The fact it does exactly what is expected of it does not diminish the magnitude of the achievement that is putting out such an extremely polished, balanced, and enjoyable game that involves so many distinct and popular pieces
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is, in no way whatsoever, a surprising game. As it has become traditional since the series’ relatively humble debut on the Nintendo 64, every new home console created by the company that birthed Mario and many other signature characters ought to get its own version of the gaming juggernaut that finds a unique middle ground between the fighting and party genres. Consequently, it is not shocking the Switch, Nintendo’s successful hybrid system, was blessed with an original take on the crossover brawler. Likewise, there is an unwritten rule – one that has yet to be broken – that dictates every new Super Smash Bros. installment must find a way to be bigger and better than its precursors. Therefore, it should come as no unexpected revelation to anyone remotely aware of the gaming industry’s happenings that Ultimate is, as of its release, the most ambitious, complete, and enjoyable outing of the franchise.
That total absence of unpredictability, though, does not make Ultimate dull. In fact, and as a statement on the stunning work ethic and dedication of the series’ creator, Masahiro Sakurai, as well as that of his team, Ultimate powers through the ordinary and makes its way towards the extraordinary. It floors in spite of how being big and bursting with content is, as far as the series goes, seen as par for the course. It stuns even though its fighting mechanics are, overall, unaltered, as they continue to exhibit a framework put in place by the debut and fleshed out by its sophomore effort, Melee. And it mesmerizes despite having to live up to the status of being the largest playable celebration of gaming and the market’s mightiest multiplayer experience. Ultimate checks all of those boxes with ridiculous ease. Moreover, it displays no signs of stress stemming from how its title indicates the game intends to be a grand culmination for a series that is, itself, the entertaining apex of an industry that has been building a fantastic history through more than three decades. Ultimate does not feel that weight, and it goes on to deliver a gigantic package that blends the medium’s rich lore with irresistible gameplay antics.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate earns its name due to how it proposes to celebrate the franchise’s trajectory by gathering pieces from its past entries. The 74 fighters it boasts include all characters that have ever been a part of the saga. Meanwhile, and perhaps as an even more stunning facet, its 108 stages are a compilation of the battle arenas present in all previous titles, with only 14 of them being left behind. Truth be told, Ultimate’s focus on looking towards the past rather than creating elements of its own does leave the door open for some criticism; after all, as a consequence of that approach, the game only carries 4 original stages and 11 debuting fighters, and both numbers rank as the series’ all-time low for fresh content. Yet, be it in terms of roster or stage selection, the options are so abundant and polished that accusations of laziness are unfounded. Newcomers like King K. Rool, of Donkey Kong Country fame, and Ridley, Samus’ greatest nemesis, show Sakurai and his crew listened closely to fans’ demands; simultaneously, the inclusion of Splatoon’s Inkling and two members of Castlevania’s Belmont clan, as well as stages to represent those fighters, makes the game feel updated in relation to new trends and richer as far as gaming history goes.
With those pieces in place, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate takes full advantage of the features that make the franchise so utterly successful. Firstly, there is how the series presents a unique opportunity for one to unite, on the same battlefield, major gaming characters that have built a strong reputation for themselves via remarkable releases. Secondly, there is how every single bit that makes up the whole of Super Smash Bros. nods to notable elements of those franchises: the amusing movesets of the fighters constantly reference actions they took or powers they had in their universe of origin; the stages where the combats occur, similarly, are built on scenarios where the quests of the heroes and villains of the roster unfolded; and the items that occasionally appear around the arenas are also taken straight out of the series represented in the game. It is an interactive gaming museum; however, here, instead of keeping quiet in their own corners, the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa decided to duke it out inside Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
The final element that makes the fabric of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate so delightful is because, like its predecessors, it strikes that perfect balance Nintendo is somehow able to find in all of their major multiplayer experiences: one that stands right between wide accessibility and endless depth. Fighting in Super Smash Bros. is definitely simple. The game’s characters do have a large arsenal of actions, including jumping; shielding; dodging; special, aerial, and smash attacks; grabs; and a stunningly powerful move called a Final Smash, which is activated when a floating orb is broken or when a meter is filled up. However, the performing of each one of those moves never takes more than a button press and a directional input, which allows absolutely any kind of player to tap into the full potential of any member of the roster. Yet, such simplicity hides a complex core of combos, advanced techniques, strategies, and match-ups that are there to be uncovered if one intends to polish their skills to high degrees. It is via that duality that Super Smash Bros. rises as the perfect party game that welcomes all guests and delivers hours of fun, while also emerging as a bottomless well of challenge, learning, and playing to more devoted gamers.
