Well, this is a needle I didn’t expect to have to thread.
Splatoon 3 has been out for a couple of weeks now, and yet the debate swirling around the game continues to be about its necessity rather than its quality. With the Switch only in the middle of its lifespan and Splatoon 2 already being available for the console, did we really need Splatoon 3 now? This has spawned the usual counterarguments about how the core Splatoon formula was already solid and wouldn’t/shouldn’t get drastic changes, and how many badly-needed quality-of-life changes S3 brought to the table, and how the S2 meta was a mess by the end and needed a total rework, and around and around it goes. So who’s right here?
Honestly, I think the answer is “all of the above.”
Does Splatoon 3 need to exist? Absolutely not: The game provides essentially the exact same experience as Splatoon 2 does, and had we not gotten this “threequel,” I would have been completely happy chugging along with Splatoon 2 for a few more years. However, “is it necessary?” and “is it worth buying?” are two very different questions, and since the game does exist, the minor tweaks and changes it makes makes Splatoon 3 the definitive version of the game as the current time. If you weren’t interested in or didn’t like Splatoon 2, there’s nothing here to excite you about Splatoon 3, but if you had fun with the first two games or find all of this ink-slinging intriguing, Splatoon 3 is still worth exploring.
First, let’s address my biggest complaint about Splatoon 3, a problem that’s cropped up in several of Nintendo’s recent releases: There’s a noticeable lack of polish here, as if the game had to be rushed to meet a deadline despite missing its expected summer window. For example, consider the game’s network setup: Frequent connection errors have always been a meme in this franchise, but in my time with the game I’ve found the connection to be far less stable than Splatoon 2 despite a similarly-powerful connection (Side note: I’m one of roughly 8 people left in the world that hasn’t gotten screwed over by Comcast yet). There are also moments when the game stutters noticeably and consistently, especially when you’re entering the battle lobby (the player’s animation takes a few seconds before it starts running smoothly). There are several game modes that seem like no-brainer Day-1 additions (league battles, X rank, online play in Tableturf matches) that won’t arrive until an unspecified future update. It seems like Nintendo has gone overboard with pushing content into future updates, and it’s led to games feeling unfinished at launch (Mario Strikers: Battle League) and even prematurely abandoned (Super Mario Maker 2, Mario Golf: Super Rush). Given Splatoon 3‘s massive launch sales, I don’t think the developers are going to push the game to the back of the closet anytime soon, but I would have been perfectly content waiting months (or even years) to get a fully-featured game at launch.
So what is here? Well, Turf War returns, and it’s just as chaotic and exciting as ever. Just as in Splatoon 2, teams of four players have three minutes to cover as much ground as possible with their own ink, with whoever gets the most ink down getting crowned the winner at the end. The initial map rotation has been drawn from all three games (5 new, 4 from S2, 3 from S1), and some of them have been reworked significantly (seriously, Mahi-Mahi Resort is completely unrecognizable). With the caveat that I haven’t gotten to play the new Hammerhead Bridge yet (that map was terrible in S1), most of the maps here sit somewhere in the mushy middle for me: The only one I really like is Mincemeat Metalworks, and the only one I can’t stand is Museum d’Alfonsino (which is weird, because I never minded that map in S1 and it looks almost exactly the same). Players enter a map via a new airborne spawning system that lets you choose where to rejoin the action, but the reachable area is so limited (with good reason; you shouldn’t be able to spawn in the middle of the map whenever you want) that it feels pointless, and adds extra steps and button presses to what was an automatic process in the first two games. The Squid Roll and Squid Surge provide some extra movements options to avoid enemy fire, but I haven’t seen any players (myself included) take advantage of them yet, so I imagine it will be another month or so before we really see how they impact the game.
