, swimming in pools of their like-coloured ink as easily as a fish in water.

Set to a funky soundtrack infused with reggae, rock and J-pop influences, Splatoon is more like a Nickelodeon game show (or, for the older Canadians in the crowd, Nick's slime-dump progenitor You Can't Do That On Television) than something you would expect from the house of Mario and Zelda. And Nintendo hopes that it's found its next big thing in the uncharted waters of online gaming.

Developed by Nintendo of Japan's EAD team, Splatoon is the company's first new high-profile franchise, since Pikmin in 2001. From a company that's comfortable renewing and rehashing its decades-old properties in lieu of making new ones, this is a remarkable undertaking.

Splattershot is a family-friendly shooter game. (Nintendo)

"We started from a point where we wanted to make a new game and a new play experience," producer Hisashi Nogami told The Verge. "And once we started to decide on the elements — from the characters to the world — we realized that this was going to be its own thing, and not, for example, something in the Mario series."

Nogami's projects include Wii Sports and the sleepy cult hit Animal Crossing — successes in their own right, but not the company tentpoles like Shigeru Miyamoto's Super Mario or Eiji Aonuma's Legend of Zelda. Splatoon could be Nogami's career-defining moment.

It's also the first Nintendo-made online shooter, a genre dominated by the likes of Halo, Call of Duty and basically every other North American developer for roughly the last decade. 

Nintendo has been much slower to adopt the online gaming in general, promoting titles like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. as living-room party games first. But Splatoon is an online-first venture, and critics have been anxiously wondering what its take on the genre would be ever since it was previewed at last year's E3 gaming conference.

A cast of squid kids shooting ink at each other is a rare family-friendly take on the genre. Unlike many other shooters' 17-and-up rating, Splatoon is rated for ages 10 and up.

Blood and guts have disappeared

Gone are the space marines with high-tech rifles from Halo or Destiny. Nowhere will you see the blood, guts and bullets flying as in the military-themed Call of Duty or Battlefield.

National Post games critic Chad Sapieha said this was the first online shooter he felt comfortable letting his 10-year-old daughter play. Instead of reviewing the game himself, he let her play it and asked what she thought.

"She really enjoyed it, thought it was really fun, understood the appeal of it, but at the same time she wasn't being freaked out by anything she was seeing on the screen," Sapieha told CBC News. 

Sapieha says Nintendo managed to avoid pretty much all the pitfalls in online gaming that parents worry their kids might encounter.

Most contentious was Nintendo's choice not to include voice chat from online play. Usually it's crucial for players to co-ordinate their movements and strategies. On the other hand, public games are rife with players harassing others with sexist, racist, or homophobic language.

Players win by covering the map with their colour of ink with watergun-like rifles, bazookas and giant paint rollers. (Nintendo)

Splatoon does away with it all, instead letting players co-ordinate with built-in commands and functions on the GamePad controller. It's a fair tradeoff, says Sapieha.

"I can totally see the usefulness and the practicality of being able to talk to somebody else, but I'm very opposed to pre-teens being able to talk to strangers online.

"Of course it always comes down to parents paying attention to what their kids are playing and taking an active role and interest in it. Because the ESRB rating on the side of the box doesn't necessarily tell you everything you need to know about a game."

But is Splatoon any good?

Nintendo's objectives are broad and ambitious, but has Splatoon delivered?

Good news, everyone: On nearly every front it passes with bright, ink-drenched colours.

Online matches are a joy to play, and feel far less intimidating than other ultra-competitive first-person shooters.

Gameplay feels like a mix of several genres. You've got team-based combat as you target the enemies with your ink guns, but you have to worry about map control just as much as in a strategy game like Starcraft.

Combine that with some good old-fashioned platforming — do you find a high vantage point to pick off enemies, or turn into a squid and race to the melee at the centre? — and you've got a game filled with unpredictability, even with the currently slim list of maps (though we're supposed to get more as downloadable content down the line).

Online matchmaking has been near-flawless in the days since launch, and I've been able to have seamless matches with players from North America and Japan in the same game, even on the sometimes shaky WiFi connection on the Wii U.

It's a shooter with all the depth and complexity of the biggest titles in the industry, and Nintendo's signature attention to design with a palette and youthful attitude we haven't seen in years.

And it's in a family-friendly, gender-agnostic format that few in the realm of multi-million-budget video games even attempt.