Editor's note: With the happy news that Splatoon 2 will soon see a one-off rerun of its inaugural Splatfest, here's a look back at why it never got better than ketchup vs mayo. This article was originally published in November 2017.
I could feel it in my roller, the pitter-patter of my squiddoes’ feet as he desperately pushed forwards in the final seconds. Bright red paint was all around but, with the age-old rallying cry of ‘Booyah!’, I snuck round one side of the map and began coating everything in an off-white hue. This was no ordinary match. These were no ordinary colours. I was splatting for the honour of mayonnaise and, like every other user, this time I was playing for keeps.
Becoming the Mayo King is one of my 2017 gaming highlights and, no, I haven't gone condi-mental.
We’ve covered various Splatfests in detail over the year, so I won’t go over everything about how they work again: suffice to say it’s a one-off event, held over a day, that is trailed for a fortnight or so beforehand. It’s this lead-up period that makes the Splatfest special, because the developers have a knack for wonderfully silly match-ups (my favourite in the original game was ‘Art vs Science’) and so the community has a nice window in which to wind each other up.
In other competitive games this may not end up too well but, in Splatoon’s world of splashy bonhomie, everything’s about sly humour and showing off. The main vector for this humour is a small panel displayed above avatars’ heads as they spawn in other players’ squares, and we’ve separately covered the amazing art people end up producing.
It’s hard to describe how much I love this side of Splatoon 2, because while I’m a competitive player I also like to think that I'm not an asshole. I try my hardest and enjoy a bit of humour, win or lose, and conversely hate that whole ‘gg ez’ side of online gaming. By making the Splatfest’s topics so obviously daft, Nintendo somehow neuters the nastier side of the competitive spirit, getting all that pure passion and effort put into good-natured teasing of the other side.
The final flourish here is that, come the Splatfest itself, Nintendo-curated examples of the user art ‘take over’ Inkopolis Square, emblazoned on billboards and glowing neon in the night. “YOU’LL BE MAYOWNED” was just one example, on this occasion, of the little sign that could. And all of this together leads to Splatfest’s real impact: it spreads outside the game.
In the weeks leading up to Ketchup vs Mayo the battleground wasn’t just Inkopolis Square but Twitter, Facebook, and text messages, as each side teased the other about their terrible choice. Online arguments are usually the worst thing in the world but, damn it, Nintendo somehow made them fun.
This outside context in turn drives you back to Splatoon 2. The fact that the Splatfest itself is a mere 24 hours long means that all that big talk has only a little window in which to prove itself. I literally cleared the decks for that Saturday – made sure my partner had the kids (“really important work thing”), got the supplies in, and settled down to splat for the glory of Mayonnaise.
I probably put more hours into Splatoon 2 over Splatfest than, up until that point, I had played total. There are so many delights to it. Everything really kicks off in Inkopolis Square, with Pearl and Marina performing a wonderful tune. In the menus, Splatfest has its own section. You have to wear a t-shirt in your chosen team’s colours, and the ‘ink’ in these matches becomes red ketchup and white mayonnaise.
And then the coup de grace: the title. You begin the splatfest as a 'Mayo Fiend' and, as you play and win games, you rank up in your love for the good stuff. Soon you're a Mayo Defender. Keep at it, squishing those tomato-lovers, and you may become a Mayo Champion. It's easy to write this, of course, and make the transitions seem like nothing – but each of those 'ranks' represents hours of play. Ludicrous as it is, you feel like the game is acknowledging you as a real factor in this Splatfest, like your dedication to the cause is being noticed and respected.
It's an unusual way to play Splatoon 2. Usually I switch it on, have two or three games, then I'm done – that's the beauty of this in the context of other shooters, it feels like a quick fix that gives you all the goodness. I never really have a big session on it. But being a Fiend, then a Defender wasn't enough, even being a Champ didn't slake my thirst for egg and oil. I had to know what lay beyond.
One of the things about a Splatfest is you start to really take care of the basics. Inking spawn comprehensively, watching the map for big pushes, hanging around your team – all the things that your should be doing in real games, but often don't bother to. Just me? OK then. But the point remains, I got serious about it.
As I crept through the ranks and saw my Mayo Champ bar totting up, I knew this would be a special moment. I'd spent so long winding up people on social media about liking ketchup, and had nailed my colours so firmly to the mast that it felt like a necessary proof of commitment. Even if Ketchup won, which was the result I expected, there'd be no questioning my contribution to the Mayo cause.
Problem was, I hit a losing streak. Just as my XP bar was almost tipped over as well. Suddenly my Mayo Champ skills weren't doing the business, and the dastardly red army was rolling us over. The XP bar inched up painfully slowly. After about five games on the bounce, it ticked over.
It was the end of the night, but now I was the Mayo King. There was no question of bed: the reign of creamy pain had begin. I played another five matches as the Mayo King, and couldn't lose: suddenly I was scoring double- and triple-splats, covering entire stretches of arenas solo, and generally lording it with a bit of a swagger. Every game I played as a Mayo King was a win. Coincidence? I think not, Mr Heinz, I think not. I even brought proof.
Was it this kind of performance that tipped the balance? Because against all expectations, when Pearl and Marina came to announce the Splatfest winner – Mayo had romped home.
Some Team Ketchuppers cried 'fake news!' following the close result, claiming that matchmaking had given them nothing but Ketchup vs Ketchup games. Cry me a river squidlings, a red river of fruity tears. I did have a few mirror matches over the course of the Splatfest but the vast majority were kosher, and my ascension to the Mayo King role shows that, no matter what Team Ketchup did, it was always going to get squished.
What impresses me about the Splatfests is how they hook Splatoon 2 into the wider world of the internet and, for a few weeks, give the game an internal focal point. This is unusual. Many games are more or less self-contained, and even their presence on social media or across game sites is unstructured. Splatfests are something different, an event curated around players showing off their art skills and sense of humour as much as their stats. The 'frivolous' opposition at the core is also ingenious, giving people a rallying point but making the overall question so silly that it could never get nasty.
And it makes eight little letters mean so much. I've played in other Splatfests but something about becoming the Mayo King just tickled me, and inspired that extra little bit of commitment. It shows how modern multiplayer games don't have to exist in a vacuum, and can use simple tools to encourage players to share and get involved with each other – as well as engaging in the white-knuckle competitive side.
Even though, by the end, Team Ketchup had eaten quite a few white-knuckle sandwiches. Sorry squiddoes but, all the happy-clappy stuff aside, some condiments really are better than others. And I should know, because I'm the Mayo King.