The impact of the shuffled special weapons is more apparent, and the general trend from S2 and S3 is to make these weapons more local and less powerful. Where S1 featured invincibility specials like Krakens and Bubblers and S2 was defined by global and/or long-ranged specials like Ink Armors, Stingrays and Tenta Missiles, Splatoon 3 is determined to up the risk factor of specials by forcing you closer to the action and providing a weakness for other players to exploit. (The one exception to this rule remains Tenta Missiles, although they don’t have quite the firepower they once did.) Zipcasters and Inkjets can be shot out of the air, Crab Tanks and Ultra Stamps are vulnerable to flanks, Tacticoolers require teammates to be in the immediate vicinity to get a boost (remote work won the battle IRL, but Tacticoolers still demand that you show up in-person), Big Bubblers and Wave Breakers can be destroyed by enemy fire, and so on. These weapons still pack a punch when skillfully deployed (Ink Vacs in particular can be very tricky to approach), but there are no get-out-of-jail-free or panic button weapons to pull yourself out of an impossible situation.
Ony one new sub weapon was introduced in S3 (the Angle Shooter, basically a Point Sensor with longer-but-narrower range), but two new classes of main weapons joined the party as well: Stringers (bows) and Splatanas (melee weapons similar to brushes). Both of the base weapons of the class have some interesting/distinctive features (the Tri-Stringer shots will explode a few moments after impact if charged enough, the Splatana Wiper has some incredible speed and mobility while swinging), and I generally enjoyed trying them out during the World Premiere Splatfest. The Splatana Stamper and REEF-LUX 450 don’t seem quite as distinct, but they’ve got solid kits that get them a lot of attention of the battlefield. In terms of the weapons as a whole, the current balance isn’t exactly balanced right now (that sound you hear is Nintendo preparing to nerf the Sloshing Machine into the ground), but at least non-shooter classes appear to be more viable right now, and that’s a step in the right direction. While not every weapon will click for new players right out of the gate (chargers in particular require a lot of time and patience to master), there’s something for darn near every kind of playstyle available, so you can try things out and see what works best for you.
(Of course, Undercover Brellas remain as meta as ever. 🙂
In terms of other battle modes, all three ranked modes from Splatoon 2 return(plus Clam Blitz, which I still refuse to consider as an actual mode), but the format is a bit different this time around. “Anarchy Battles” (the new name for ranked matches” are split into Open and Series modes: Open matches can be played with teams of friends, but Series matches are strictly solo and demand that you win five matches before you lose three to progress. It’s not quite the Turf-War-esque model that freed you from the anxiety of rank maintenance that I wanted (and the fact that ranks drop automatically every three months doesn’t help matters either), so while this is where the hardcore competitive players will gravitate, I’ll likely stick mostly to Turf Wars as I always have.
One more thing I’ve noticed: There’s a lot more space in the Splatoon 3 hubs and lobbies than in previous games, but right now most of this room feels empty and wasted. The hub world is massive, but many of the explorable paths feel pointless or redundant, and you can get lost in a series of passages to nowhere. The matchmaking lobby is finally playable after two games of staring at a static screen, but it’s just a couple of inflatable bad guys and a stationary robot who can shoot back at you (not to mention an upstairs cafe-like area that doesn’t serve any purpose at all), and by your fifth match you’re just setting your controller down and walking away in from the screen between matches like you always have. It adds more weight to that lack of polish and that feeling that the game is incomplete, and it does so unnecessarily.
Salmon Run falls into the same category as the ink battles: The stages, weapons, and bosses may have changed, but by and large the mode remains the same as in Splatoon 2: You beat down the baddies, you collect the Golden Eggs, you stick them in the basket, and you try to hit your quota within the allotted time. Throwing eggs and using Egg Cannons to launch them towards the basket is a useful addition, and becomes a big plus when you’re stuck with a team that loves to overextend itself (at least they can toss the eggs back now to make them easier to collect). It’s a fun diversion from the adversarial multiplayer modes, and has enough satisfying strategic depth to keep you coming back.
