Splatoon 2: Nintendo arguably misses the mark

As I said in a recent post about the Nintendo Switch, I bought the system specifically for one game: Splatoon 2. When the Switch was announced, I couldn’t really care less. When Splatoon 2 was announced, I was as excited as any kid less than a quarter my age; I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the game, or the console required to play it. As I wrote in the aforementioned Switch post, I pre-ordered the Switch in a narrow window from GameSpot.com (luck of the draw), and was ecstatic to ensure I had one of the highly sought-after consoles well before the Splatoon 2 was scheduled to ship.

So was it worth all the excitement and the long wait?

Before I answer that, let’s backtrack to why I wanted the game in the first place.

It was just a couple of years ago now that I received a Wii U console; it was a gift for Christmas 2015. Getting the console was a surprise, and I wasn’t sure I would even be particularly interested in having a gaming console at all, let alone a Nintendo console — especially given that the Wii U had been released years before I’d receive mine, and was not exactly a raging success.

Bundled in the console was a copy of the original Splatoon, a random choice by the person who gifted the system to me. So Christmas day, nearly two years ago as I write this post, I fired-up my new Wii U and played Splatoon for the first time.

Rather than write a basic overview, I’ll share the one from the Wikipedia article about the game:

Splatoon is a third-person shooter video game developed and published by Nintendo for the Wii U, which was released worldwide in May 2015. The game centers around characters known as Inklings—beings that can transform between humanoid and squid forms, and hide or swim through colored ink sprayed on surfaces using gun, bucket, or brush-based weaponry. Splatoon features several game modes, including 4-on-4 online multiplayer, and a single player campaign.

The game has an almost ridiculous premise, one that perhaps only Nintendo could bring to market successfully. While reviews were somewhat mixed, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a game so much since the classic video game era; I was addicted, and couldn’t get enough. In fact, I remained addicted to it until Splatoon 2 was released, firing-up the Wii U and playing it nearly every day for at least a short amount of time.

The promise of Splatoon 2, then, was that it played on the Switch, and the Switch, in turn, could be undocked and taken most anywhere. No longer would I be a slave of the couch and the big screen upstairs — I could take it with me, and play online matches anywhere WiFi was available. Well, that was the promise, anyway. The reality was something different.

First, Nintendo has done a pretty crap job of supporting WiFi in the Switch, as I wrote in my other post. Getting connected to most home WiFi routers isn’t a huge deal, but anything else (e.g., business or hotel WiFi) tends to be a time-consuming pain in the ass — when it works at all. The quality of the WiFi radio in the Switch is also fairly demonstrably subpar; the Switch frequently shows less-than-full-bars of signal even when in the very same room as the WiFi router, and God help you if you actually move around your home at all while playing.

Secondly, the online components of Splatoon 2 have a fairly demanding set of requirements for the WiFi connection, requiring a certain type of (undocumented) NAT support before you can actually play online. My failsafe when traveling is either a tethered connection to my iPhone, or a MiFi unit, and neither provide the necessary support to make Splatoon 2 happy. The Switch might be able to connect to the Internet through it — but Splatoon 2 doesn’t actually work.

But lastly, perhaps the biggest miss in Splatoon 2 is the quality of the game experience itself. While similar to the original Splatoon superficially, Nintendo has altered many of the subtleties of Splatoon in its second incarnation.

One of the biggest things Splatoon had going for it was balance: the balance between defense and offense, of weapons vs. armor, experience vs. inexperience, skill vs. lack of skill. The way that the main mode of play (multiplayer online) was executed, both with player matchmaking and otherwise, meant that players of average skill (someone like me) and players of high skill (avid gamers) could play the game and have a decent experience doing it. Even with my lame gaming ability, I could count on winning and losing games in roughly equal numbers — winning enough to keep it rewarding and not losing so much it became discouraging. It was something, I believed at the time, that only Nintendo could successfully achieve.

Splatoon 2 is a different story. Nintendo have clearly altered the dynamics in ways that are difficult to decipher, but amount to nothing less than breaking the one thing the game had going for it originally: balance. Certain weapons, notably the Splashdown, are nearly impossible to escape. Matchmaking in the online games is no longer fair or equitable; I’ve played countless games where one team is hopelessly, needlessly and overwhelmingly out-gunned, out-skilled, and out-played. While this is inevitable in any online game match-up from time to time, in Splatoon 2, it’s constant. Nothing is more discouraging or un-fun than losing match after match after match, because the matchmaking algorithms don’t align demonstrated skills, abilities and gear sufficiently well. Given that Splatoon and Splatoon 2 have four-against-four teams, the marginal skills of one player (me, for example) will make an impact on the outcome. But to be so completely annihilated for a dozens matches in a row? That’s not just my deficient skills, that’s a reflection on the engineering of the game itself, and its indifference to matching players in a way that makes the experience a good one for players of all skill levels.

Splatoon was updated frequently in its heyday, and the majority of the updates tuned weapons and abilities and other game dynamics in almost imperceptible ways. It was as if Nintendo were keenly aware of how delicate a balancing act it was to make the game engaging and fair, and went to great lengths to ensure it.

Splatoon 2, in contrast, has — based on release notes anyway — not received much game tuning. Instead, Nintendo have been focused, it seems, on adding endless variations on the same old weapons, along with new stages. While all that new content is great in some ways, the lack of attention to balance is glaring and disappointing.

For a player with the skill level I have, the result is a game that’s still appealing — and yet profoundly disappointing at the same time. I’ve been “this” close to trading-in the game and just being done with it on numerous occasions, and that might yet happen. The only thing keeping me from it is the belief that over time, Nintendo might yet stop churning-out new content, and start focusing on the things that made the original Splatoon such a great experience. With a little more balance, Splatoon 2 might eventually be equally great. Until then? It’s a frustrating disappointment that’s occasionally fun, and nearly always discouraging.