Ah, so much going on here at the end of dad bod summer (I reject “hot vaxx summer” wholeheartedly). The light at the end of the tunnel can be seen for Broken Cask while we ramp up for a new Heavy Metal Thunder Mouse Kickstarter. I will begin a monthly stream for Beneath Your Feet over at LOTROStream this Tuesday (at 9pm Eastern time, babes). I converted this very blog to WordPress because Blogger can get stuffed. Production is also wrapping up on a new HELMS demo. My creative anxieties seem to exist on this side of the rainbow, and once I’m over it I wonder why I fretted so hard. Oh, I’ve also dumped the HOMES sequel for a more invigorating story. In short, I’ve been busy.
In the midst of all this endeavor, though, I’ve been making time for salmon runs and I want to talk about it.
For you uninitiated in the ways of Grizzco, Salmon Run is the cooperative play mode for Splatoon 2 on Nintendo Switch. Splatoon seems to be Nintendo’s answer to the first-person shooter, and for a long time I treated it as such. An attempt by Nintendo to engage with a tested genre in their own family-friendly milieu; Killer Instinct with the gore removed.
This is not pejorative.
As a parent raising little gamer girls, their safety is important to me. Nintendo, historically, has wanted to keep things clean. They’re like the Disney of the gaming world, with all the positive and negative connotations such a comparison brings. Knowing that, in general, I can trust Nintendo to deliver an experience that is age appropriate is a lot of relief. But it’s not a mandate for me to take their version of a FPS seriously. Until I did.
For, you see, Splatoon is very fun. So fun in fact that I downloaded my own copy on my own Switch (a story for another time) so I could play with the girls and ended up playing on my own a lot. Their basic multiplayer mode, turf war, is so good at what it does that I’ve lost myself many a time to the “just one more” syndrome I’d not struggled with since my days of TF2 or Natural Selection. It’s competitive without being toxic, cute without being sterile. The cheerful, insane design of the squid people and the bright colors of the ink are set in stark contrast to a strangely dark and industrial world. It’s quite nicely done, as one would expect from a worldwide leader in its industry. Beyond the aesthetic, the design captures some of the best elements of a battle pass stained internet, encouraging replayability without punishing the casual.
Beyond the solo campaign and competitive online elements, there is a third game mode, the cooperative Salmon Runs in which our inklings are hired by a carved wooden bear statue to battle walking salmon in order to rob them of their eggs.
Salmon Runs remain true to the core mechanics that make Splatoon unique in a flooded genre: strange weapons blasting ink and players morphing into squids to zip through that ink. The core loop works so well that the entire rest of the game, more or less, works within them. It’s like Mario jumping: there’s not much else to do and there need not be more to do, because there is so much to do inside that basic loop.
So Salmon Runs take that and mess with it. You have a limited pool of weapons that changes daily and instead of battling each other, your “work crew” of four take on three waves of Salmonids and their bosses. The beauty lies in its simplicity. It reminded me (to further date myself) of Left4Dead: four players set against terrible odds. But this is more fun than Left4Dead in part because of the bizarre and lighthearted setting (like someone at Nintendo ate some bad sushi then dreamed of that zombie game), but more because of the variety. You get one stage per day, but that stage changes with the tide. There are only a handful of enemies, but they change with each wave. For what is essentially a mini-game, it works incredibly well and it reminds me what good design is, a lot done with a little.
However it’s not all high end caviar. The Salmon Run has its issues. First and foremost, games are incredibly swingy. By that I mean, within the same game, you may have a breeze of a time splatting Salmonids and taking their precious eggs but then, on another wave, be absolutely trounced by an overabundance of boss characters. You will be completely overrun.
I do not understand why this is. Is each wave completely random? Is it adaptive difficulty gone wrong? Because players can be at varying levels of “employment” perhaps it blends those together in bad ways? There also stands the issue of player skill and participation. If a player drops, you’re going to get wiped. If you have a weak link in your chain (usually myself), then that’s going to effect things drastically as well; each player must pull their own weight.
It’s also partly the nature of cooperative gaming. If it’s too easy, then a game might float on as little-played. The inverse is true as well; too hard and a game is simply demoralizing. I’m reminded of my beloved Lord of the Rings LCG. It’s a triumphant design but, at a certain point, became simply too much for me to play regularly and enjoy (which is why I’m looking forward to Earthborne Rangers, but I digress). The Salmon Run teeters on this edge for me in some kind of beautiful way.
With Splatoon 3 en route, however, I don’t expect any balancing to happen. There’s not else for me to do besides pull up overalls, slide on my rubber gloves, and gather up as many salmon eggs as I can. It’s stolen my attention this long, what’s a few more runs?
Have you tried Salmon Run? Have you ever written off a game as being too childish?