Although we recognise the company for the insane quality and quantity of its output over 30+ years, the company has sometimes struggled to connect with the hardcore market. Ever since the launch of the Wii, Nintendo has considered casual players as a key part of its business strategy; they are and forever will be a part of Nintendo’s future plans and this is fine. I bought Brain Age and Nintendogs back in the day. (I won’t be buying the next instalment but more power to Nintendo for continuing to provide those experiences for those who are willing to pay for them.)
How was I ever convinced to buy a game about maths? Fool me once, Nintendo.
We have the inverse of this for games like Bayonetta and Fast RMX; these games certainly won’t pull in the casual crowd, but kudos to Nintendo for producing the games and getting them out for those like myself who do want them
Yes Nintendo, thank you Nintendo.
So it seems like Nintendo has all bases covered this generation- casual games for casual gamers and hardecore games for hardcore games- good for them! However this specific dilemma doesn’t really affect these games. They have their markets and Nintendo can budget and plan accordingly. The games that do struggle with this dilemma are Nintendo’s flagship releases; the Mario’s, the Zelda’s, the Mario Karts. These games don’t just regularly sell upwards of ten million copies per release, Nintendo NEEDS them to. Which means these games need to cater to both audiences.
The dilemma is; how does Nintendo do that? These games need to appeal to hardcore gamers who desire a gameplay experience with depth and a feeling of growth and progression over time. At the same time these games also need to be picked up by casual gamers, who play games as a brief diversion and wish to be entertained for perhaps only five or ten minutes. If they spend those five or ten minutes constantly dying or failing a mission, or otherwise not enjoying themselves, then they’re less likely to play the game in the future, or worse, not buy the next instalment.
You sure have your work cut out for you each time you have a new game, Mario.
Nintendo is constantly iterating on their franchises; chasing trends, adding innovateive new features or even taking steps back from one instalment in a series to another. This means we can investigate how Nintendo is able to handle that tight-rope walk of pleasing two audiences. We can do this with many franchises (and I will in future articles- the Smash Bros games, Mario kart games and Super Mario Odyssey are all on the chopping block,) but the franchise I want to look at first is Nintendo’s cool online shooter Splatoon.
I want to look at Splatoon first because it is one of Nintendo’s most recent IP’s and as such it is very easy to see the adjustments that have been made in just one iteration. Which knobs have been turned? Which settings have been tweaked? And how did these changes alter the game from feeling like a party-oriented shooter to feeling like a more competitive, e-sports styled affair?
And were these changes a good thing?
I’m not going to go into every detail about the changes made between Splatoon 1(S1) and Splatoon 2 (S2), but I will explain the key changes that fundamentally changed the experience from being a party shooter to a competitive shooter.
S1, being a party shooter, wanted its players to get to the fun quickly. It offered up a frenetic, unpredictable experience punctuated by moments of bombastic spectacle that would dramatically change the dynamics of the battle for a brief period of time. These kinds of experiences emphasise the moment to moment gameplay rather than the over arching narrative- whether you win or lose. Of course winning and losing is still very important and an integral part of the experience, but the emphasis was on individual fun. Matches in Splatoon 1 were filled with Hail Mary moments and instances of people either getting out of pinches or wiping out the entire enemy team thanks to their ultimate moves that were, quite frankly, horrendously overpowered.
Exhibit A: This thing.
Take for example the Bubble Shield shown above. This special attack was charged, once charged, would make you invincible for a short while. If you bumped into allies whilst it was active, they would also receive the shield, creating some nice moments of cooperative play if you were to coordinate with your teammates.
This shield came with no drawbacks; you could still fire your weapon and your movement was not impeded. The developed literally made no effort to counterbalance the invulnerability you now had, meaning that- for around ten seconds- you had carte blanch to go anywhere, paint everything and try to kill everyone in sight with absolute impunity.
I mean, what is even going on here? Are we winning!?
In any other competitive shooter, fans would be screaming from the rafters about how this ultimate was totally unfair and overpowered. But S1 was not a competitive shooter. It was a party game first and foremost, and the only one if its kind.
And if you think that the Bubble Shield is overpowered, wait until you get a load of The Kraken.
This is a special that also makes you invincible and puts you in squid form, except now you can move just as quickly through your opponents’ ink as your own, and your melee attack one-hit kills everything.
An artist's representation of just how F'd you are if you run into one of these.
Again, a nightmare to deal with and totally unbalanced in a competitive game. But in a game that prioritises huge swings and moments of intense fervour, items like this were the catalyst that got players jumping out of their seats and either fist pumping the air or cursing at the TV.
And it is important to note that losing in Splatoon 1 never hurt too much because everyone knows how quickly matches can swing. Everyone playing the game knew that you could win or lose the game in the last ten seconds. When games are ‘unbalanced’ like this, you can chalk up a loss to just the luck of the draw. These special abilities can level the playing field between pro and noob, much like the Blue Shells does in Mario Kart. It’s easy to jump back in, win or lose, because you’re not chasing the win, you're chasing the next big moment. In the next round, it might be you popping off your special at the perfect time, wreaking utter devastation on your opponents or saving all your teammates; changing the tide of battle and flipping the round on its head.
Talk about clinching the win!
This balls to the wall attitude was also carried over into the maps as well. Although symmetrical, areas in which battles took place were varied and large. Each level would also feature a gimmick that allowed you to make the most of the movement options available to you as a quid-kid. The levels were narrow with a lot of verticality, essentially funnelling you into confrontation and battling for the high ground.
