Like a lot of millennial gamers, I was forged in Call of Duty lobbies, for better and, yes, for worse. I spent hours a day playing and trying to get good as fast as I could. As much as the sweaty gameplay excited me, I didn’t (and still don’t) like being bad at things. With that KDR looming over my head I played and played and played to keep it positive. That took a lot of hours. Now that I’m in my thirties, I don’t have the free time to put into shooter lobbies no matter how much I like the gameplay—or at least that’s what I told myself. And then Splatoon 3 was released.
Look, I jumped onto Apex Legends nearly day one. I put literal months into Overwatch. But with pretty much every shooter, if you can’t dedicate enough time to play the balancing between experience levels becomes crushing after about a month. It’s almost impossible to catch up. I just don’t have time for that, so I stopped playing shooters altogether, opting for sim games and, of course, Final Fantasy XIV.
With Splatoon 3’s multiplayer, though, the skill differences don’t come out too strongly so long as you’re keeping out of ranked Anarchy matches. In fact, I find myself getting extremely competitive without really registering any of the bad feelings from getting splatted multiple times before I can leave my base. Weird, I know.
A lot of this has to do with how certain game modes, particularly Turf War, are designed for Splatoon 3 players. The goal of Turf War is simple: paint as much of the map as possible within the allotted time of three minutes. Can you splat other players? Sure. Do you get absolutely fun specials like doing the Akira slide with a shark motorcycle? Absolutely. And of course the game lets you know when you’ve splatted every player of the other team at one time with the words “wipeout’ popping up on the screen. But the goal is still just to paint anything and everything first and foremost. It doesn’t matter if you splat someone 20 times if you didn’t paint your spawn area to ensure a win.
Competitiveness is present throughout the Splatoon 3 multiplayer modes and in Turf War, but it’s wholesome. I feel like I can play with my limited time between projects at work, or for the one hour before bed and not feel like I’ve fallen behind in everything. While the lack of voice chat helps this, the freedom to ignore how many times you get splatted or splat the other players helps reduce a lot of the pressure to get good.
I’m not against getting good. In fact, my personality drives me to it. It’s why I’ve run Hades on Extreme around 30 times when I was just getting back into Final Fantasy XIV. But when you don’t have the time to dedicate to it, well, there is just absolutely no fun involved. While Splatoon 3’s intended audience is largely kids and teens, it’s managed to find a home with adults as well, as you can see in the Splatoon subreddit or even the fact that I have a Discord server with other fellow 30-somethings just to play the game.
The elements of the competitive design in Splatoon 3 that make it appropriate for all ages also make it easy to drop in and drop out for those of us with little time to spare. But none of that sacrifices the intricacies of building your team for a meta or just learning what works best.
Sure, Turf War isn’t focused on splatting (read: killing) the other players, but it does push you to communicate or watch your teammate’s movements and choose weapons that compliment the team. Choosing weapons with high coverage but low damage means that most of the time you won’t win 1v1 battles, and for the opposite, you may not be able to contribute to the actual objective. Building a team that works together is important and something is more easily done when playing with friends.
Nintendo definitely still has work to do in developing online play and stable server connections, but crafting dynamic teams or just running a whole team of aerosprays with endless Akira slide specials can both be fun. And capturing that effortless and mostly wholesome joy in competition is a harder task than you might think. When accomplished it will keep players coming back, even when their time away may feel too overwhelming.
Kate Sánchez is a pop culture journalist and co-founder of But Why Tho? A Geek Community.