When Nintendo took the wraps off Super Smash Bros. Ultimate last year, fans around the world were very, very excited. The internet was flooded with videos of fans losing their collective minds at the prospect of a return to Final Destination on the Switch.
The excitement wasn’t unexpected. The Nintendo-made multiplayer combat game has a heritage that stretches back to the N64, with the game that started it all (Super Smash Bros.). The series has appeared on every Nintendo console since, has been a competitive gaming staple since the days of the N64. Until now, the best in the series was Super Smash Bros. Brawl (released on the Wii), though previous entry Smash Bros. Wii U was no slouch either.
But only nostalgia prevents the earlier games from melting in the flame that is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. For a change, that ‘Ultimate’ in the title is well-deserved. Our only problem with it? What will Ninty call the next Smash Bros. game when they finally (finally!) give Waluigi the attention he so desperately craves? That’s gonna happen, right? Guys? Guys?! SNAAAAKE?!
The gang’s all here
Why’s Ninty’s newest Smash so ultimate? Besides the exclusion of a certain purple-clad gent, there’s a whole lot of player choice. Ultimate‘s roster has 74 playable characters coming to play from the outset, with additions like the Piranha Plant (already out) and Joker from Persona 5 joining the party at a later stage. Every previous fighter in the series has returned and there are another 11 new faces to come to grips with.
And those faces have got some new skills to learn as well. Nintendo’s made some alterations, some subtle, some not, to how your old favourites handle. Even long-time players will find that there’s something new to get used to… which may mess with a couple decade’s worth of muscle memory. But the payoff is worth it, as each character feels (at the very least) a hair nimbler than they used to. It also helps that you’re facing what feels like a far more balanced roster — unless someone’s chosen Kirby. You know who you are.
But you don’t have all those players available at the outset. Oh no, just a bare handful of Nintendo mainstays are unlocked at the start. Start playing, though, and Nintendo starts sending challengers your way. Defeat them and they join the game. Lose… and you’ll have to wait for them to turn up again. They won’t be waiting at the end of the next fight, meaning each encounter feels like there’s more to lose.
Or you could hit up Challenger’s Approach, which appears in the Games & More menu every so often. That’s your chance to take on a previously lost fighter with a character of your choosing, rather than just who you were playing as when they pitched up the first time. This more random approach to unlocks might get frustrating, though, as you’re not guaranteed your favourite character by performing a set action — Unless you’re playing the straight-combat Classic Mode. Then your player character determines your unlocked fighter.
Do the Smash
The major mode is back in place. It wouldn’t be Smash without the Smash mode, after all. Nothing’s changing, at least at the game’s core. You’re still trying to deal enough damage to be able to knock your opponents off-screen. If you’re the serious sort, that means learning attacks until you know just how many frames each takes, how to perform cancels and just where that bloody hitbox is is at any given time. But most of you will just want to go out and have fun.
And fun is what Smash provides. Custom rulesets are simple things to set up, and they’re a major part of Smash mode, so you can opt for Stock or Time battles, set items on or off (leave my Smash Orb alone, heathen — we need that) and there are a selection of most esoteric modes containing everything from Sudden Death fights to 5-v-5 matches. Players can also take on Mob Smash, with challenges you might remember from Brawl. Want to take down a hundred opponents, see how long it takes you to take down the All-Stars, or go up against the most fiendish bots that Nintendo can program? Yeah, that’s still an option as well.
That’s the Spirit
Part of Super Smash Bros. Brawl‘s charm on the Wii was the Subspace Emissary mode, a story-based challenge that had player-selected teams of fighters cruising around a fantastical universe comprised of various stages that turned the game in a massive platformer. That, sadly, hasn’t returned but Nintendo has gone for something a little better than they offered in Smash Bros. Wii U. Called Spirit Mode, players are tasked with rescuing the Smash Bros. roster. They’ve all been body-snatched and it’s up to the player to save them — by kicking their asses.
There are challenges to clear before you can unlock those fighters, but you’re not alone. Players travel around a main overworld map, picking their fights with the assistance of spirits. These little guys are unlocked during play and offer player bonuses — similar to the sticker upgrade system from Brawl. These bonuses (and specific spirits) are sometimes required to clear challenges, since they might make you more resistant to a certain type of damage or allow you to dish out something your opponent is weak to. Don’t get too excited, though. Your opponents have their own spirits and they’re as adept at knocking down your stats as your companions are.
Each of these spirits has the ability to upgrade as well, earning XP in battle. It’s also possible to equip more than one spirit at a time, which can lead to some interesting combinations. Want to be immune to poison while also increasing your damage output? It can be done, though there’s a spot of admin involved. It’s not as overwhelming as it appears at first, though. A little time with Spirit Mode will see you getting into the swing of things quite easily.
Fond of the Classics
If you’re into structured combat instead of mayhem (Smash Mode) or story (Spirit Mode) then Classic Mode is still around and better than ever. Each character has a unique set of opponents and maps, which serves to makes it worth your time sending each and every Smash Ultimate fighter through the 5-to-6 stage gauntlet. Which you were going to do anyway, but still.
There’s also a Mario-inspired platform stage that players have to clear, involving a black hole and all the coins you can grab. It’s a great way to learn about (and curse) your chosen fighter’s movement abilities.
In keeping with previous releases, Classic Mode concludes with a Boss fight and (assuming you win) a playable end-credits scene. After that? Character and Spirit unlocks, depending on which character you picked for this run-through. The changes here are relatively minor on the face of things but it’s enough to make the old standby feel a whole lot fresher than it did.
Meeting your match
If you’re a long-time Smash player, then you’ll know that it’s best played in person. A group, a set of controllers, possibly a few drinks. No drinking games, that’s an easy way to wind up in hospital. Take things online, historically, and that’s where things start to fall apart. Sadly, little’s changed.
Netcode isn’t as good as it could be. Fortunately for Nintendo, they’ve kinda set the bar low on this one so players expect disconnections, matchmaking issues, and other jiggery-pokery. Whatever you thought might happen? It probably will. Online modes are also a little sparse, but since the rest of the game is so rich we’re… we’re really willing to overlook the online issues. Smash works best when you can gloat in person anyway.
If you’re determined to go online, you’ll find that there’s a Battle Arena and a Quickplay mode to choose from. Battle Arena is where you go to take on challenges created by other players, while Quickplay is just… playing quickly. You get dropped into a match with a set of randos and see how fast you are knocked out. It is possible to play in the kiddies pool for a while, online, if you don’t want to just have your head stomped on online. We’re expecting this area to improve over time but it’s never going to be a substitute for the way the game should be played: loud and in person.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Verdict
Is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate really the ultimate edition of Smash? Yes. Yes, it is.
Even accounting for the online mode (which we were expecting to have at least some issues with), there’s so, so much packing into Ultimate that explaining all of it would take away from the really important things — like playing more Smash. No matter when you started playing this one, whether the OG version, Melee, Brawl, Wii U or just here on the Switch, you’re going to find more than enough to occupy your time.
And, in typical Nintendo style, there are touches and flourishes that you won’t really notice unless you actually go looking for them. And that’s just in the character animation. We haven’t even touched on the vast amounts of unlocks, training modes, music, the stuff in the Vault… there’s a lot to see here. And Nintendo has made sightseeing so much fun that you’re probably going to spot all of it at some point.
Time well spent? Absolutely.