When Nintendo released Splatoon on Wii U in 2015, it was a breath of fresh air in the stale multiplayer shooter genre. The colorful game eschewed military browns and grays and a focus on kill/death ratios in favor of painting the town red (and blue and green and pink). Two years later, the Inklings are back on Nintendo’s hot handheld-console hybrid, the Switch, and while it may not feel quite as revolutionary the second time around, Splatoon 2 is one of the system’s best titles to date.
Nintendo could easily have gotten away with porting the first game to its new system, as they did with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to great success this spring. After all, the Wii U was a pretty big sales disappointment, so it’s safe to assume that a large part of the Switch audience missed out on Splatoon. But Nintendo has delivered a sequel that improves on its predecessor in almost every way — with brand new maps, many more weapons, and tons of gear so you can customize your cephalopod — even if it hews very close to the original.
That might be disappointing if the core gameplay loop wasn’t so ridiculously addictive and the overall package still so unique. The main mode, Turf War, isn’t about how many kills you score, but instead, focuses on trying to paint as much of the environment as possible in three minutes (which is a wonderful change of pace from most competitive shooters). The single-player campaign once again delivers around 30 levels that constantly introduce clever new gameplay mechanics and culminate in delightfully weird boss fights. The neon-drenched graphics are a hyper-color fever dream, and the game runs silky smooth in console and portable mode. The music is as bizarre and catchy as the first game, recalling the gonzo Japanese vibes of Dreamcast cult classic Jet Set Radio.
But the most exciting new addition — the one that pushes it past being Splatoon 1.5 — is the new Salmon Run mode. Nintendo’s take on Horde mode, where four players team up to face waves of increasingly difficult enemies, is a raucous riot. Certain enemies drop golden Power Eggs that you have to collect and return to a basket, and victory depends on your ability to collect a set number of eggs per match while fending off throngs of squishy attackers. Weapons are randomized, meaning you’re forced to learn all of them, and teamwork is essential. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had with a multiplayer mode since Gears of War 2 popularized Horde in 2008. Sit down to play a match and watch several hours flash by.
Although you can start a local game of Salmon Run at any time, the mode is bafflingly only available to play online at certain times set by Nintendo. Nintendo remains oddly controlling of what maps you can play at what times, cycling them at intervals throughout the day. It’s a bizarre decision to restrict access to Salmon Run, which I consider to be the game’s strongest new asset. And while the online matchmaking has been super stable for me since launch, Splatoon 2 still doesn’t allow you to customize your character or switch loadouts while you wait for a match, forcing you to back out entirely in order to do so, which feels clunky and frustrating.
The Switch launched with pretty bare bones online support, and Splatoon 2 is the first game to support the Nintendo Switch Online app, which handles voice chat for the console. The service is free now but will eventually cost $20 a year when it fully launches in 2018. Nintendo was smart not to charge for the service yet, because it’s a mess. Starting a chat session with a friend through the app is simple enough, but once you’ve started, you have to keep your phone open the entire time. No switching to Twitter or texting on your phone, or the voice session simply drops.
This isn’t practical or convenient, and I found myself opting to play without chat most of the time, which makes strategizing in Salmon Run pretty difficult. You can press up on the d-pad to indicate to your teammates the direction of something, but it’s a poor substitute for simply telling them. (You can also press down on the d-pad to have your Inkling say “Booyah!” which some people spam, so I guess I’d rather not be chatting with those people anyway.)
Voice chat aside, the Switch Online app is actually a handy little companion, allowing you to check out your stats, order exclusive gear in the shop, see which online multiplayer maps are in rotation for the coming day, and most importantly, see if Salmon Run is available. But it’s surprising how much Nintendo still struggles with online support when Xbox 360 nailed all this down over a decade ago.
While it’s unfortunate that voice chat isn’t less cumbersome, it did little to diminish my enjoyment of Splatoon 2. Nintendo’s colorful shooter is still unlike anything else on the market and a smart evolution of the fantastic core it established two years ago. Splatoon 2 is wildly creative, utterly addictive, and endlessly replayable. It may not be a fresh start, but it’s still, as the Inklings would say, incredibly fresh.