Splatoon's Splatfests are One of Gaming's Greatest Splectacles

By Matt Wales on at

Just over a year ago today, I was a sad squid because Nintendo had announced the last ever Splatfest for Splatoon on Wii U. Little did I know that, almost exactly one year later, both would be back in major way with the release of Splatoon 2 on Switch. In fact Splatfests will return in less than 24 hours from now, a week before Splatoon 2’s full release—and everyone with a Switch can join in for free. And you should, because Splatfests are one of the most wonderful things in video gaming.

Of course, if you’re an old Splatoon hand, none of this will be news to you: you’ll know what’s in store and you’ll almost certainly be back for more tomorrow. For the newcomers, or those resistant to the idea of Splatoon, however, I’m here to sing its praises and try and convince you to join in the fun.

One of Splatoon's greatest strengths is that it kind of feels like an anti-shooter: despite its aggressive, gun-based focus, it still finds a way to encourage everyone to join in and get along. Accessibility and inclusivity are baked into Splatoon’s core; recognising that aggression isn’t necessarily everybody’s cup of tea, Nintendo smartly shifted the game's focus away from pure slaughter, turning each tug-of-war match into a furious typhoon of ink-sloshing and exhilarating paint-sliding.

Importantly, the amount of ink a team splatters is just as important as their kill count (or at least, Splatoon's non-fatal equivalent) when the final scores are tallied. In other words those with less of an aggressive streak, who don’t fancy the idea of close-quarters mayhem, still have a crucial place in matches. So if you’ve resisted Splatoon because you’re scared that your shooting skills aren’t up to scratch, it really isn't a reason to avoid diving in.

Splatoon is an eminently friendly shooter, but Splatfests take that inherent camaraderie and community to a whole other level. Assuming that Splatoon 2 follows the same pattern as its predecessor, once a month its endearingly bizarre world of Shibuya fashion and marine life will explode in a neon-lit, night-time festival-like extravaganza of lights, lasers, and good-natured competition. Frantic battling has never felt so welcoming.

For those new to Splatfest, a quick bit of explanation: in the week leading up to the event, everyone is invited to vote on a fairly benign topic - cats or dogs, for example, or rock versus pop, or in the case of tomorrow’s Splatfest, cake or ice cream. By picking a side, you’re basically affixing your allegiance to one of two teams. It’s supremely daft but, by hinging your involvement on a specific choice, Splatfests feels personal, and there’s a wonderful sense of unity as teams work together to champion their own particular side.

The real brilliance, though, comes with Splatoon’s doodle feature. This returns in Splatoon 2 and is the perfect, creative way to express your camaraderie and fly those team colours. As you’ll probably have already noticed, if you’ve dropped into Splatoon 2’s plaza in the demo, those silly drawings (“The cake is a lie” / “ice cream sucks”) help produce a palpable sense of community and competition, and it’s just so exciting. With a few simple choices and tools, Nintendo has found a way to direct players’ passion into something positive — which you don’t see too often in shooters.

And then there’s the whole pageantry of Splatfests which just makes things even more thrilling. During the week leading up to a Splatfest, as keen-eyed players will have already noticed, the bustling, blue-skied city plaza that serves as the game’s central hub undergoes increasingly dramatic changes. While players are proudly boasting their allegiances with team-specific T-shirts, scaffolding is erected, bollards are removed, and signs appear, all ready for the big festival day. It’s an absolute masterclass in building excitement and generating a sense of occasion.

Of course, all this build-up would be for nought if Nintendo’s fluffed the landing, but Splatfests are quite unlike anything else I’ve seen in games. The big event is an event: night falls and the plaza bursts to life, neon lights and lasers blazing through the darkness as fireworks illuminate the sky. Meanwhile, J-pop anthems fill the air as our energetic hosts (Pearl and Marina in Splatoon 2) entertain the enthusiastically gyrating crowd, making it feel like a real celebration.

Then you get the pièce de résistance: all those cute bits of artwork that teams have been lovingly generating all week in order to cheer on their team or gently mock the opposition are bought to life in eye searing neon, plastered across buildings, or projected onto the skyline. It’s the perfect final touch to drive the crowds wild.

And even the game’s maps undergo a major transformation, each one plunged into darkness and studded with a thousand twinkling lights as the game’s already incredible soundtrack unleashes furious J-pop remixes on participants in a bid to whip players into a frenzy. And if you don’t mind spoilers, you can hear Splatoon 2’s absurdly catchy new Splatfest battle anthem above. It’s no wonder that, with that pounding, perpetual beat constantly ratcheting up the excitement, people truly bring their A-game to Splatfests.

When I last wrote about Splatfests, in a slighter sadder, more reflective time, I said, “If you’re ever struggling to define that oft-referred-to ‘Nintendo difference’, perhaps Splatoon offers the best example of all. Take a genre known for its elitism, aggression and depressingly frequent displays of prejudice and then, with a few wonderfully insightful tweaks, turn it into a celebration of inclusivity, camaraderie and community.”

I worried that last year's event would be the final Splatfest for a long while. At the time I put on a brave face and said the biggest party was yet to come. It's a surprise and a delight, for once, to be proven right.

Splatoon 2: Splatfest World Premiere event starts at 5pm tomorrow, and you can download the demo you'll need to join in on the eShop now.