Let’s cut through the hyperbole: everybody will love Super Smash Bros. Ultimate by the time this review goes live. Without fail, the latest iteration of Nintendo’s love letter to itself – and to gaming at large – is being hailed as another masterpiece, a healthy helping of gaming nostalgia engineered to deliver exactly what the masses have come to expect from a series including icons like Mario, Sonic, Pac-Man and Solid Snake.
To be fair, a series like Smash Bros. doesn’t need the usual manufactured hype and enthusiasm other big franchises have come to rely on – the gaming populace knows exactly what they’re getting here. Still, much has changed since the last Smash Bros was released on both the Wii U and 3DS platforms, no doubt hoping the latter’s more sizable userbase would compensate for the former’s relatively low numbers. Ultimate, however, launches on the Switch – Nintendo’s latest console that has been successful in every way the Wii U wasn’t.
The series has transcended into something nobody could have dreamed of when it launched nearly twenty years ago on the Nintendo 64. Envisioned as a party game where fans could live out their wildest “what-if” battles between iconic Nintendo characters, it quickly evolved into competitive mainstay by the time Melee and Brawl arrived.
Needless to say, there’s a lot riding on this game, a task that must have weighed heavily on the shoulders of designer Masahiro Sakurai: create a new entry that’s both familiar, yet accessible to as wide an audience as possible, all the while maintaining a fanatical attention to nuanced detail to ensure the game enjoys a long life on the competitive circuit.
When the initial excitement wears off, Ultimate will likely be considered one of the better entries in the series, much to the excitement – and disappointment – of its many fans who might’ve been expecting more, yet all the while resistant to actual change. Few modern games celebrate being videogames as openly and joyfully as Super Smash Bros, a feat made more poignant when you consider its cast includes most of the industry’s most popular and iconic figures – many of whom were onetime rivals. That and its still as bonkers as ever.
A Familiar Band of All-Stars
Ultimate is so unpretentious that it doesn’t care which fighters enter the fray, whether they be the familiar favorites like Mario, Fox McCloud, or Mewtwo. You’ll start out with the eight original all-stars, though you’ll eventually experiment with at least some of that enormous, sprawling cast to discover new favorites to battle against friends or online adversaries. This is clearly by design as Ultimate pulls out all the stops and brings back every character that’s ever appeared in any of the previous Smash Bros games, tossing in several new ones just for fun. This brings the roster to 74 (11 of which are newcomers) with unlockable entrants, season passes and anticipated DLC guaranteed to swell that number even further.
I’m glad to have Solid Snake (and Ice Climbers to a lesser degree) return after a brief absence, while others such as Little Mac, Shulk, Ryu, Pac-Man, and Cloud Strife will finally have a better chance for their day in the sun. The brand-new characters and echo fighters alike such as Inkling (Splatoon), King K. Rool (Donkey Kong Country), Ridley (Metroid), Daisy (Super Mario Land) and both Simon and Ritcher Belmont from Castlevania are welcome additions that help solidify an already well-rounded cast of many of gaming’s greatest, short of everyone desperately wanting Waluigi.
The best way to play Smash Bros. Ultimate is to not overthink it, and jump right in. This logic has always served me well and continues to be true as participating in the action gradually opens the game up. The gameplay remains as dependable as ever: you reign supreme by racking up damage on opponent(s), weakening them to the point where they can be knocked off the stage. It doesn’t matter if they (or you) fly off to the sides, into the stratosphere, or below just as long as they get blasted into cartoonish explosions of bright lights and digital confetti.
However, there are subtle changes that serve to re-balance skills and favorite techniques so they can’t be easily abused this time around. For instance, there’s a penalty for excessive rolling as each subsequent movement becomes slower and less effective, hogging a corner ledge with each grab makes you noticeably more vulnerable, and running through grounded opponents is no longer possible. Another change is how much harder you’ll have to work to knock somebody out – which takes nearly twice as long to inflict more damage for the same victory.
I imagine other changes, like the occasional stage border diagram, will go unnoticed among the casuals but will likely become essential basics for top-tier players. At the very least, many of these changes could be the developers conceding to the growing idea Smash Bros. has become a legitimate tournament contender.
Smash Bros on Switch offers plenty of controller options at your disposal. Choose between Joy-Cons in either free-form or docked modes, Pro Controller, or even opt for using the fan-favorite GameCube controllers via USB adapter support. On that last one, don’t hedge your bets that Nintendo smartens up keeps them in stock this time. You snooze, you lose!
More of What You Love
It’s not surprise that Smash Bros. Ultimate is healthy on content and doesn’t skimp on delivering what fans expect. True, we’ve seen almost everything on display here in previous iterations, but it’s never looked this good. Ultimate uses the added power of the Switch to make everything you see look better than ever, with increased resolutions and more stable framerates. These aren’t ground-breaking upgrades (1080p isn’t quite 4K) but it’s always wonderful seeing higher quality Nintendo visuals when we can get them.
All except a small handful of stages are nostalgic favorites pulled directly the previous titles, coming in ‘battlefield” and “omega” variants that increase the count to 103 for tournament play. I can’t go into much detail because we’ll be here all day – much like the cast itself, the backdrops are digital love letters to many of the iconic franchises and characters available for your battling pleasure.
