Masahiro Sakurai, the creative mind and director behind Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, has gone on record to say that it’s a miracle this iteration of Super Smash Bros. exists in the first place. After pouring dozens and dozens of hours into Ultimate, I can grasp what Sakurai meant. There’s a reason this Super Smash Bros. game lives up to its namesake.
Looking back ten years ago when Super Smash Bros. Brawl released on the Nintendo Wii, I was quite astounded by the amount of content jam-packed onto that disc, albeit with gameplay that wasn’t on par with that of Super Smash Bros. Melee. Nevertheless, I had to ask myself how Nintendo was going to top this? Then Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS launched last generation, and my expectations were again surpassed. With 58 playable characters and eight-player Smash, this game felt like a dream. How is Nintendo going to top this? How nearsighted I was.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate boasts 74 playable characters (with more coming via DLC), 108 stages, a single player adventure mode that will take up a satisfying couple dozen hours, practically 1,300 Spirits to collect and buff, over 1,000 musical tracks, it’s (once again) astounding. Simply put, in a day and age in the gaming industry where several iconic developers and publishers release an incomplete game that’s broken from the get-go, it’s so humbling to know that Ultimate is a labor of love and DLC is merely an afterthought rather than the rule.
With that in mind, progression in Ultimate is consistently at an all-time high. One of the most notable key features of every Super Smash Bros. game is the acquisition of new fighters to add to your expanding roster. Never before in the series has each “Challenger Approaching” alarm been so satisfying. That’s because the roster of 74 characters is dialed way back to only eight characters available from the start — the same eight characters from the original Nintendo 64 game. You are tasked to unlock the remaining 60+ characters at whatever pace you wish. I recall the first character I unlocked was the Inkling. I instantly took to Twitter in my excitement and asked the community if they unlocked the same character first. To my surprise, I saw that other players were unlocking characters at random. I became so enamored with the fact that my progression in Ultimate is uniquely catered to me.
Newcomers to the series include King K. Rool from Donkey Kong Country, Simon Belmont from the Castlevania series, and Isabelle from Animal Crossing: New Leaf. There are also new “Echo” fighters that possess slight variations from their established counterparts such as Dark Samus, Daisy, and Chrom. Each new face feels in keeping with their character’s history across the years. Simon Belmont is faithfully recreated in 3D but still possesses his 8-bit counterpart’s walk animation and that slight delay right before cracking his whip. King K. Rool’s mannerisms are exactly as I imagined they would be: hilarious and crafty; indicative of his comical prowess across the Donkey Kong Country Trilogy.
To say I was rusty when I first picked up the controller would be an understatement, but before long I was getting the ebb and flow of the Smash mentality down pat. Super Smash Bros. has always been a series where you can pick up a controller and start playing without giving a second thought to chaining button prompts together nor wiggling the analog stick to and fro. More experienced or competitive players will no doubt notice changes in some individual characters both minor and profound, but it comes with the territory of a new Smash game. For instance, I enjoy playing as Samus, and I knew she’d be available from the start. I noticed she got heavier in “feel,” migrating from Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, and I was getting pounded even in the Classic Mode’s medium difficulty setting. Yet, like awakening a dormant muscle, adjusting to the change in physics happens sooner than you think.
In writing this review I realize I’m impressed with how quickly I was able to adopt the finer intricacies of Ultimate. That is to say elements such as dodging, shielding, chaining together combos, mid-air movement, and guarding the edge of a stage (to prevent an opponent’s return to the fight) grew more intense over time. That’s a testament to the game’s prowess. I’m not just playing matches with the CPU, button mashing and hoping for the best. No, the game is teaching me to bide my time and to observe when to make the right move, oft in moments when you’re a hair away from being KO’d only to clinch the victory through a split second devastating strike. Ultimate introduces a freeze-frame effect (similar to the effect when Little Mac lands a KO uppercut) that highlights the exact killing blow right before a character is knocked off the screen. It has the potential to both please the victor and to upset the loser, but it’s a great feature that ups the intensity just a bit more. Also available is a radar that will occasionally appear when a fighter is near the point of being KO’d off the stage. It’s helpful when judging how much fight you or your opponent has left before they’re KO’d, but it can be turned off for those who don’t have much interest in it.
