The word keeps popping up when critics talk about Splatoon, even in our own review, and it's a bit maddening. Shooter. This is Nintendo's take on the online shooter. It's Nintendo's first shooter. I'm guilty of talking about the game in this context as well, but it has to stop.
We have a tendency to want to shove new ideas into existing columns, but I'd argue that Splatoon isn't "Nintendo's take on an online shooter" at all. It's an organic piece of design that offers a much more interesting method of play than traditional shooters, even if the primary method of interaction has a superficial resemblance to guns firing bullets.
If you try to play Splatoon like a shooter, you're going to lose. It's something else entirely.
This isn't about shooting
When I think of a shooter the main mechanic that comes into my head is the need to put bullets, or something else that is fired from a gun-like object, into another character or object. It's a direct method of communication; you see each other, and try to use your weapon to "tag" the other player, usually resulting in their virtual death.
Splatoon uses ink instead of bullets, but the interaction between players is secondary; your objective is to paint the level with as much of your ink as possible. This continues Nintendo's history of finding the fun in normal activities that fall outside the bounds of "normal" behavior. Splashing paint all over the place is a great time, and it's something we're rarely allowed to do.
The game began as two blocks of tofu spraying ink on the environment. It was never about person-to-person combat.
"It was the opposite of the way it is now," Nintendo's Hisashi Nogami stated during a recent interview about the game, published by the company. "The map was on the TV screen, and you controlled the 3D screen of your tofu moving on the Wii U GamePad. You kept track of your opponent’s movements on the map, shot ink from the tofu, and claimed your turf. It was so much fun and I thought, 'This could be the core gameplay.'"
Then they added the idea that the ink you laid down aided in stealth, and then later the movement bonus was added.
"The map screen at this time was the kind where you simply look at the 3D environment from a top-down-perspective, so when the tofu slid on top of the ink, it blended in so you couldn’t see it," Shintaro Sato explained.
It was a game about environmental control. That's why it's so welcoming; you don't have to have strong hand-eye coordination to hit a moving target with your ink, you can help out just by walking around and spraying the environment with your ink. Being able to attack other players and temporarily remove them from the game with your ink is helpful, but it's not the core mechanic of the game.
The game isn't weird because someone smoked a joint and thought squids were cool
The interaction isn't about "shooting people," it's about covering your ground with a bright color. You're not just claiming your territory, you're controlling areas of the map to give yourself and your team a movement bonus over those areas.
This isn't Nintendo's take on an online shooter, this is Nintendo re-thinking the way we interact with the environment when we play online, as well as how we deal with each other. If we start to say that every game where an object begins at your player, is aimed, and interacts with the environment is a "shooter," we're sunk.
Look at this beautiful bit of design that came from playtests and discussion before there was a theme or main character for the game, this is how interesting ideas are found. It's iterative, and collaborative.
Nogami: We mentioned that there was a battle over whether we should ink the walls or not. Well, we realized that the ink creatures could move through the ink, so if the walls were covered with ink and the creature could climb them...
Iwata: Then you get a reason to ink the walls.
Nogami: That’s right. We solved the wall problem then and there.
Nintendo didn't sit down and discuss how to create their version of an online shooter, the team sat down and found the fun in an environmental game where your main weapon was territory control and locomotion instead of violence. By figuring out that squirting ink led to greater movement speed and the ability to hide they stumbled on the perfect fit for the game, which just so happened to be squids.
The game isn't weird because someone smoked a joint and thought squids were cool, the game is weird and interesting because the mechanics that Nintendo found in the core game play of territory control organically brought them to a creature we don't often see in games.
Splatoon is a beautiful, interesting game. It's a good example of what Nintendo does best, which is come up with strange ideas and thoughts with some root in the real-world and then drill down until it's aesthetically appealing and the play itself is a blast.
By calling it a shooter, by trying to shove it back into a common category, we disrespect how strange and wonderful the finished game became, and that's a shame.