The same goes for the soundtrack as well, with nearly 1000 songs that are either ripped, remixes, or full-blown medleys of familiar tunes and compositions. I’m not sure how they could possibly improve on the expansive music catalog that’s been arranged here – short of remixing every track in future DLC updates.
One area sure to divide players are the game’s single-player modes, which can feel hit-or-miss. The arcade-style Classic Mode is probably the best of the bunch as it involves straightforward battling with a bonus level thrown in and characters facing unique final bosses like Dracula, Marx, or the dragon Rathalos from Monster Hunter. It’s a neat, lean distraction from the madness experienced with friends and foes alike, and really a lot of fun.
The Adventure Mode, i.e. “World of Light”, surprisingly has some of Ultimate’s most innovative and interesting new features, with clearly tons of effort put into it. The setup has the crossover universe gripped by a villainous threat exceeding the tyranny of the Master Hands themselves, with nearly every combatant seized and their spirits turned into puppets for unknown reasons – Kirby being the lone survivor available to correct the evildoings. The narrative and cutscenes are a little more mature and surprisingly dark for a franchise like Smash as you recover as many lost spirits to augment your power during this lengthy quest.
I certainly can’t fault the approach as you roam an underworld map with challenges that rely primarily on the Spirit mechanic for leveling up buffs and skills. Most custom matches require strategy as opponents often have their own physical and elemental perks reminiscent of whatever game they’re from. You’re not wrong if thinking deja-vu since some pages appear to be ripped right out of Brawl and their status-augmenting “Stickers”, but utilizing Spirits quickly become obligatory as a rock-paper-scissors approach to matches can stick you with poison ailments, stage hazards, and characters that can regain health if you’re quick enough.
There’s a certain charm in mixing things up by collecting spirits from Otacon, Rayman and the Rabbids to building your skill tree for most situations that arise. The journey within World of Light is robust to the point where this could be another game within itself. Because of this, it doesn’t really feel connected to the core Smash Bros. experience but something else entirely. I appreciate that any tangible piece or gaming memorabilia associated with Nintendo is thrown in, but I’m not sure fans will square this mode’s more laconic pacing in an environment where chaos and instant gratification is the norm.
Online Lag Included
It almost pains me to say this, but online multiplayer is – by far – the most disappointing thing about Smash Bros. Ultimate. The series has always thrived when friends got together, usually in front a single television screen, before happily pummeling each other senseless. Whether you’re a group of teenagers or adult hipsters, there’s always something to enjoy in the Smash Universe with up to 8 players locally.
Modern audiences, of course, demand online components and this is something Smash Bros. games have featured going back to the original Wii version, so it’s not like Nintendo didn’t have time to fine-tune their matchmaking skills. However, they only just recently launched their online gaming service a few months back, no doubt timed to ready Switch users for the sticker shock of having to pay to take their matches online. Welcome to the future, Nintendo fans!
But the lure of online dominance can’t excuse the inconsistent quality and matchmaking issues that plagued almost every match I played. Intermittent lag, input delays, and dropped matches hampered what should’ve been a smooth experience. Whether caused by bad netcode or due to the Switch’s reliance on spotty WiFi connections remains a mystery, though its troubling that Nintendo recommends you adopt a wired connection via a standalone Ethernet LAN adapter to maximize your connection, representing yet another investment to a problem that shouldn’t exist to begin with.
If you’re serious about matches the Global Smash Power (GSP) ranking system serves as another means to demonstrate leaderboard prowess. It’s hardly comprehensive, though I guess something is better than nothing at all. Standard matchmaking has been greatly streamlined with little frills, letting you choose solo or bring a friend, pick a character, leaving you at the whim of whatever free-for-all or team battle they put you in. I actually didn’t mind this as I’m able to get to another bout much faster than before, and the competition is usually decent in lieu trying to customize rules.
It really is unacceptable that Ultimate performs so poorly online while other Switch titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2 feature relatively smooth online play. Again, Nintendo now charges users to take their games online, and while the asking price may be much less than what either Sony or Microsoft charges, it should obligate them to do better.
Conclusion: The Ultimate
I could let this review drag on much longer, but the reality is that my – or anyone’s – opinion of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate will have little effect on the popularity game has and will continue to receive. At least until the next one arrives, anyway. Even with my initial disappointments with the lack of innovative and mediocre online multiplayer it’s still a blast, especially when playing with friends, and easily takes the crown from Melee as the series’ best. If you’re a Switch owner, you probably have this one already.
Then again, it’s not like Nintendo had their work cut out for them; Smash Bros. probably enjoys the most agreeable fanbase out there, eagerly gobbling up whatever content that comes their way. I suspect that creator Masahiro Sakurai has grown exhausted, with rumors of him wanting to move on from the series entirely. We see hints of this with the ambitious, though unconventional single-player adventure that feels desperate to break away from the main game. This is pure speculation on my part, but I can’t help but wonder how much longer Nintendo can keep delivering what’s become a series of iterations rather than innovations. Of course, as long as the games keep delivering the goods, this could turn out to be a very long wait indeed.