A lot of getting into the throes of proper Smashing is owed to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s Adventure Mode: World of Light. To be brief, you wander around a huge map, constantly trying to open up new paths and areas to explore. Each area is a callback or tribute to some iconic Nintendo world, such as the lava-strewn hazard of Bowser’s castle, the winding race tracks from Mario Kart, and the snow-capped mountains of the Ice Climbers. Be prepared to invest at least 24 hours to complete the entirety of the adventure. It’s oh so satisfying, and considering that there’s more to experience to get that 100% finished, World of Light is also quite the challenge. The crux of World of Light, however, is the capture of Spirits or non-playable characters appearing across over 30 years of Nintendo games, both recognizable and obscure, as well as those from Ultimate’s guest characters like Metal Gear Solid via Solid Snake. Obviously, with 74 playable characters, not every Spirit is going to have an in-game model to fight. Instead, your imagination is part of the fun. Fighting the Spirit of Metal Gear REX is made manifest by a battle with R.O.B. with the added effects of a Super Mushroom and Mario’s Steel Cap. Not only that, but the characters will take on the “behaviors” and/or characteristics of the Spirit they’re meant to represent. Again, R.O.B. will make use of projectile weapons and charging his laser Final Smash represents the rail gun of Metal Gear REX. You can see the creative liberties that Ultimate takes to bring these types of characters to life with what it does have.
Spirits take on a Rock, Paper, Scissors-like approach to its battle system. One type of Spirit will be useful in one fight only to be a hindrance in the next. If there’s ever a point in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate where the player can feel overwhelmed, this would be it, though the scope of the idea is quite impressive for its own good. You can equip one Primary Spirit and, if there are slots available to that primary, equip up to three other Support Spirits. Each Primary Spirit and Supporting Spirit provide gameplay amplifying features, such as increased health, starting the match with a Beam Sword, stronger neutral based attacks, faster Final Smash charging, or gaining an extra mid-air jump. Some Spirits are also capable of negating stage effects that would otherwise hinder your chances in a fight or damage you such as high winds or electrified and lava-laden floors.
The catch is that as you fight and recruit new Spirits you gain snacks and Spirit Points to “feed” to your Spirits to buff them up and, in some cases, level them up beyond their Lvl. 99 cap. It’s important you level up some of your most useful Spirits because you’ll eventually happen on ones that have a sharp difficulty spike. Sure, you could max out the stats of a Spirit at any given time and then take them into battle, but you would be doing yourself a disservice. The payout for an overwhelmingly easy fight will yield a minuscule amount of rewards, whereas fighting on par or, better yet, at a disadvantage will cause rewards to pour out like newly discovered treasure. It’s a system that can both please and infuriate at the same time. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to chuck my controller at the wall because I was losing matches no longer than ten seconds after starting the fight. I would grapple with the choice of turning the fight into an easy one, but in the back of my head, I knew I would walk away with mere scraps. As gut-wrenching as it was to hit “Try Again” for the fifteenth time, when I did manage to score the victory I felt like an Evo Champion on top of the world. That cycle would begin anew to the point when I’d feel like the saltiest Smash player having come across more supposed insurmountable odds. Yet you get to choose and modify the outcome of your battles. There’s no shame in making a fight easier if you need to, but at the same time, you’re rewarded for giving it your all when the going gets tough.
That being said, a lot of the Spirits you come across and rescue in the World of Light can be weak or limited more often than not. They make good fodder for more capable Spirits you eventually come across and can even be sacrificed to summon new Spirits. In that regard, for each new fight, I found myself hitting the “autofill” button to automatically fill in the needed slots for a Spirit that posed little to no challenge to acquire, being mindful to be at least below their Spirit Power to get some decent rewards. However, for the Spirits that did demand a lot of effort, I stopped and perused my list of Spirits and chose those who would give me a great advantage. While your Spirit compilation can number in the hundreds, thankfully there’s a sorting option to shuffle everyone into such categories as recently obtained, strongest Spirit Power, those who can nullify stage hazards, or those that spawn you with a weapon in hand.
There’s also a skill tree to invest in. You’ll want to take heed of it especially after your first 12 hours into the adventure. You can boost such properties as Smash charging time, adding a super shield at the start of a fight, and removing the penalty for continuous dodging. I could see the help evident in many of my tougher fights, though in contrast, it makes the many Dojos you discover across the world seem obsolete. Truthfully, by making each fight push me to my limits, I got a lot more snacks and Spirit Points to spend. Not once did I put any Spirit into a Dojo to buff their stats. It happened through hard-won battles instead.
World of Light was a surprise at practically every point, and some of my favorite moments included tracking down fighters to reawaken (and add to the main game’s roster), as well as several boss fights. Giga Bowser, Ganon, and more lend a good challenge and a breath of fresh air among all your efforts to collect Spirits.
World of Light is the best way to gather new Spirits. The other mode to do that is the Spirit Board. Here you participate in fights with conditions, much like the Adventure Mode, but the catch is that you have to “shoot” the Spirit in a post-match minigame in order to actually acquire them. With a rotating shield that has a small gap in it, the process ultimately feels pointless and counterintuitive, especially when you miss out on obtaining a Spirit you really want. It could be hours until you can try again, even days if you’re spending your time in Ultimate elsewhere. Though any dents you made in the Spirit’s shield will remain there, so at least there’s that.
