I hadn’t expected to buy Splatoon when it was first announced. It’s the sort of novel, inventive Nintendo game that I cry out for them to make, but ultimately end up ignoring, impatiently awaiting the next major Mario or Zelda instalment. Splatoon seemed weird, interesting and entirely inessential, a fleeting diversion for Nintendo devs tired of their regular franchises.
I’m not sure what it was, then, that drove me to pick up a copy a week or so after its release. Rave reviews played their part no doubt, boredom too perhaps. A steady diet of dense, thought-provoking indie games contributed as well, such that the neon glow, popping candy accessibility of Splatoon seemed a welcome contrast.
With an aesthetic harking back to the heady days of the Dreamcast, Splatoon exists on some baffling continuum between an obsession with being cool and an almost dizzying lack of that very quality – the hipster paradox made real. Almost everything you do in the game is in the pursuit of being ‘fresh’, whether doing battle with lurid ink or kitting out your ‘Inkling’ with the best fashion the ‘90s have to offer.
For some, sneakers and beanies are the order of the day, others adopt Doc Martens, checkered shirts and thick-rimmed glasses. It’s a fantasist’s vision of Tokyo youth, by way of Brooklyn and the inevitable chaotic diversity of videogame character creation. It’s colorful, confusing chaos, with but one constant: the game’s incessant, insistent demand that I “Staaaay fresh!”
Within hours this is lodged in my head, already a running joke between my flatmate and I. Before he even sets his hands on a controller he’s reminding me to stay fresh, commenting on my gear and regularly inquiring as to just how fresh I really am.
Nowhere else can I be so refreshingly vain, so obsessed with outfitting my character purely for the sake of style, and be actively encouraged by the game, if not quite rewarded. I find myself pausing in battle to admire others’ outfits, wondering where they got those over-sized headphones from, or those neon knock-off Converse.
Gameplay became secondary to the pursuit of fresher and fresher gear, but good god what gameplay it is. Nintendo didn’t quite re-invent the multiplayer arena shooter, but they did remix it by sampling, distorting and cutting the genre to suit their needs. Sniper rifles, shotguns and assault rifles are all here, but so are paint brushes and rollers. Territory control is taken literally, as you’re encouraged to coat the ground in your team’s colored ink; vehicles are swapped out for zipping across the map as a squid, a startling, surprising cross between rapid assault and stealth.
Playing Splatoon is never less than captivating, compulsive to the last. The basics are almost instantly accessible, while watching skilled players cavorting as squid hints at untapped depth. If anything, it’s the garish aesthetic that takes the most getting used to, the skate rock soundtrack and dayglo color scheme no doubt a barrier to some. I took to it worryingly quickly, building a newfound appreciation for vivid clothing and Japanese pop-punk – though, perhaps mercifully, it hasn’t yet contaminated my real life wardrobe, which remains comfortingly un-fresh.
In many respects, Splatoon is as disposable as videogames can get, a shallow, lightweight creation with nothing to say about the world beyond a teenage obsession about image and status. There’s little depth, little insight, and it’s hard to imagine many of its gameplay innovations catching on beyond its own fluorescent walls.
And yet, despite myself, it’s my favorite game of 2015. It’s the gaming equivalent of an earworm, a slice of bubblegum pop with one simple goal: to make you smile. And I can’t think of a single game in 2015 that has made me smile more than Splatoon.