As a parent I see a deep dichotomy in the world of gaming. On one hand there is a decidedly dark and violent (and, arguably, sometimes fun) culture dedicated to blockbusters featuring men in flak jackets invading a strip club or sword-wielding wizards who slash their way through a dragon’s alimentary canal. On the other hand there is Angry Birds.
Both extremes bother me. On one hand I can’t play games like Witcher or Bloodborne with the kids in the room and I don’t want my 9-year-old playing them. On the other hand I see no value in the sloppy freemium games that seem to have infected my kids’ laptops and iPads. This mind-numbing digital pablum, usually offered as a sort of casual gaming experience – is absolute and utter garbage. From the aforementioned Angry Birds to goofs like Five Nights At Freddy’s, these games are products scientifically designed to addict and then disappoint.
Then there are games that are settled firmly in the middle path, games that are neither overtly violent for violence’s sake nor so simple as to be insulting. In this category I place games like Destiny, Halo, Minecraft, and, now, Splatoon. I rarely have the opportunity to write about games these days because of the aforementioned 9-year-old but we sat down to play a great deal of Splatoon for the Wii U and I’ve come away with a richer understanding of how Nintendo can beat the perception that it is all about nostalgia and greasy kids’ stuff.
First, a primer. Splatoon is a team shooter with a twist. Instead of war-fighting you’re essentially playing paintball with massive squirt guns. Your goal is to cover most of the environment with your team’s color using different tools. You can also turn into a squid that “swims” through the color, a feature that I doubt they’ll be adding to Call Of Duty anytime soon. It’s a fast-paced, non-violent team shooter akin to Team Fortress with a lot of Nintendo’s signature whimsy and humor. I’m definitely not alone in this sentiment. It’s had consistently good reviews and it’s a hit with young gamers. Add in something like Lego Dimensions and you’ve got the potential for a renaissance in entry-level family gaming on par with the introduction of the first NES.
I feel that Nintendo can pull forward again simply because gaming has become so polarized. As a parent I can’t let my young kids play most Xbox and Playstation titles except sing along games and Kinect-based adventures. I also don’t want them to tap mindlessly at some Flappy Bird clone for hours. By creating a game that is at once accessible to parents and kids and offers some of the best aspects of team shooters while adding a few very specific and very interesting mechanics you create something entirely new and far more playable. Furthermore, mobile game makers have yet to create a Zelda or Pokemon for that medium, let alone an engrossing game that takes hours to play and is rich in story and action. While the big game makers spend millions franchise hits and the mobile game makers spend meager budgets to achieve maximum addictive potential, the middle road is left wide open. It’s happened before. Consider the market at the launch of Super Mario Brothers. Atari was going under, beaten by its myriad flops and sub-par gameplay while the arcade games became increasingly complex and the arcades themselves became havens for teens. When Nintendo released the NES they achieved digital umami: the titles were family friendly and allowed young kids to get good at amazingly complex games at their own pace. So potent was that potion that I can still find all of the Warp Zones and Easter Eggs in SMB, 30 years later, and I can probably beat Ganon with a bit of time.
I firmly believe that mobile game houses will eventually create their Zelda. It will be hard and it will take years but I equate their current offerings to Nolan Bushnell doing the best he could with the limited technology at hand. A child moving from an Atari 2600 to an NES would have been amazed. The same needs to happen in mobile gaming. We are in the original Atari Pac-Man days where spray and pray tactics can still work. We need to move into the era of Metroid to create a Golden Age of mobile gaming.
What I’m trying to say is that Splatoon is a great game and if Nintendo can keep making games of this caliber it will do just fine. By doing what Nintendo does best – the appropriation and reorganization of popular gaming culture to a whimsical and family friendly end – they can survive what can only be termed a doldrums. If Splatoon is a one-off, however, I suspect we’ll see the next Link coming from a mobile gamer who is sick of the gunfire and fan base of the franchises and is looking to do what video games are supposed to do: amaze, delight, and challenge with universal puzzles aimed at any player at any age.