Classic Mode has gotten a bit of a tweak as well. The familiar linear progression from one fighter to the next is still there, but now each fighter has a series of fights themed uniquely to them. For example, Link will fight off sword wielders until he reaches a final battle with Ganon. With 74 characters, the various experiences seem practically endless and imaginative.
100-Man Smash is now referred to as Century Smash and still operates the same way. All-Star Mode and Cruel Smash are also unchanged. New to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the new Smashdown Mode. For every battle you win with a given character, that character is then removed from the roster leaving behind those that you haven’t played as yet. There’s so much variety to keep you occupied for hours or, better yet, months on end.
Music has become synonymous with Super Smash Bros. since the beginning. Another fantastic improvement made for Ultimate is the ability to assign certain musical tracks to play on a certain stage. In the previous game, only select music tracks were available to particular stages, but this time that limitation has been removed. As long as a musical track is in keeping with the game series that stage is based on, you’re sure to find that music there. If I want to listen to a medley from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild but on the Termina stage from Majora’s Mask, I can do that. Moreover, you can create multiple custom playlists of your favorite musical tracks to play when you want to take a break from Smashing.
Stage Morph is also a new addition to Ultimate in which you can select two stages to essentially combine into one match. You can start the fight in the close quarters of Shadow Moses Island only to be whisked away to the treacherous tunnels of the Great Cave Offensive. You start with 108 stages, but it feels like infinitely more when you can mix and match stages like they’re building blocks. I just don’t like the stage select screen all that much. The tiles are reduced to tiny thumbnails that you have to squint at. I wouldn’t mind having to turn through pages or, better yet, a sorting feature to isolate stages based on first appearance to the Smash series, by scale, or by game series.
It can’t be discounted that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate makes use of a custom ruleset feature for offline play. This saves a lot of time from having to sort through which items you want to disable, and whether you want a timed battle or stock. Furthermore, the fact that you get to name your saved rulesets is the cherry on top. It differentiates “Pokeballs Only” from, say, “Pokeballs Only, 3 stock, with Smash Ball.” A perfect idea for when you feel like granting a “theme” to liven up the more serious and competitive matches.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate also looks beautiful on both the big screen and in handheld mode. At no point did I observe any performance issues during my time in both styles of play.
Final Smash, the over-the-top and often cinematic finishing moves, made their debut in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. In Ultimate it’s safe to say that they have been tweaked for the better. Gone are some Final Smashes that were hard to control or felt off for the character, like Donkey Kong’s bongos, Super Sonic’s blazing fast dashes across the screen, and every Star Fox character having to use the LandMaster tank. Now Donkey Kong can unleash a fury of punches while Fox McCloud hops in his Arwing to blast opponents away, and Giga Bowser can now appear in the background to deliver a punch that takes up a huge part of the screen.
Online play is a better improvement over Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. In Ultimate there’s a neat metagame that you can experience by collecting the virtual dog tags of the fighters that you manage to beat, almost acting as trophies for bragging rights. Furthermore, you can customize fight settings such as timed battles, or three (or more) stocks, items off, etc. It should be noted that the more specific (or outrageous) you get with your settings, it may take longer to connect to a match with an equal minded opponent. Nonetheless, you can always choose to play with only your friends by creating a private, password protected lobby for them to join. As with many online multiplayer supported Nintendo Switch titles like Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, I still am not fond of the mobile app used for voice chat. Nothing beats enjoying a fight sitting on a couch, but there are better options to trash talk your friends with.
Pardon the lengthy review, but what do you expect when the game is called Super Smash Bros. Ultimate? Ultimate now just sounds like an understatement. Masahiro Sakurai was right: this game is a miracle in of itself. While there are a few design choices that don’t make sense, such as the Spirit Board concept, it pales in comparison with the sheer magnitude of the size and scope that is Ultimate. It overflows with nostalgia, fun, challenge, and adventure. It also encourages you to take risks, albeit hard-won at times, but you can’t help but feel like a stronger player on the other side.
Undoubtedly, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a must buy, even for those still on the fence about picking up a Nintendo Switch. How Sakurai and the team behind the series continue to raise the bar and redefine it with each entry in the series is beyond me. They treat each game as if it were the last. I certainly am curious for the series’ future. There’s no doubt that Ultimate is going to keep me and my friends entertained for years to come. And yet, I inquisitively have to ask myself once again, “how is Nintendo going to top this?”