I personally loved Blackbelly Skatepark, a level based on a skatepark which allowed it to create some awesomely diegetic verticality. There was also a bird’s nest in the centre of the level which was constantly under siege as that position was so tactically advantageous.
Look how awesome this place looks. You could actually skate here!
I also loved Moray Towers’ long winding paths which lead down into an arena. You had the high ground as you battled towards that mid-point, but as you pushed beyond it you had to climb up into your opponent’s territory; stripping you of the advantage and handing it right over to them.
This is to say nothing of the more outlandish level designs below, whose maps don’t really do them justice.
All this is to say that, if you want to play a game that provides low stakes fun with friends or strangers with insanely high peaks and troughs in it gameplay loop, then Splatoon is more than happy to offer up that experience.
That is not the experience Splatoon 2 offers up.
A leaner, meaner game with a more subversive presentation than its predecessor.
It really is interesting to see how an experience can be tweaked around the fringes to provide an altogether different experience. Sure, Splatoon 2 still has you painting the arena, swimming in your ink and blowing away your opponents. But the way in which you do so now is so much more tempered that it allows another style of play to shine through over the bombast of the original.
In Splatoon 2 Nintendo saw- rather smartly- their killer app for competitive gamers. It’s no secret that online FPS games naturally cultivate a competitive spirit, with games like CS:GO and Halo before it showing that a finely tuned game can generate revenue streams beyond game sales but also as a spectator sport.
I had no idea this promotion had happened before I chose to reference these two IP's.
Whether or not Nintendo had plans like these in mind for Splatoon 2, the games listed above and others like them nevertheless had an impact on the franchise's direction. You can see it in all the promotional materials leading up to Splatoon 2’s release.
These people ain't playin' no games.
However, Splatoon needed to evolve if it was ever going to be taken seriously by the e-sports crowd. And evolve it did.
The first thing to be changed in S2 were those bombastic ultimate attacks. Players still have them, but now there are a greater variety of them and many of the ones that were based of the ultimates in S1 were heavily nerfed so that the scales of battle were never tipped so dramatically during a match.
A rundown of all the various specials in Splatoon and Splatoon 2. Notice that Splatoon 2 has almost double.
Take for example the Ink Armour in S2. This is basically the replacement of the Bubble Shield and it has been tweaked in several meaningful ways. It no longer makes you invincible, but instead protects you from one or two potentially lethal attacks. After that, it’s gone.
To make up for it though, all your teammates get the armour too regardless of whether they’re near you or not, making it a much more team-oriented power up. And yet, even with this boost, no one team is ever overpowered you to the point of ruining the competition. You can still die moments after launching Ink Armour, and you can die before it’s even activated (activating your ultimate causes you to perform a 1-2 second animation during which you’re completely vulnerable and open to attack.)
What this means is that teams won’t have all their hard work undone by one stray power up that totally goes against the flow of battle, and this lets players become more invested in the match and make wins and losses feel more earned.
Specials still have the power to change the flow of a game, but now they must be executed with much more precision and skill, maintaining the idea that a successful special pop was earned and took skill to pull off.
Thanks to this players are now able to take Splatoon more seriously and not feel cheated if they lose. Instead they have to accept it and the weight that comes with it. These changes allow people to grow further as players and hone their skills without having the rug pulled out from under them during a match, creating a much more balanced, competitive friendly experience.
And the Kraken? He’s frickin’ GONE.
Nope. No kraken. Sorry.
This idea of streamlining and balancing flows into the level designs too. Whereas arenas in S1 feel like riding a rollercoaster, maps in S2 feel smaller and are structured more like actual arenas designed for competition, and as such are wider and easier to navigate, with more opportunities to flank and coordinate with your team.
Two completely different maps in Splatoon 2. Fine tuned for some serious splatting!
As you can see there is a lot less going on in these maps. This is so people can get to splatting (i.e. killing) each other as quickly as possible, which is fine- splatting an opponent takes them out of the game for a short time and causes them to respawn at their end of the map, giving you time to paint in peace. However, with this change the emphasis of play has shifted to become slightly more aggressive. In S2 it’s a little less about painting as much of the area as possible and a little more about engaging with the enemy.
And that sums up Splatoon 2. It’s a game with its eye on the hardcore gamer, with an experience crafted to cater to them.
I haven't gone ito other aspects such as the perk system in either game, but believe me when I say this shaving off of Splatoon 1's rough edges has also occurred there too.
I feel like Splatoon 1 and Splatoon 2 are basically battling for the franchise’s heart, and sales numbers and critical reception will probably decide how Nintendo tackle the next instalment.
But right now what we are left with are two very different interpretations of the same foundation. Both games have notable strengths over the other and that makes choosing a favourite hard. One thing I want to make clear is that the strength of one game is not the weakness of the other; in order to cater games to certain audiences some aspects of play need to be emphasised and some need to be downplayed.
So in the end, deciding on which game is the better of the two comes down to personal taste, which I think speaks volumes of the insane quality of both games and to the craftmanship at Nintendo to be able to create the same game for two different audiences and not let standards drop.
That may be a cop out but I think that it's also fair...
...But, gun to my head, I'd have to go with Splatoon 1. Ilive for the moments like those I described above when talking about S1. Also because, whenever I decide to play a game 'competitively', I ultimately end up in tears for me, languishing in mediocrity; whether it be plateauing at Diamond 1 Rocket League, or suffering a B- rank in Splatoon 1 and 2. At least with Splatoon 1, I could use my specials to sometimes snap victory from the jaws of defeat and kid myself that I am the best player in the world, if only for a moment.
The best player in the world, all thanks to a luckily-timed special.