Splatoon is one of my all-time favorite games. I understand the weight of that statement, and yet it is a statement I make with no reservations. Splatoon is a game that is barely a year old; still, if I were to craft my list of TOP TEN FAVORITE GAMES OF ALL TIME, Splatoon would make the cut. (Side note: My list would be a crazy-quilt patchwork, really, and would break several rules of such things; Splatoon‘s presence would be, maybe, the fifth most controversial thing about it.)
I have put more hours into Splatoon than any other Wii U game, far more than Hyrule Warriors, which ranks in at a distant second. To be fair: I played Smash 4 almost exclusively on 3DS and Mario Kart 8 has not yet entered my collection. Still, my Splatoon hours dwarf my Smash 4 3DS hours, and I’ve been playing Mario Kart for twenty-five years now and the basic game has barely changed over that span, and has just been refined over and over and over again, so as great an iteration of that time-tested formula as MK8 is, it just hasn’t been high on my priority list.
And yes, I know arena-based online multiplayer shooters aren’t a thing Splatoon invented. But the brightly-colored neo-Tokyo squid-kid aesthetic, the crazy customization in the form of super-fresh fashion sense, the skating/surfing-esque squid swimming mechanic, the tactical simplicity of two garishly colored shades of ink fighting for dominance, not to mention the surprisingly engaging single-player mode (Splatoon‘s single-player final boss battle is, in a word, epic; easily the most fun I’ve had with a final boss battle in a very long time)… Splatoon is a polished, unique, I’ve-never-seen-THAT-before package that anyone who calls themselves a gamer simply has to try. It’s the game that makes Wii U a must-buy for gaming completionists, the ones who MUST play every big game of a console generation.
It is also frustrating in ways I haven’t experienced since my gaming childhood spent battling unfair computer players in all sorts of “Nintendo-hard” titles. (You know, Battletoads, Castlevania, Ghosts ‘n Goblins… the controller-breakers.)
Oh, not Splatoon itself. The game itself is Nintendo-polished to an immaculate spit-shine. Here’s the thing, though: Splatoon is popular enough among North American and European Wii U gaming households, but it is an absolute smash hit in Japan, a bonafide phenomenon. Some numbers*: Splatoon is the biggest selling Wii U title in Japan, sitting at 1.41 million units moved. In North America, Splatoon is just the sixth biggest selling Wii U title, although the overall number is larger than the Japanese number: 1.70 million North American units sold. But consider this: there have been 3.24 million Wii U consoles sold in Japan and 6.03 million sold in North America. That means that of 3.24 million Japanese Wii U owners, 1.41 million also own Splatoon, an attach rate of 35.19%. In North America, 6.04 million Wii U owners have purchased 1.70 million copies of Splatoon, for a substantially lower attach rate of 23.38%. Numbers can say whatever you want them to say, of course, but they seem to be saying this: Splatoon was the Wii U’s must-own title in Japan, whereas in North America the must-own games were Mario Kart 8, Smash 4, New Super Mario Bros. U, and THEN Splatoon. (The pack-in games Nintendo Land and Super Mario 3D World also move more units than Splatoon in North America, but the sales figures of pack-in games always skew high, for obvious reasons.)
The Japanese popularity is to the game’s ultimate benefit, of course; over a year past the game’s release, even with the Wii U on its death bed, Splatoon‘s online waiting rooms are never empty and a new 8-person random battle roster is usually filled up in a matter of seconds. Splatoon‘s servers, though, are international, and most of those players filling up the waiting rooms (especially if, like me, you’re playing late at night on the United States eastern coast), are from Nintendo’s native Japan, if their player names are to be trusted, and from almost Day 1 of Splatoon‘s multi-player going live the Japanese players have caused the rest of the world fits. Whether they’re displaying their unerring skill with the Charger (Splatoon‘s version of the sniper rifle), hopping and hopping and hopping their way through opposing gunfire on their way to a one-shot “splat” with the Luna Blaster, or appearing out of nowhere to ruin your day with a Carbon Roller or Octo Brush, a room full of Japanese players has become a frightening prospect for just about everyone else in the world. There are moments where I swear that the Japanese servers run just a little faster than the North American servers, or that the Japanese players get to play under a different set of rules. I realize after some contemplation that this is, of course, nonsense-thinking… and then I get out charger-dueled by another Japanese player even though I KNOW I LET GO OF THE TRIGGER BEFORE THEY DID, DAMMIT! I KNOW I DID!
Splatoon‘s popularity in Japan is sort of puzzling; Japanese gamers don’t traditionally gravitate towards the shooter genre. Perhaps this is a side-effect of Japan’s stringent anti-gun laws (in Japan it is legal only for police offers to carry firearms.) Maybe it’s because Japanese gamers historically prefer games from Japanese developers, and most of the big FPS franchises come out of American studios. (Call of Duty, Battlefield, Gears of War, etc., etc.) Maybe it’s because Splatoon‘s mechanics and aesthetics are far more Jet Set Radio than World War II, and Inkopolis, the game’s central hub, is an obvious stand-in for Tokyo. Or maybe it’s because just like the rest of the world Japanese gamers love awesome games, and Splatoon is certainly one of those.
Not that being splatted by a legion of Japanese players over and over is all bad. While Splatoon‘s day-to-day game servers are international, the now-concluded once-a-month festivals, Splatfest, where players played under two competing flags for total ink dominance, were played on local servers instead of international servers, and I can tell you: having beefed up my splatting skills against the best of the best in the East served me well playing in Splatfests played exclusively against the West. In the end I was able to build up piles of those Splat Fest rewarded Super Sea Snails that let me shuffle up the different ability buffers on all of my super-fresh gear.
If that last sentence made no sense to you, you really should start playing Splatoon.
So consider Splatoon one of the biggest victories of the Wii U era. It’s a crowd-pleasing brand new IP that I’m willing to bet will show up on the forthcoming NX in multiple forms, probably as both a port of the Wii U game and as the inevitable Splatoon 2, or Spla2n, as I really really hope they stylize it. It’s an infuriatingly addictive “JUST ONE MORE MATCH!” must-try gaming experience, and it’s the first game I point to when I tell people the Wii U is a must-buy. Splatoon: love it or hate it, you’re going to love it.
*All statistics cited from VGChartz.com.