Online gaming may be dominated by shootouts like "Call of Duty" and "Halo," but they're not exactly family-friendly. It's not just the copious gore; the explosive profanity that passes for trash talk has driven many a parent to unplug the game console.
"Splatoon" (for the Wii U, $59.99) is Nintendo's noble attempt at creating a multiplayer shooter everyone can enjoy. Gone are the graphic headshots and flying body parts. And "Splatoon" doesn't even allow online chat, so if you want to get cursed out by teenagers, you'll probably have to drive over to the mall.
The main attraction of "Splatoon" is its four-versus-four paintball matches. Each player is armed with a paint gun or some other paint-spraying device. The object of each "turf war" isn't to kill your opponents; instead, you and your teammates want to cover most of the arena with your color.
Your character is a lanky human "Inkling," and Nintendo lets you adjust gender, skin color and eye color. Each Inkling can transform into a squid that can swim under any painted surface as long as the squid and the paint are the same color. Switching to squid mode lets you move much more quickly, climb walls and hide from enemies, and the controls are so smooth that it's a blast just to swim around the environment.
It's easy to join an online battle, and I never had to wait more than a minute to find seven other combatants to play with. The matchmaking is a little rough: Even on launch day I found myself facing off against players who had already advanced a dozen levels ahead of my Inkling, and "Splatoon" doesn't try to balance each team's roster between newbies and veterans. So far, you can't create your own team or set up private battles for just you and your friends, though Nintendo has promised such functions for later in the year.
Fans of Nintendo party games like "Mario Kart" and "Super Smash Bros." will also miss the ability to set up offline multiplayer matches with friends in your living room. There is one two-player mode available, but it's a mundane balloon-popping challenge that doesn't capture the frenzy of the online turf wars. "Splatoon" does include a surprisingly meaty single-player adventure with some clever twists, like invisible pathways and expandable platforms.
Still, the heart of "Splatoon" is those three-minute online melees, and they are a blast. Even inexperienced players will feel like they have something to contribute, as long as they can keep their paint guns loaded and avoid the tornadoes of color released by more powerful foes. Even when you lose, you feel energized enough to jump right back into the fray.
"Splatoon" could use more arenas and more varied goals within the online fights. But its lighthearted approach is a refreshing change in a genre that's gotten bogged down in gloomy, kill-or-be-killed hostility. Three stars out of four.