The single-player campaign tries to combine the tutorial gameplay from the Hero Modes of Splatoon and Splatoon 2 with the specialized challenges found in the Octo Expansion DLC, and it mostly succeeds in this regard. Some of the challenges can be frustrating (riding rails with a Slosher is not my idea of a good time) or pointless (so…I just have to cover a giant statue in ink? That’s the whole level?), but this was true of some of the Octo Expansion levels as well, and some of the levels can be super fun (especially ones where you have infinite time with specials like the Zipcaster and Crab Tank, and you can just mess around with them as you bounce across the level). The boss battles I’ve played so far have felt a little tired compared to those found in Splatoon 2, but admittedly I haven’t gotten to the endgame stuff yet, so there may be more secrets in store.
The new game mode here is Tableturf Battles, and while it’s a far, far, far cry from Salmon Run in Splatoon 2, it’s an fun little game that can be a nice change of pace between Ink Battles. Tableturf Battles are turn-based affairs where players play cards that correspond to different shapes, with each shape taking up space on a grid. Generally you can’t play cards that overlap with squares you or your opponent have already covered (there are some exceptions involving “special weapons,” but that’s a longer discussion), and the goal is to cover more squares on the grid with your color than your opponent—you know, just like a turf war! It’s the sort of game that’s just begging for a competitive scene to overanalyze it and put a restrictive meta in place, but at this point it’s just a 1-player game vs. the CPU. It’s a decent idea, but to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, “Senator, you’re no Salmon Run.”
Let’s close by talking about the new customization option that the game provides for players to express themselves. On top of the new hair/eyebrow/pants options (even your little Smallfry Salmonid buddy can sport a fresh hairdo), players can now customize the look of their “splashtags” (name tags with strange titles and varied background) and their “lockers” (a small space where you can stash and arrange all sorts of weapons, cosmetics, and random stuff). It’s all a great idea, and people are putting together some really interesting and intricate designs…but surprisingly, none of these options seems to resonate with me: My splashtag remains the default background and title, and my locker is empty save for a single Undercover Brella (because only the things that matter go in there). The inclusion of the seasonal catalogs is a step towards MLB The Show 22‘s programs, but I’m not sure it’s enough to keep players engaged (especially when the game isn’t terribly up front about what rewards you’re playing for). The custom victory animations flop unexpectedly hard as well: You have to watch the winners dance regardless of if you win or lose (which can be a little tilting after a close loss), and even if you win, sitting through each animation takes forever, and I find myself tapping my foot impatiently and checking my watch like I’m waiting for a Sam Hunt song to end. Much like 75% of Nashville’s output in 2022, there are a lot of people who enjoy these options, but they’re just kind of “meh” to me.
So where does all of this leave us? Honestly, it leaves us in the same place that Splatoon 2 (and the last few Pokémon entries) did: Despite Tableturf Battles being a new mode, it’s not a very expansive one (yet), so we’re left with the same ink battles and salmon running that we’ve all been doing up to this point. If you were happy with this gameplay loop in S2, then you won’t (and shouldn’t) think twice about the $60 price tag, because this is a mechanical fine-tuning of the series that streamlines much of the process (even if the game doesn’t always run smoothly). New players who are curious about the series should probably start with S3 as well, as most of the aggravating wrinkles have been ironed out of the series by now. If Splatoon didn’t appeal to you before, however, there’s nothing in the latest version that grabs you by the collar and demands that you try it out. Splatoon 3 is Splatoon 2 Deluxe at its core, and as long as that’s enough for you, you’ll have fun with the game.
Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about this conclusion. Splatoon has always prided itself on being fresh, but this game feels a little staler than it should. I sunk almost 3,000 hours into Splatoon 2 and even created a few YouTube videos using the game, but the game’s magic really started to fade in 2022 as Nintendo’s release schedule swelled and other standout titles vied for my attention. (As of right now, I would unironically rank Splatoon 3 as my #3 game of the year behind MLB The Show 22 and Triangle Strategy.) After spending so much time racking up stats and hours in S2, I’m just not that enthused about replicating the whole process in S3.
However, if there’s any series that could change my mind about this sort of thing, it’s Splatoon. Like any addiction, every time I think I’ve finally broken free of its grasp, its satisfying, endlessly-replayable game loop reels me right back in. Only time will tell how this game will compare to its short- and long-term competition, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned for the last seven years, it’s to never count out a game or a series that’s this tough.