More interestingly, the game backs up those two rather distinct facets with options, allowing one to tailor the fighting so that it best suits their needs. The rules of the battles can be heavily altered, such as by setting handicaps, giving those who are losing a boost, and – most importantly – determining whether the match will be decided via stocks (where players lose one life whenever they are launched out of the arena and the last one standing wins), time (where launching someone is worth a point whilst being launched causes the loss of a point), and stamina (where fighters start with a certain amount of HP and are removed from battle once their energy is depleted). Additionally, items and Final Smashes can have their frequency altered or even be totally disabled, with the latter configuration forcing players to rely solely on the skills of their chosen character. Finally, given stages themselves can be quite wild, featuring monsters, environmental changes, and all sorts of effects, Ultimate – in one of its most significant additions – allows gamers to retain the stages’ original format but remove their hazards, or – even more drastically – toy with their appearance so that they take the shape of one flat surface (the Omega Form) or a flat surface with three elevated platforms (the Battlefield Form).
It is an absurd degree of flexibility; one that allows Super Smash Bros. Ultimate to cater to all kinds of audiences that are bound to flock to it due to the universally appealing nature of its cast and gameplay. Following that same philosophy, not only does the game successfully accommodate those who have different levels of skill, but it also finely embraces gamers whether they are playing alone or alongside friends. When it comes to multiplayer modes, which can also be enjoyed as a solo experience, the traditional Smash Mode is accompanied by a Tourney where up to 32 competitors can take part in a series of elimination rounds until the champion is determined; Custom Smash, where players can apply absurd effects to the battles, such as giant characters, metal bodies, and even weird camera angles; Super Sudden Death, where fighters are extremely easy to launch due to their elevated level of damage; Smashdown, where a character, once selected, becomes unavailable during the rest of the playing of the mode; and Squad Strike, where each player picks three or five characters that are then used in battle one by one until the winner is decided.
When taken online, meanwhile, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate delivers as well, even if that connected experience is not as smooth as the offline one. Players looking to tackle network battles are greeted with two general options: Quickplay, where fights are arranged according to a matchmaking algorithm; and Battle Arenas, where players get to create their own rooms (private or public) with their preferred set of rules. Although both options can be equally fun if one’s connection is stable enough, Quickplay suffers slightly. And that happens because in spite of how players can indicate what kinds of battles they are looking for by configuring a group of parameters (such as whether items will appear, stage hazards will be activated, and if the melee will be a 1-on-1 affair or a free-for-all struggle), the system will, as a way to avoid long waiting times, sometimes place gamers in matches whose rules are not equal to those they specified, which can cause some frustration. In the end, though, it is quite nice how the game keeps informative stats on players’ overall performance with all characters and how it employs a score, dubbed Global Smash Power, to calculate one’s rank and eventually, once it reaches a specific dynamic threshold, grant gamers access to Elite Smash, where only the top players are allowed to enter.
On the single-player front, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate also brings in quite a bit of content and challenge. In Mob Smash, players can face off against a horde of 100 fighters to try to get rid of them all as fast as possible (Century Smash); go into battle against extra powerful foes to see how many of them they can take down (Cruel Smash); or attempt to knock out all members of the roster one by one (All-Star Smash). Classic Mode, meanwhile, which is made up of six battles, one bonus level, and a final boss reappears on a pleasantly revamped format. As gamers advance through the mode, the initial selected intensity – which can range between 0 and 5 – rises according to one’s performance in battle, and losing requires that players spend either gold or a ticket in order to continue.
However, the nicest twist comes in how all 74 fighters have their own predetermined routes of battles in the mode, and their nature often nods to either the character’s game of origin or one of their distinctive features. Luigi fights scary opponents; Kirby’s rivals enjoy food and the stages where they face off include health-regenerating treats; Fox deals with space-related foes; Ness goes through a route that retraces his steps from the ending of EarthBound back to his home; the Ice Climbers take down iconic duos; and so forth. It makes the mode incredibly replayable, as all characters pose a different and alluring challenge. Nevertheless, it is slightly disappointing how the bonus level is exactly the same for all members of the roster, as although collecting shiny orbs while running away from an advancing black hole down a hallway is relatively nice, it is sad to see no design alterations are applied to the level in order to better take advantage of the abilities of the character that is tackling it.
The deepest single-player mode, though, and also the most meaningful addition brought in by Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is World of Light, a full-fledged adventure that can last for over twenty hours for those who seek full completion. Taking place across an overworld map filled with different locations and branching paths, the quest starts when an invasion by dark forces succeeds in capturing almost the entirety of the game’s cast, which is promptly copied and turned into an evil army. Kirby, the sole survivor, takes it upon himself to defeat the clones he encounters and awaken his possessed peers so they can join him. Essentially, World of Light is a lengthy sequence of battles (over 600 of them) scattered out in the open or in dungeons, and as every single opponent is defeated, players are free to advance a little further into the world. However, there is a pleasant deal of complexity to the way the mode is set up.
