Nintendo's trickiest game in years is also one of its most joyful.
I will be honest: my worry, for the first few hours, is that Octo Expansion, the new single-player DLC for Splatoon 2, was going to be Splatoon 2: The Lost Levels. As in Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels.
The Lost Levels are great - on paper, at least. In reality, though, they are kind of annoying. I loved them when I first played them, but that's because they were so hard to get hold of for a while. Imagine, a sort of pseudo-sequel to Super Mario Bros with a handful of new gimmicks: poison mushrooms, wind that has to be factored in to platforming. Just one glimpse of that poison mushroom in an old Mean Machines would have been enough to send me into sweet delirium. Games used to be like this: a thing of rumours and blurred photographs.
With the benefit of time, let me announce my final position on The Lost Levels. They are a thrill to think about, but a chore and a bore to play. Poison mushrooms are the chance for something bad to happen in a game that previously thrummed with the potential that something good might happen. And that wind? That wind picks up out of nowhere and messes your jumps - jumps which you have planned and executed perfectly, because this is Super Mario Bros, and its world always used to make sense, always used to be reliable. The Lost Levels introduce an element of unreliability. It's not that they're hard. It's that they're jerks about it.
Anyway, the Octo Expansion is hard. It's 80 challenge levels of hard, according to someone who has counted this stuff, in which you play Splatoon 2 in a way you have likely never played it before. You are cast as an Octoling who finds themselves buried deep beneath Inkopolis, lost on some kind of hellish transit system where each station on the underground contains a test chamber that must be completed. Work your way through enough test chambers and you may locate the four doohickeys that open up the path back to the surface.
The rewards are extravagant: new Splatoon gear to be unlocked and, upon victory, the chance to play Splatoon 2 as an Octoling instead of an Inkling. More than that, though, there is the hope that the Octo Expansion's charmingly barmy story will start to make sense, that the aesthetic nods from The Matrix will converge with chirpy talking telephones and a palpable sense of dread and claustrophobia. Dread and claustrophobia are not Splatoon staples, are they? No matter, the textural stuff here is as wonderful as it is weird. You ride between stations in an underground train that steadily fills up with bizarre creatures, and the wider structure of the whole thing is a triumph: it is a delight to slowly explore a tube map, to see one station acting as a node that joins various lines together. It's such a lovely idea to have four things scattered across an area whose map you uncover by exploring it. And to cap it all, you get an end-game of... well. Let's get to that.
All of this is great, but at first I found the moment-to-moment realities of the Octo Expansion so crushingly difficult that I worried I wasn't going to get to enjoy most of it. Remember, of course, that the primary cliche around difficulty is that your mileage may vary. At the very least, I found, for my first hour or so, that it turns out I had never been a particularly good Splatoon player in the first place - a back-up guy by nature, happy to paint the floor with a big roller while my more talented squadmates used the fancier, more precise parts of the arsenal.
In Octo Expansion, you have to use it all - and you have to use it all well. Almost every gadget, it feels, gets its own test chamber, from the slosher - a bucket of paint in old money - that must be wielded at one instance with a great and unlikely accuracy to take out enemies without taking out the ground beneath them, to the baller, which is no longer simply a rolling smart bomb and instead must be teased through lengthy and complicated gauntlets, endless drops on either side.
The Octo Expansion is big on endless drops. It wants you to run out of ground, to be pushed off ledges, to fail to nail the landings in a hundred different ways. This is part of why I started to worry I was playing an update of The Lost Levels. If Splatoon 2 was suddenly this difficult, mustn't it have gotten to this point by also being a jerk as well?
In truth, once I calmed down, stepped back from the controller and spoke, as Pynchon once put it, the name of god, I returned to find a game that is challenging only because it demands so much from the player. If you are willing to put the time in, the Octo Expansion will make you realise you can do things you had never imagined.
Each test chamber is, essentially, the equivalent of a shrine from Zelda: it will take a gadget from the game - or maybe the gadget of having no gadget - and put it through its paces as a single idea gets presented, subverted, flipped inside-out and often quite gleefully mangled. Repetition intrudes only in the sense that the same basic objects come back occasionally. A few chambers will have you using a gun to push a huge 8 ball from a starting point to a finish line, for example, but the things you will actually do en route will be very different each time.
Man, there are glorious ideas in here. In one level I used a baller to weave my way up a tilted platform, ducking incoming waves of enemy torpedos. In another I rode rails as they looped from one Robotron-style battle arena to the next. My favourite level involved those roll-up bracelet things that start as a little plank of plastic until a kid snaps them around their wrist and they become jewelry. Those things! They were suddenly scaled up vast and studded around the landscape. I would shoot them to unfurl them, and then I would have to paint them and ride the paint before they snapped back into their original shape. Such moments are fiercely - fiercely what? - fiercely kinetic and inventive and tactile. As with the best Nintendo games, they test the very limits of the mechanics - and in Splatoon that is particularly promising, since this is a game that threads weapons and traversal and territory together into one great plait - while also ransacking the nursery, the school yard, the toy store for props you already love, that you instantly recognise, that you had simply never considered on this scale and in this alignment.
Okay, on occasion, the Octo Expansion is a total jerk. With a slight hand tremor I simply could not get to grips with a level where I had to dig specific shapes out of a pile of explosive crates, one splash of ink at a time. Anything that required really precision jumps - a bound into the abyss, erupting from the ink and then landing on my feet - was a recipe for frustration. But in both these cases, I am willing to concede that these are things that I personally struggle with. And in both cases I was never blinded to the creativity that lurked at the heart of the challenge. That's it, really: even when Splatoon 2 is being a jerk, it's still being Splatoon 2 underneath it all, which means that there's always a kernel of joy in there somewhere.
It's unusual, perhaps, to see a Nintendo game kick off with such difficult challenges and only get more difficult from there. But the Octo Expansion balances it all with a fairly generous unlock system. Bad as I was, I never ran so low on in-game tokens that I couldn't pay to bypass a stage I had already failed twice - and on bypassing the stage you get a load more tokens anyway. Beyond that, it is generous in far more typical Nintendo ways. The final run of levels - it includes a truly inspired spin on the old Hole in the Wall TV game show - is as good a platforming spell as anything in Mario, and the whole thing builds to a crescendo that pretty much redefines fan service.
Along the way, there are tokens to collect of various kinds, all of which can be cashed in for sweet unlocks you can use back in the main game. And once it's done, the main game is still waiting for you. Six or seven hours after I started, I emerged back into Inkopolis Square with a bunch of new skills, a bunch of new clothing items, Octoling options and the pleasant discovery that I was just in time to learn about the next Splatfest. So, pulp or no pulp in orange juice. What's it going to be?