If there’s anything to moan about when it comes to Splatoon 2 – and your options are limited because the ink-flinging shooter sequel is brilliant – it’s that it sees Nintendo eschewing its recent pursuit of genre reinvention. Splatoon was innovative enough, the thinking seems to go, so no room here for anything like Breath of the Wild’s startling take on open-world adventuring, or Arms’ radically new form of fighting – this is all about low-key refinement. Splatoon 2 is very much more of the same, but better.
But there’s one big exception. Salmon Run, Splatoon 2’s new co-op focussed “horde” mode, shows at least some of Nintendo’s new-found spirit of radical reinvention in action. In the run-up to Splatoon 2’s release I didn’t give a sticky squid about Salmon Run, but now I’ve finally had chance to spent some time with it (and by ‘some’, I mean, ‘all the time than Nintendo’s servers would permit’) I think it might actually be my favourite thing about Splatoon 2.
Salmon Run sees Nintendo working its usual reductive magic on a number of familiar shooter tropes, boiling them down to their absolute essence, then carefully building them back up into something brilliant. The end result is a frenzied, wave-based blend of boss rush and horde mode, and the kind of purely cooperative mode that was missing in the original Splatoon. It’s the perfect complement to Splatoon 2’s substantial single-player and competitive multiplayer modes, and gives the sequel a sense of completeness that its predecessor never quite achieved.
Right from the start, Salmon Run feels a little bit different. In favour of the main game’s shiny streets and wanton consumerism is something a little grubbier. It all feels so seedy as you sign up for a minimum wage job with the shadowy mega-corp Grizzco and slap on your waders. And your suspicious twilight activities (not to mention the mode’s freakish aquatic mutant opponents) make it clear that the original Splatoon’s anti-capitalist, pro-environmentalist undercurrent is back in full force.
Salmon Run’s setup is simple: four players (whether friends, or strangers) team up to battle an ever-increasing stampede of bug-eyed fish-things and uniquely designed bosses. Each game lasts a break-neck 5 minutes (assuming you don’t meet an untimely demise first) and is split across three rounds. Your goal each round is to stay alive, collect the golden eggs dropped by defeated bosses, then deposit them at a fixed point on the map in order to meet your quota.
The result is an absolutely furious tug-of-war game of hide and seek, as you hunt out enemies and attempt to hold back the horde, all while ink flies in and enemies amass in increasingly absurd, and sometimes barely comprehensible, quantities.
Right now, Salmon Run has two maps in rotation and each features the same basic structure – a lower surrounding shoreline rising to a central island – with seemingly-minor differences in their size and design. That’s kind of Salmon Run’s constant, brilliant trick though; it’s full of what look like small, insignificant touches that build into a richly strategic whole, without ever obscuring the elegant simplicity at the core.
Once a round begins, enemies and bosses can approach from any direction, and, at first, it’s easy enough to keep control of a map. A handful of opponents will spawn, and your team races over to splat them, summoning assistance with a button press to shout “Over here!” Then it’s a quick trip to the drop-off point to deliver some eggs before you start over. Things escalate quickly though: by round three, grunts are pouring in from all sides, and you’ll likely have four or five bosses roaming the map in unison – if not more, depending on the speed at which you can dispatch.
Salmon Run is frantic to the point of frenzied, managing to elicit the kind of irresistible rapid-fire adrenaline rush that Splatoon’s main multiplayer mode perfected in its original guise. It’s almost impossible to say no to another run-through, what with the brevity of each match, and the unexpected tactical depth that leaves you pondering what would happen if you tried things this way and, oh go on then, just one more go.
A great example of Salmon Run’s brilliantly focussed simplicity comes with the fact that there are no load-outs: instead weapons are randomised per map, and are randomly assigned to different players each round. You might have a splatter gun one turn, and a paint brush the next, and that immediately affects not only your role but your usefulness in each wave.
Crucially, the seven bosses (ranging from a snake-like curtain of paint with a weak spot on its bottom, to a hulking beast that blows paint balloons out of its blowhole) have very distinct methods of defeat, and your assigned weapon won’t always be up to the task. That means you’ll need to understand the intricacies of each weapon in relation to your targets, and, vitally, learn to complement each other as a team.
As with Turf Wars, Salmon Run soon reveals its strategic undercurrent, where lightning-fast observation, on-the-fly strategizing, and speedy implementation are crucial. And, once again, the whole thing is so intuitively designed that communication is barely necessary. After a few games team mates instinctively seem to know when to split into the most practical groups possible, playing to the strengths of their weapons and quickly re-adjusting their approach to help downed teammates or to tackle new threats. It’s immensely satisfying to be part of.
And then there are the randomised environmental changes. They might look like superficial set-dressing but each has a radical effect on the flow of a run, instantly forcing a strategic rethink. Rising tides hem teams into a single central spot, causing mayhem as everyone struggles and jostles to hold off enemies and bosses with only the scantest of room to manoeuvre.
Lowering tides, meanwhile, have the opposite effect. The massively expanded play area makes it much harder to locate bosses efficiently or even drop off eggs. With more ground to cover, you can easily find yourself overrun by opponents. Then there’s visibility reducing fog, or the bizarre night-time turn, which marks a certain player as the target of all incoming enemies, demanding even more co-operation as you work together to shield your unfortunate team mate from harm.
It’s amazing how tactically rich and varied Salmon Run’s streamlined core becomes with a few small design considerations and apparently subtle additions. It’s absurdly exhilarating and does for co-op what Turf Wars did for Splatoon’s competitive mode: it adds an enormous amount of depth where, on the surface at least, there appears to be none, all while staying accessible for everyone.
My only real complaint is that it doesn’t take long to figure out Salmon Run’s seven bosses, or the most effective underlying strategies for victory, meaning that defeat is rare. It’s a mode that would definitely benefit from more variety, and increased difficulty, and hopefully it will enjoy the same amount of post-release attention as the rest of Splatoon 2, with new maps, enemies and challenges incoming.
The other mild niggle is that Salmon Run continues Splatoon’s trend of locking content to a schedule, presumably in an attempt to minimise matchmaking woes. Salmon Run is currently only playable around four days a week, which is deeply frustrating given how enjoyable it is, and, for that matter, how good its rewards are. Each win raises your employee rank, which in turn increases the multiplier applied to your claimable paycheque. Play smartly and you can net thousands of gold.
The good news though is that Salmon Run’s doors are currently open for launch day, so do yourself a favour and ditch the competitive theatrics of Turf Wars for the time being. Sign your soul over to Grizzco, slap on those waders, and enjoy the brilliance of Splatoon's newest addition while you can.