Splatoon is a good game, but it would have bombed under any company other than Nintendo.
The colorful shooter just launched for Nintendo’s newest console, the Wii U. Players take on the role of “Inklings,” boys and girls who are half squid, in a weird society centered around hanging out in a single city square between bouts of Turf Wars. Those Turf Wars task players with covering the maps in their ink, turning into squids, swimming through their freshly soaked space and blasting through the enemy. At the end of each match, the team with the most ink on the ground wins.
Splatoon is really well-designed and offers a completely unique take on the competitive shooter genre. Thanks to the need to cover the battlefield in ink, you’re less worried about killing your opponents and more concerned with making sure your team’s shade of paint is the dominant one.
But that’s not why gamers are giving it a chance. The game’s success is down to one thing: Nintendo.
Splatoon is a huge point of discussion in the social sphere of gaming right now, with constant chatter on Twitter and Tumblr. It’s everywhere, and that success has translated to movement at retail, too. Splatoon sold through initial shipments in Japan and even posted roughly 150k in sales in its home country the first few days after launch.
But that success wasn’t kickstarted by Splatoon’s funky premise or strong core design. Take the same game with the same name and put it on any other platform with any other publisher and developer behind it, and it probably wouldn’t have even achieved lift-off.
Consider, for a second, if Splatoon was announced for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 by Ubisoft, instead of for the Wii U by Nintendo. In addition to mature games like Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs, Ubisoft has a track record of releasing forgettable games aimed at kids. Splatoon, then, would have been another entry in a string of Raving Rabbids, Imagine: Babyz and Your Shape: Fitness Evolved like titles. It would have enjoyed an awkward announcement during a Ubisoft press conference, followed by a few months of mediocre marketing and, eventually, an under-the-radar release noticed only by a few undiscerning kids.
Instead, Splatoon comes from a company with fans that are willing to try just about anything with an interesting hook. This is a shooter soaked in color complete with three physical, plastic licensed toys in stores (in rare stock right now, to boot) and a premise that features kids turning into squids turning into kids. Nintendo’s name is what propped it up long enough for everyone to realize that it’s great.
The company has a penchant for producing completely absurd concepts that make it to market in spite of conditions or audience demand. Look at Chibi-Robo!, a GameCube game that features a robot designed to clean up houses and chat with local toy residents. Can you see Microsoft launching that to its core fans next to Halo and Gears of War? And the Chibi-Robo series plows onward even today.
Or how about a game where you pick flower petals from the ground in order to form a fruit-collecting army capable of bringing down giant bugs as you try to repair your rocket ship? Sign me up! (That’s Pikmin, for the record.)
Nintendo fans, myself included, are more than okay with these odd games. We’ve learned over time to just accept the weird pitches from Nintendo because we know the core product below the ridiculous coat of ink has a strong chance of being something special.
Splatoon might seem like a total surprise to some gamers, but we saw its success coming. It’s the company’s newest Wii Sports, Rhythm Heaven and Super Smash Bros., a candy-coated experience that manages to please everyone in spite of a garish aesthetic that most other publishers would have laughed out of an initial pitch meeting.
For us, that’s part of the charm. Nintendo has always been celebrated for its ability to polish the rough edges off its titles. Splatoon is silky smooth, and its core mechanics have been honed to perfection. Who cares that it looks like a Saturday morning cartoon?
Hardcore Nintendo fans look past that, and casual gamers who would otherwise never touch a competitive shooter game get drawn in too. Here we have two completely different gaming mentalities meeting in a world where a cat judges matches, a squid sells shirts and the city is powered by a giant fish strapped to a tower.
It’s the perfect game for both crowds. Why? Because Nintendo.
Joey Davidson has been on the internet writing about video games and nerd crap for something like a decade. Yell at him on Twitter @JoeyDavidson. If you want.