The internet made Splatoon what it is. Obviously, without being able to match up with other inklings from around the globe for online Turf Wars, there wouldn’t be much to Nintendo’s fresh-as-hell reimagining of competitive shooters, but there’s more to it than that. In the months after its release, Splatoon’s community grew into an online fandom, feeding all manner of memes back into the game and spawning inside jokes of its own. Splatoon 2’s hub world is already overflowing with impressive cartoon drawings and minimalist renditions of memes. All of it is created by players around the world and thrown in your face as nigh unavoidable speech bubbles over the heads of the fashionable half-squid, half-teens populating Inkopolis Square. Walking through the crowd to reach clothing shops or access the single-player campaign is like taking a stroll through a weird fish-themed, alternate-reality internet come to life.
It’s easily ignored, but shoving it aside would be to deny a part of the Splatoon experience that’s as endemic as anything the developers included. With its wall-to-wall puns, carefree fashion-forward materialism, and pop-idol hosts, Splatoon’s sense of style and humor was made in the image of the culture that eventually seeped back into it. Aesthetically speaking, it’s one of the hippest, most internet savvy games around, which makes Splatoon 2’s iffy, sometimes stubbornly backward approach to the specifics of online play that much more frustrating.
The core of the game remains largely unchanged from the Wii U original. Your character takes two forms: a human that shoots ink out of various weapons and a squid that can quickly swim through said ink. There’s a short single-player campaign that splits your time between platforming and shooting octopuses across a few dozen levels, each focused on a new obstacle for you to learn and tangle with. Once again, the highlights are the wild boss fights, which pit you against beautifully realized oversized enemies. It’s a fun distraction from the rest of the game, but its focus on fiddly platforming becomes a real drag by the end, especially considering its ill-conceived insistence on limited lives and nailing you with game overs that force you to restart the entire stage.
The real meat of Splatoon 2 is the main multiplayer mode where two teams of four run/swim around an arena trying to cover as much of it with their color ink as possible. It’s as frantic and refreshing as it was in 2015, a brilliant inversion of competitive shooter games that allows people who might not be great at precision aiming to have as much fun and impact as the sharpest of sharpshooters. And it plays even better on the Switch, in any of its configurations, than the comparatively clunky Wii U Gamepad. In fact, I’ve gotten so used to controlling the camera’s Y axis by tilting the Pro Controller, an option I turned off in the original Splatoon, that I’ve found myself instinctively trying to do it in other games.
There was plenty to love about the original, but Nintendo wasn’t really in a position to lean back and declare “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” when making the sequel. It’s such a charming concept and so spectacularly executed that all the niggling problems at the periphery—many that were also present the first time around—start to add up. Beyond the battling, Splatoon is largely about amassing a collection of ink-flinging weapons and stat-boosting clothes, but there’s still no way to switch out your gear between matches or, heaven forbid, use the money you’ve earned to hit up the shops without dropping out of online play entirely and heading back to the square. There’s also no option to back out of a game once you’ve begun searching for one, an annoying oversight that seems at odds with any reasoning the developers might have for forcing you to quit if, say, you want to switch back to your favorite gun after failing to tear up the competition with that sweet new oversized paintbrush. This is one of those small quality-of-life issues players were most vocal about when the first Splatoon released, and while it still isn’t close to being a crippling flaw, the fact that this odd, maligned choice is a problem yet again makes it even more baffling.
There’s been a lot of fuss over Nintendo’s outlandish approach to giving games voice-chat, as in, the Switch isn’t even capable of doing it unless you wire up some arcane combination of smartphone app and headphones. In practice, unless you’re looking to play with friends and don’t want the hassle of setting up your own chat, it’s not exactly something you’ll miss. There are much bigger online missteps here, like the game failing to boot players that disconnect and fill their slot with a new teammate. Instead, as would happen in the original, you get to the end of a match and see a player with a big, fat zero for a score weighing down your crew. Nintendo does have a system in place to punish frequent quitters, but it doesn’t seem to be enough of a deterrent.
Then again, Turf Wars are short and those unbalanced matches, which ineveitably turn into depressing meat grinders, only last for a few minutes. The disconnection problem is a much bigger issue in Splatoon 2’s otherwise excellent new mode Salmon Run, where a missing player is enough to doom a promising hunt. Under the guise of a dubious part-time job where your manager is a talking 3-D-printed bear, it puts four inklings against waves of Salmonoids, bug-eyed fish mutants that erupt from the waters around you murderously waving cooking implements. Throughout every attack, a handful of boss monsters will show up, each a spectacular assemblage of metal and marine life that can wipe out a sloppy team in an instant. Kill one, and it drops several golden salmon eggs. Collect enough of those and you’ll move on to the next round, assuming you survive. From the wacky nautical premise to the designs of the massive, nasty monsters and the mode’s frenetic, frequently difficult fights, it’s a potent distillation of the delightful Splatoon style that’s enough to freshen up a mostly unchanged sequel.
There is a catch. Unless you’ve gathered four Switches and players in the same room, you can only run this excellent new mode at times Nintendo has pre-determined. Try to match up with random online players during the off-season, and you’ll find the Grizzco Industries offices are shuttered. Maybe Nintendo didn’t want Salmon Run siphoning players away from Turf War, or maybe it wasn’t confident enough that people would want to play it without doing something to make each Salmon Run session “feel special.” Whatever the reason, it’s an unwarranted restriction that sandbags the sequel’s biggest and best change.
It’s also indicative of the game’s bizarre love-hate relationship with the internet. Splatoon continues to be Nintendo’s most vibrant series, and this steadfast sequel ensures the wider audience of the Switch will be able to get their hands on it. This is a game that draws so much inspiration from the vitality and spirit of connected culture, and it does so in such a real, genuine way. Seeing it continue to fumble with these tiny annoyances, many of which are seemingly owed to Nintendo’s continued inability to really figure out online gaming, is dispiriting. They by no means ruin an important, unique take on multiplayer, but they’re getting harder to forgive.