By all the most important metrics, Nintendo’s Wii U has been a flop. After 30 months, lifetime sales sit at a paltry 10 million, over 80% less than the pace set by the original Wii. The Wii U’s big gimmick—a giant, touchscreen-enabled gamepad—has failed to click with consumers. Meanwhile, support from third-party developers is as low as it’s ever been for a Nintendo gaming machine.
Longtime fans know none of this is new. After dominating the early ‘90s with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo has had three sales flops (the N64, GameCube and Wii U), next to just one sales hit (the Wii). Sony has since assumed control, while Microsoft has eaten all of the biggest crumbs. Even in the reliable handheld market—a business where Nintendo still performs better than most—the smartphone has cannibalized a majority of customers.
Enter Splatoon. Billed as an “online shooter” but marketed like a wacky new cartoon from Nickelodeon, Splatoon is colorful, offbeat, full of attitude, and entirely bizarre. It’s also Nintendo’s best hope to save the Wii U.
For gamers, the premise is one part familiar, two parts eccentric. First, the familiar: grab a weapon, team up with three other random players, and battle against another team of four.
Now the bizarre: instead of shooting bullets, you’re spraying ink. Instead of trying to kill your opponents, your main task is to cover the stage with more of your color than the opposing team. And don’t bother running around—the fastest way to travel is by changing into a squid, where you can swim through your ink twice as fast as you can traverse on foot.
Sound ridiculous? It is, but don’t let that stop you from playing the game. Compared to the gritty realism of genre favorites like Call of Duty, Splatoon’s gameplay is fluid, intuitive and incredibly fresh. You’ve never played a game like Splatoon, but once you’ve inked your first patch of turf, you’ll never want to go back to trenches and bullets.
In typical Nintendo style, Splatoon blends easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master better than anyone in the industry. From your very first match, you’ll be making meaningful contributions to your team, painting corners and inking side paths, all while serving as a decoy for your more experienced teammates. Later, you’ll learn deeper strategies, like swimming up walls, bouncing “splat bombs” through hallways, or playing mind games with opponents as you pop in and out of each strategically placed splotch of ink.
Like all online shooters, Splatoon oozes replayability. Most gamers will play through a single player adventure game once, but online multiplayer allows for months of fresh battles, as your human opponents learn new strategies and better adapt to the game’s environments over time. It’s for this reason that Splatoon—Nintendo’s first homemade title to focus almost entirely on online play—is so critical to maintaining a happy, growing community of Wii U owners.
Can Splatoon save the Wii U? Probably not. The console’s first two years were likely bad enough to relegate the Wii U to this generation’s third place, behind the surging PlayStation 4 and modestly popular Xbox One.
But with Nintendo now officially developing games for smartphones and working on a brand new piece of hardware (codenamed the NX), Splatoon might mean something even more important in the long run. Nintendo’s still got that same old magic. And this time, it didn’t even need Mario to cast the spell.