A forthcoming major installment of a heralded Nintendo game franchise like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, or Pokémon is enough to drive their respective fanbases into an absolute tizzy. These new games, often boasting a lavish premise with plenty of promise, building on the solid foundations of its predecessors, lead us to high and often met expectations, with each landmark title continuing to surprise and amaze.
Super Smash Bros., on the other hand, isn't your average gaming franchise.
No, a series like Smash Bros. sits in a hallowed position as the beloved and increasingly ambitious crossover helmed by the revered producer Masahiro Sakurai, bringing in all of Nintendo's major players and honored guests under one unbelievably packed roof for an all-star battle royale like none other. Rumors alone of a new entry on the horizon are enough to stir a massive frenzy of discussion and speculation, and we were no stranger to the hype here at Gamnesia. When that familiar insignia blazed anew at the end of the March 2018 Direct, the collective Internet jumped out of its chair and screamed in total euphoria, as the long-awaited marriage of Smash and Switch has finally happened, later sporting the appropriately weighty title of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Since its inception, Super Smash Bros. sported its own distinct gameplay style that sets itself apart as a hybrid platformer-fighter-party game. It foregoes flat planes and health bars that the traditional fighting game genre has established since the days of Street Fighter, in favor of platform-based stages and damage percentage buildup. The higher a fighter's percentage, the further they are sent flying off the map, and once beyond the stage's borders, they are KO'd.
The biggest draw of Smash Bros. is, of course, its mind-boggling cast of playable characters. Each new entry over the years presented a bigger and more impressive roster than the last, although there were some fighters from a previous title not making the cut in a subsequent installment due to time constraints, rights negotiations, or technical difficulties—but not this time.
Living up to its name, and the lofty slogan "Everyone is Here!!," Super Smash Bros. Ultimate goes above and beyond in bringing back each and every single fighter from across the franchise's 20-year-long history. These include the return of one-off characters like Solid Snake and Young Link, and further cement the presence of the downloadable characters following the release of Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and for Wii U, like Corrin and Bayonetta.
Prioritizing the return of every fighter for Ultimate did lead to a lower number of brand new fighters being developed for the game next to previous entries, but these new contenders are excellent additions that make up for the comparative lack all the same. Metroid's own "larger than life" Ridley and King K. Rool of Donkey Kong Country fame make triumphant debuts under the spotlight as highly requested legacy characters from Nintendo's rogues gallery, with fresh faces like Inkling from Splatoon and the chipper Animal Crossing secretary Isabelle joining the fray. To top it all off, there are the special third party appearances by two of Castlevania's famed vampire slayers—Simon and Richter Belmont—adding to the already insane guest character lineup including Mega Man, Pac-Man, and Cloud.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate's roster aimed for both quantity and quality from the outset, and succeeded in both fronts in spades. Every fighter, old and new, plays smoothly with a variety of bonkers movesets at the heightened pace of combat this game presents compared to its predecessor, inching it closer but nonetheless comfortably distant from Super Smash Bros. Melee when it comes to gameplay speed. The additional control mechanics like a streamlined short-hop attack and the return of directional air dodges have also been welcome additions that help spice up ways in which you can approach your opponent.
The stages also mostly comprise of returning maps, bringing in over one hundred stages for up to eight players to go toe-to-toe in. Returning favorites include Fountain of Dreams, Arena Ferox, and Jungle Japes, all with an HD facelift that make them look better than ever—as well as new additions based off of Nintendo's recent hits like Moray Towers and New Donk City. For competitive players, not only does each map include a Final Destination variant like in for 3DS and for Wii U (this time bearing a consistent floating island layout), but a Battlefield off-shoot as well, let alone a dedicated Tournament mode and the team-oriented Squad Strike.
Throw in the brand new Stage Morph option to switch arenas mid-match, a Stage Hazard toggle to do away with hindrances and left-field surprises, and an incredibly thorough ruleset for players to mess with, and you're all set for hours of fun fisticuffs with friends.
When you've had your fill of the multiplayer portion of Ultimate, the game has a few dedicated single player offerings as well. The ever-familiar Classic Mode takes on a new form this time around by having each fighter tackle a specific set of approaching challengers in their own specially themed campaigns, typically culminating towards a boss battle. Kirby, for example, faces off against fellow fighters known for their voracious appetites, leading towards a superstar-studded showdown versus Marx, and poor Luigi is thrust into his worst nightmares by clashing with the scarier fighters before confronting the dreaded Count Dracula Vlad Ţepeş. Most of these tongue-in-cheek references and thematic Classic routes are subtle slices of fan service that only endeared me further towards the labor of love and attention to detail Sakurai and company have put into each campaign.
The only real knocks against Classic Mode, personally, were how most of the campaigns simply end in a battle against Master Hand (occasionally featuring Crazy Hand) when certain other bosses would've been a better fit for certain fighters—say Badnik-busting expert Sonic the Hedgehog going up against the robotic tank Galleom—and the lack of dedicated Mii Fighter campaigns.
The other two single player game modes are Training Mode and Mob Smash, the latter being an umbrella category for Century Smash (100 Man Melee), Cruel Smash, and All-Star Smash. While Training Mode further expanded on the concept with a dedicated Training map with graphs and launch distance measurements, and Mob Smash provides some fun distractions, it does make one miss some of the more banal mini-games like Homerun Contest and Break the Targets.