For starters, all combats involve a clone of one of the playable fighters being controlled by a spirit, which is nothing but a character or asset taken straight from a gaming franchise, whether it is present in the roster or not. These spirits lend the battles and the fighter they control unique twists that occasionally reference their nature, looks, and the game where they appear. The spirit of The Boss, from the Metal Gear series, for instance, is a stamina battle against Zero Suit Samus on a stage that is covered with poison; while the spirit of Waluigi is a purple Luigi that summons, through the use of Assist Trophies, his tall and thin arch-rival to aid him in the fight. On the bright side, all battles offer distinct setups that keep the experience engaging all the way; on a sour note, though, many are the battles that deteriorate into frustration due to how they are configured, as some powers or items given to foes sometimes make combats very unfair. Luckily, to alleviate a bit of that problem, it is possible to – at any time – alter the applied level of difficulty in the mode’s menu.
Spirits, however, are not there just for the sake of being beaten; in fact, it is in their usage that World of Light gains much of its charm. Once defeated, spirits are added into players’ collection, and from that point onwards one can use them in fights as well as in the overworld itself. When it comes to battles, it is possible to take up to four spirits into combat, and they are important for not only do they power up the fighter that is chosen, but they also bring interesting side-effects to the table, such as granting the character immunity to specific kinds of hazards, healing them every once in a while, making them start the battle with an item, among others. Consequently, some of the game’s toughest combats can only be overcome if one deploys an appropriate combination of spirits. In the overworld, meanwhile, some spirits have the power of allowing players to interact with or change the scenario in order to reach places that were previously blocked off, such as by disabling a generator or even driving a bus. Thanks to how those skills are useful both in and out of battles, World of Light gains strategic depth and the contours of an adventure game that dares those that play it to explore its corners and reveal its secrets.
In a way, spirits are a replacement for the trophies that turned previous Super Smash Bros. games into exhibits on the history of gaming; sadly, though, unlike those alluring collectibles, they do not carry brief descriptions of the characters and items they portray. Like all quantities that refer to the features and options of Ultimate, spirits come in absurd variety: there are over 1,200 of them to collect. And in addition to being found all around World of Light, they can also be acquired via a mode dubbed Spirit Board, where – like a deck arranged over a table – spirits come and go every once in a while and players can freely choose the ones they want to battle against. It is an effective and simple way to fill up one’s gallery, and it can be a fun activity when the spirits engaged do not feature anger-inducing configurations. Nevertheless, the Spirit Board does have the minor problem of how once a spirit is beaten it is not automatically acquired, as players are taken to a silly little mini-game where they must shoot the downed foe through the openings of a shield that spins constantly. What is frustrating about it is that some spirit battles, especially against those with high ranks, are so hard it feels unnecessary to face an extra challenge to unlock them; and it is rather frustrating to miss the shot and lose the spirit after being able to emerge victorious from a brutal combat.
Although flawed, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate carries enough options, modes, and content to hook gamers in for what could potentially turn out to be hundreds of hours of gameplay. And the title is quite smart and efficient in the way it presents it all to players. With top-notch polished visuals and a flow of battle and animations that do not lose a single step even amidst the chaos of eight-player matches, the game looks absolutely spectacular. Also on the technical front, Ultimate, not differently from its peers, presents what is easily the industry’s best soundtrack, with over 800 tunes extracted – either in their original format or tastefully remixed – from the games represented by its fighters and stages, and in a clear sign of awareness regarding its musical prowess, Ultimate allows gamers to both choose the track they want to see played during battle or alter the odds involved in the random selection of tracks that occurs whenever a stage is picked. Finally, its huge roster comes mostly locked away, with only 8 fighters being available from the get go, and even if obtaining more than 60 characters sounds like a daunting task, it is actually quite rewarding thanks to how the requirements of doing so are simple – as they involve just playing the game or tackling World of Light – and the unlocks happen frequently.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is by no means a perfect effort, as issues of different sizes and intensities can be found in many of its numerous modes. Even with that in mind, though, there is simply no stopping the game from feeling like the gigantic culmination its title indicates it intends to be. Installments of the saga have always been stunningly ambitious, and without ever faltering they have invariably succeeded in living up to the lofty expectations both its developers and the entire gaming world hold whenever a new entry in the series is planned. Ultimate is, naturally, not different, as it follows the norm perfectly. However, the fact it does exactly what is expected of it does not diminish the magnitude of the achievement that is putting out such an extremely polished, balanced, and enjoyable game that involves so many distinct and popular pieces. It is a Herculean task that can only possibly be topped through endless hours of labor and love, and it plays so delightfully it more than honors the accumulated greatness of the franchises it borrows from.