I am a staunch believer that when it comes to these first-party Nintendo installments, and especially for a series as cautiously iterative as Splatoon, there should only ever be one per console generation.
One needs to look no further than the head-spinning gluttony that Mario Party in the GCN/Wii era represented to peer into the alternative. This was a time when work on that series was always ongoing, and each release represented more of a "volume" of minigames than they did an individual landmark innovation, but more importantly, it was a time in Nintendo hardware when getting these updates into consumer's hands necessitated a new physical print. These days though? Not so much. At a time when Mario Kart 8 Deluxe updates are reaching all around the world and the game has doubled in size, I can't help but find myself comparing the two strategies and wondering to myself why I just paid another $80 to play Flounder Heights and Mahi Mahi Resort under a whole new numbered entry instead of simply enjoying them as additions to an existing and cared-for foundation.
Now before I proceed any further, it's worth examining what got us up to this point.
Splatoon 2's multiplayer infrastructure used a system called NEX, a technology whose origins go back nearly 20 years and include functions for Windows 98. Since then, Nintendo has finally overhauled this with a new solution: NPLN. This, to me, seems to be the true reason for the jump from 2 to 3; Retrofitting the old game simply wasn't feasible. While I don't think that's an explanation players should be asked to swallow, it is inarguable that the results have shown their merit. Splatoon 3's multiplayer is the best the series has seen. I am shocked to say that the lobby system in that game is something I look forward to using, rather than something I would always have to enjoy my way around in former entries. In this goal, Splatoon 3 has justified itself with flying yellow/blue colors.
What remains unanswered to me, however, is why larger gameplay additions couldn't have been heralded along with this. Throughout the marketing blitz leading up to the game's release, I kept waiting for that "something" that'd jump out at me to make the game feel "new". At the Splatoon 3 Direct, I thought that I finally saw that answer: The Squid Surge and the Squid Roll. Splatoon as a series has always defined itself by its movement, and on paper these felt like they could be significant additions that meaningfully shook things up. In practice though? I rarely find myself using them. They might make a difference in some tight situations but my experience does not feel shifted in any way by their presence. So, okay, If they don't want to touch the movement too much, maybe they can touch the rules. Are there any new gamemodes? Nope. Turf War is still the only casual option, every Ranked mode is a returning one, and Salmon Run is still their only side-mode. All of this was in Splatoon 2! And all they have to show for it is a card game that I still refuse to touch.
And yet for as bitter as all of this sounds, would you believe me if I said this is the part of the game I actually found myself enjoying the most?
That's right, it's time to get into Hero Mode.
The history of Splatoon singleplayer campaigns started off with a bang. If you were around in the 2015 Nintendosphere, it seemed unanimous that the original game's campaign was gloriously-designed, especially when it came to the final boss. Still, it didn't take long for this shining star to lose its lustre. By 2017, with the release of the second game, discussion felt just as unanimous that the level design felt uninspired, repetitive, and forgettable. Even the final boss, which was once a crown jewel, was regarded as a snoozer. So imagine everyone's surprise when a year later, the Octo Expansion came along and blew the world away. Here was a campaign with playable Octolings, really punchy writing, and a freer mission structure than ever before! This is the narrative that has metastasized into canon about the series, but I'm here to tell you the secret nobody else will: All of these campaigns are about the same. Not that they're bad, or even average, but that the quality has pretty much always been around a 7 or an 8 and not really wavered as dramatically as folks might have you believe. Yet, in my eyes, Return of the Mammalians commits the one sin that every past Hero Mode made sure to avoid: It lost the sense of surprise. There are only two new assets across the entire campaign: Ink Wheels and Soaker Blocks. Every single other asset is reused. Some stages might introduce a new objective, like an especially-cheeky volleyball challenge which I enjoyed, but on the whole even the majority of these are rehashed from Octo Expansion. The way in which the entire game's ending subverts its own structure in the exact beat-for-beat nature that Octo Expansion does, however, is perhaps RotM's greatest insult. Not even this could stay sacred for long.
The story, I'm afraid, is an even grander disappointment.
The Splatoon series has a terribly-kept secret: It is post-apocalyptic. The world of the Inklings and Octolings takes place 10,000 years after climate change and war destroyed humanity. Up until this point, this information only ever communicated through optional collectibles and secrets, but never something to be directly confronted as the subject of the story, until now. The world of Alterna has the squids interacting with the ruins of humanity in a more direct manner than ever before. Unfortunately, while each island is reasonably thematically compelling, it never seems to be what anybody wants to talk about. Instead, the squids are concerned with "finding Gramps" or fighting over treasure, the typical Saturday-morning fare these story modes usually entail. It feels like the game is desperate to reach for something loftier than it ever has, but nobody in the story is allowed to regard it that way. Only at the very end of the story does a mammal return, and it is the most embarrassing sequence the series has ever seen. It took three games of buildup to get to this point and it fizzles out so spectacularly it leaves me completely scratching my head as to what the series could possibly have left to explore at this point. This was their one chance to do something a little more special than usual and they completely dropped the ball. With the promise of a fifth campaign on the way in the form of another expansion pass in the future, we'll see where things are a year from now, but the suggestion that it'll be centered around Pearl and Marina AGAIN does not inspire confidence that this is an issue that they'll fix.
Coming into Splatoon 3, I was expecting two things: To be underwhelmed by the multiplayer, and impressed by the singleplayer. As it turns out, what I got was the complete opposite, and yet all the same still not enough.
All around me my friends talk about this game as though it seems to have followed through and delivered on its promises in exactly the way I had been unsure of all this time, yet despite the fact that I bought Splatoon 2 physically and Splatoon 3 digitally, (meaning it should be easier for me to fire this up and spend more time with it with more ease than ever before) I find nothing compelling me to spend a significant amount of time with this game now that I've taken a cursory stroll around everything it has to offer. We'll see how I feel in another two years when this game receives more updates but if it's anything like Splatoon 2's update cycle I feel like these are already pretty much my final thoughts.
TL;DR: The best Splatoon game yet, but as the series matures, 'the best' iteration of a 2015 formula still isn't enough in 2022.