All of that aside, the big crux of the game's single player content revolves around Spirits Mode, and I have to say, the phrase "attention to detail" does not do this feature justice. Gone are Trophies, instead replaced with Spirits embodying a wide litany of characters from the collaborating franchises under Ultimate and then some. You earn Spirits primarily in battles via the Spirit Board, this game's equivalent to Event Matches from previous titles, where you're set up against computer players with a specific set of rules, enemy behaviors, and victory conditions. It put a big smile on my face to go up against a Shantae-possessed Zero Suit Samus favoring her whip, or Rayman possessing the ever agile Sonic with a helping hand from the limbless Sukapon Assist Trophy. A bit of a shame that the Spirits aren't accompanied with a descriptive blurb on the character or item it represents, sadly.
It is also in Spirits Mode where Smash Bros. once again bears a fully-fledged Adventure Mode, this time going by the name "World of Light," but those seeking something akin to the Subspace Emissary will be disappointed. There are no cutscenes featuring character interactions beyond the opening cinematic, let alone any substantial scenes aside from the finale and halfway point as WoL is mostly gameplay-driven, with Spirit Battles galore and no platforming segments like its predecessor. That is not to say the mode is devoid of any enjoyment, as you explore world maps and specially themed submaps in your quest to liberate Spirits and your fellow fighters, battle against Galeem and a litany of bosses, and train your Spirits to become stronger. It is, however, a bit of a grind to complete that could take a couple dozen hours, but the true final boss is a hell of a spectacle, including a certain surprise that will delight longtime fans, that helped validate the long road to reach it.
Tallying the Primary, Support, Master, and Fighter Spirits, the base game totals 1297 Spirit for you to catalog, and that's only the final count that came up at launch. With a ton of Spirits to collect and several methods to obtain them, Spirits Mode will certainly keep you busy!
l was also pleased to see Smash Bros. Ultimate run at a consistent 60fps for the most part on my Switch in either Docked or Handheld mode, with the graphical fidelity hardly taking a hit when playing portably, perfecting the dream of on-the-go Smashings that for 3DS first realized four years ago. The game's soundtrack, much like the fighters and stages, mostly comprise of returning favorites, but the new remixes for Ultimate are absolutely phenomenal, both in the creative approach of letting artists choose what they would like to cover and their subsequent execution. For example, hearing ACE—famous for composing many fantastic tracks from Xenoblade Chronicles and its sequel—tackle David Wise's "Gangplank Galleon" from DKC was one of the best experiences I've had listening to an arrangement ever. The fact that the game even has a soundtrack totalling over 800 music tracks is so very surreal, but it's all the more believable given it's Smash Bros.—of course they had to go over the top!
Finally, that leaves one remaining portion that I feel is Ultimate's weakest pillar across its otherwise stellar foundation, and that is the online mode.
Pros first, the Battle Arenas have been improved considerably since for Wii U, as players can now host private lobbies with friends and invited guests for up to 8 participants, compared to the limit of 4 players among friends only the last time around. Only up to four at a time can throw down at once, but the remaining players can either queue themselves up to go up next or simply spectate each round as they come. Additionally, the Background Matchmaking feature helps immeasurably for those not willing to put up with waiting in a training lobby between brawls, as I found myself squeezing in some offline gameplay while waiting for the next match I'd be paired into.
The real down points with the online portion, however, come first with Quickplay. There are no "For Fun" and "For Glory" distinctions like last time, with players now choosing preferred rules before being paired up with others. This often leads to going into battle without the rules you wanted for yourself as the matchmaking system seems to choose one players' rules at random rather than matching you with someone with rules more closely reflecting your own. While I can swing either casually with items or competitively without, I found it to be a bit of a drag going up against my opponents without the playing field I initially envisioned.
And my last point against the online is less a bad grade for Ultimate alone and more a scathing indictment of Nintendo Switch Online, but the lack of dedicated servers do hurt the appeal of fighting against your friends via the Internet. You can minimize lag for yourself with a decent service plan and investing in a USB-based LAN adapter, but if your opponent has a bad connection in this head-scratching Peer-to-Peer environment, so will you and everyone else. It's a shame that Nintendo has not fully invested in an online infrastructure what with a paid subscription for a service that was freely available for a year and a half after the Switch's launch, especially for a game as massive as Ultimate. It doesn't exactly paint a pretty picture as Nintendo got caught fibbing on the matter when the North America Open livestream openly displayed said lag during one of the matches.
There is also a feature to share recorded match videos via the Smash World service on the Nintendo Switch Online app, but this has not yet been made available at the time of writing this review. It is also a shame that the Nintendo Switch's video capture feature is disabled, as there are several moments in Classic Mode and Spirit Battles among others that I wish I could've saved, seeing as you can only record your multiplayer battles.
Online woes aside, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate stands proud as the most ambitious crossover in video game history, bringing together an impossible collection of fighters made reality thanks to the good faith Nintendo and Sakurai have accrued for the franchise since its humble beginnings on the Nintendo 64 twenty years ago. There's plenty of replay value in store with the timeless frantic multiplayer and limitless combinations of dream fighter matchups, familiar gameplay modes that have been refined in most ways, and a long list of Spirits to collect and familiarize oneself with, so trust me when I say you're in for a smashing great time.
Those looking for even more Smash for their buck will surely come back for rotating events on the Spirit Board, at times updating with new Spirits to collect, and keep an eye out for even more fighters on top of the insane number of 71 already present in the base game. Piranha Plant was one newcomer I could never expect, but its design and moveset make this timeless bitey, planty Mario baddie a welcome and hilarious addition to the roster, and with the surprise reveal I never saw coming with Joker from Persona 5 on the horizon, I can hardly wrap my head around how much further Nintendo can press the envelope with the four other mystery guests yet to be unveiled. Who else is there left who could possibly join? I can hardly wait!
All that and more is to say the thrill ride that is Ultimate has no end in sight just yet, and I am more than excited to be a part of it all.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is available now for the Nintendo Switch.
A digital copy of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was provided to Gamnesia by Nintendo of America for the purpose of this review.