In Splatoon 3, the latest in Nintendo’s shooter series, pitched battles are fought with all the gravity of water gun fights between children. Big-eyed cartoon kids in colorful streetwear run into combat in open-air industrial wreckage, firing paint bullets and lobbing ink-filled grenades at the terrain and one another before transforming into floppy squids and back into anthropomorphic form again. They pelt one another with splashes of bright goop, aiming with Nerf-style sniper rifles, pistols, and machine guns. Players explode into nonexistence when soaked through in rival colors and fly back into the fight after a few seconds on the sidelines spent checking the loadout of the person responsible for their defeat.
The format, if not the form, of Splatoon 3 may sound familiar. That’s because it’s a modern shooter, despite being one whose familiar rhythms of lizard-brained action and team tactics are communicated through a brash, bouncy cartoon-pop aesthetic completely unlike the more familiar military theme that dominates the rest of the genre.
From its single-player and cooperative modes to its real highlight—competitive matches that pit color-coded teams against one another to see which side can soak more of the battlefield with their side’s paint—Splatoon includes many of the trappings that might be expected of a Call of Duty multiplayer mode or a Fortnite menu’s wide catalog of character appearance customization options.
The big difference is that Splatoon does away with the realistically modeled assault rifles and emphasis on corporation-friendly branded costumes of those games in favor of stores that unlock more creative fare—like Looney Tunes-style weapons (including a giant paintbrush and bucket) and character attribute-boosting shoes, hats, and tops. (Splatoon, unfortunately, isn’t entirely immune to the allure of brand crossovers. Thankfully, its advertising collaborations are still rare enough to come across as novelties and not cornerstone features whose inclusion dominates the game’s look and feel.)
Like most modern multiplayer shooters, Splatoon 3 keeps its players invested through the intertwined promises that time spent with the game will make them more skilled at shooting enemies and that every match will lead to a steady stream of experience points useful for unlocking new weapons and appearance options. Unlike those games, though, Splatoon is designed to offer constant, surface-level rewards to audiences who aren’t interested in high-stakes competition.
Even on its third entry, the game is constantly energetic, bursting with a kind of margin doodle creativity and childlike desire to simply splash colors on various surfaces. Characters wear mischievous smirks as they bounce through levels flinging paint in every direction, emerging from matches to stroll a hub city modeled after the dense, skyscraper-hedged and neon sign-festooned downtowns of real urban centers.
Per Splatoon’s cheerful post-apocalyptic, post-human oceanic theme, weapons and clothes are bought from stores run by a brawny, talking crab (Mr. Coco’s “Crush Station”) or fashionista jellyfish (Jel La Fleur’s “Man-o’-Wardrobe”). The most committed, highest-level players aren’t decked out in ghillie suits, body armor, or costumes that make them look like Marvel superheroes; in Splatoon, a devoted player might signify their expertise by arriving to battle in a pair of particularly killer sneakers or a sweet hat sold to them by a bipedal nautilus named Gnarly Eddy.