An improvement in nearly every way on one of Nintendo's finest games in years, Splatoon 2 is only let down by a lack of big new ideas.
A couple of years back, there was a struggle to place a label on the original Splatoon. Was Nintendo's colourful Wii U exclusive a shooter or wasn't it? I came away perfectly content with the answer that it was simply a Nintendo game, in the very best definition of the term - something new and exciting and unlike anything else you've played before.
In the time since, it's become clear that Splatoon was a little more than that, too. A pop culture event, for one, with live concerts, tie-in animes and a heady fan fever that set in around its deliriously upbeat fiction. It's bubblegum chaos of the highest order, an infectiously energetic world that's the perfect foil for the three-minute sugar-pop classics that are Splatoon's multiplayer match-ups.
Splatoon also marked the beginning of a shift within Nintendo: it was the first fruit of an emphasis on younger development talent and a newfound willingness to step into the unknown. There's been a spark there ever since - be it in the bold reinvention of Zelda for Breath of the Wild, or the stark brilliance of Arms - that's ushered in something of a new golden age for the company. It's not too much of a leap to ink a line between the success of the Switch and the release of that strange little game a few short years ago.
And so, with some inevitability, Splatoon arrives on the Switch, only now it's not quite so novel. This is a sequel that's remarkably reserved - a work of gentle iteration and refinement rather than one that offers any grand reinvention. Can you blame Nintendo when it got everything down so perfectly first time out? I'm not entirely sure, although it's certainly opened itself up to some criticism.
At the heart of Splatoon 2, then, is the same formula; use your ink to spread delicious globs of colour about a map, diving into pools of the stuff to move around that little bit faster in squid form, or simply shooting it to splat the opposition. That core mechanic is spread beautifully across a variety of modes. There's turf war, the main event, in which two teams of four fight to colour a map. Ranked play introduces more aggressive, focussed variants for multiplayer with modes such as Splat Zones, where you fight to take possession of two marked areas within the map, or Rainmaker, where you're battling to pass an impressively powerful weapon over a line. Finally, there's a fairly generous single-player campaign where you work your way through a series of smartly designed, self-contained levels.
All of which is present and correct for Splatoon 2. You could, through cynical eyes, see this as a mere palette swap, the pink and green that are at the forefront of this sequel taking the place of the orange and blue of the original, but there's more to it than that. Salmon Run, for starters, is an all-new mode: a co-operative blast through a series of escalating challenges that you could call a horde mode, though doing so seems as unfairly reductive as calling the rest of Splatoon a mere online shooter. There's craft and wit here, essentially, that marks it out as something special, whether that's in the design of its seven boss characters or in the environmental conditions that occasionally sweep in to dramatically change the play space. It's more than a mild diversion, which makes it something of a shame that its appearance in online play is going to be restricted to limited time windows.
Also new are a handful of weapon types, many of which confirm that, despite years of relative pacifism, Nintendo's quite the gunsmith. Take the splat dualies, two stubby automatic pistols held in either hand that enable an evasive roll. Your posture as you emerge from that roll is everything, both pistols held out sideways as your knees bend and the fire rate briefly shoots upwards for an extra edge of attitude. Or take the Splat Brella - the real star here - which sees Splatoon take on the shotgun in its own inimitable way: an umbrella that can be deployed as a shield while the handle delivers a formidable punch. It's absolutely exquisite.
Returning Splatoon players can also delight in a handful of quality-of-life improvements, such as an overhauled UI that now allows you to see which weapon other players have equipped. Combine this with the all-new League Battle mode in which you fight alongside friends, and the long-awaited debut of voice chat (a feature only enabled, of course, through the fussiness of Nintendo's mobile phone app, which will launch in tandem with the game this coming Friday) and you've the makings of a more social game than what went before.
This is to be expected, given the more social focus of its host hardware (though this also makes the omission of the original's split-screen mode all the more baffling, it must be noted). Elsewhere, Splatoon 2 acquits itself well on the Switch. The original always felt like it was moulded perfectly to the peculiarities of the Wii U, but this sequel has been just as thoughtfully adapted. Gyro controls - the only way to properly play Splatoon - work brilliantly either handheld or docked, and the map that once sat on the second screen is now a single button press away, with that motion control now allowing you to mark out a teammate to leap to.
Splatoon 2 inherits much of the smartness of its predecessor, then, but it also inherits a handful of its problems. You're still locked to two multiplayer maps every two hours until they work their way out of rotation, a quirk that suited the original when it was short on content, but one that seems overly stubborn now. You still can't quit out of lobbies, you still can't alter your loadout in between rounds, and key features such as saving favourite outfits are still locked out for those who don't own the requisite Amiibo.
They're the same gripes existing players of Splatoon will be familiar with, but they'll also be familiar with the same magic that it weaves. The frantic rhythm of each match, soundtracked by singalong songs and the delightful plop, plop, plop of falling ink. The elaborate game of dress-up that ensues as you venture into Splatoon's meta, visiting the central hub of Inkopolis' shops each day to see what new stock is in store. The feeling that, with its emphasis on fashion and its frenetic bursts of action, no other game has ever captured the candy rush of adolescence so well. If this is your first time with Splatoon, you're in for a serious treat.
So yes, Splatoon 2 is more of the same. It's a lot more of the same, seeing how it folds in all the improvements and additions that were introduced to the original over time and gives returning maps a significant makeover. It's going to be a lot more of the same - with the potential for some new surprises - given how Splatoon 2 is going to benefit from the same steady roll-out of new weapons, maps and modes. By any reasonable measure, this is a better game than its predecessor, and not just on quantity alone. It no longer benefits from the shock of the new - for that, you have to look towards the outstanding Arms - but it's most definitely an improvement on what remains one of Nintendo's finest games in many a year. It was only inevitable, though, that this one was never going to feel quite as fresh.