Review: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate knocks it out of the park

(NOTE: By sheer coincidence, the day this review is released just so happens to be the day Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was updated to version 2.0, including the addition of Piranha Plant as a playable character for early purchasers before being made available to later customers on a later date. The content of this review includes everything available as of January 29 in the 2.0 update.)

There’s no game series quite like Super Smash Bros., and with it being the largest crossover in gaming history and one of the largest crossovers in all of media, it’s near impossible for there to be one that comes close. Each game’s release is an event to behold, with fans anxiously awaiting character additions from their favorite franchises, and long beyond their launches, they remain beloved by casual and competitive fans alike. Even beyond that, each installment has something about it fans gravitate to over each other: Melee is a major pillar of the competitive Smash community, Brawl introduced third party characters and the Subspace Emissary story mode, and Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U was split between two consoles, with one containing the fantastic Smash Run mode and the other being one of the Wii U’s strongest titles. So to hear that the Switch’s Smash game is being labeled the ultimate installment is quite the statement. While it doesn’t quite live up to this name in its single-player content and collectibles, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate will go down in the franchise’s history for having the strongest gameplay and mechanics to date.

Since Ultimate is a notably large game, this review will be organized into multiple in-depth sections on gameplay, content and presentation. In the interest of being thematically fitting, these sections will be labeled like the major parts of the game’s main menu: Smash, which covers the basic controls and mechanics, Spirits, which covers the World of Light single-player campaign and major collectibles, Games and More, which covers the single-player modes that did and didn’t return, Online, which covers online multiplayer, and Vault, which covers the game’s presentation and other miscellaneous features, along with a How to Play section with basic controls.

HOW TO PLAY: Gameplay and Mechanics

my party poppeth more
Isabelle’s Smash attacks are unorthodox but effective, including her side Smash attack, a party popper. Image from Nintendo

A series as universally loved as Smash requires little introduction, as it sets itself apart from other fighting games with its character roster and nontraditional mechanics. Characters from Nintendo’s massive catalog of games, as well as a few guest characters from third party developers like Capcom and Sega, fight by knocking opponents off the stage and out of bounds, although there’s also stamina mode for players who prefer whittling down an opponent’s health. Their attacks do more than damage, as attacks have knockback to send foes flying, which becomes easier as the fight continues since damaged characters fly farther when hit. While fighting games often have intricate button inputs, Smash games are easier to understand for newcomers. Attacks are executed by one button press along with tilting or holding the control stick up, down, sideways, or not at all.

The A button leads to different attacks depending on where the opponent is; holding the A button and a direction together while standing still causes a Smash attack, a chargeable move with long windup time but high damage and knockback, but doing the same while tilting the control stick causes a tilt attack, which has decent damage and knockback with little windup. There are also dash attacks from pressing A while running, aerial attacks from pressing A and a direction while jumping, and jab attacks from pressing A while standing still.

The B button, on the other hand, only causes special moves, which have much more variable purposes, including, but not limited to, projectile attacks, counterattacks, moves with the windup and knockback of Smash attacks, and projectile reflectors. Almost every fighter’s up-special move is a recovery move that gives them short upward momentum, although the majority of upwards recovery moves leave the player in a free-falling state in which they can’t use other attacks until they touch the ground or fall out of bounds and lose a life. This means that recovery moves are best used at the end of an attempt to return to the stage as a last push, although certain fighters have additional recovery moves, typically a side-special attack, that can be used before the up-special to add horizontal distance. As long as fighters can grab the ledge of a platform, they can climb back onto it. Finally, the B button allows fighters to use their Final Smash, a powerful finishing move that can only be used under certain conditions.

Fighters can grab opponents with trigger buttons, pummel them with repeated button presses, then choose a direction to throw their foe. Most grabs have short range, but certain fighters have tether grabs that can reach farther, as well as acting like a grappling hook for extra recovery options. Holding the trigger buttons allows players to put up a shield absorbs damage, although the shield breaks if damaged too much, leaving the player stunned temporarily so opponents have a clear opportunity to use high-damage, high-knockback moves. Shielding opponents are also vulnerable to grabs, and certain fighters even have attacks that instantly break shields. Pressing the shield button and a direction on the ground or air causes fighters to dodge and roll to avoid damage.

While these mechanics have worked well for past entries, Ultimate feels like the natural evolution of Smash’s gameplay focused on more aggressive strategies and less stalling. The previous installments of Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U, better known as Smash 4, are used as a basis, but every character was buffed in mobility, and even the slower heavy characters are fast and fun to play. Better still, for having a roster of over 70 characters, Ultimate is extremely well-balanced. A few characters currently rank consistently high and low on early tier lists, but not with such a massive advantage or disadvantage that it breaks the balance, as every character has enough tools to be viable fighters while not having so many that it makes them overpowered. Additionally, players are punished for dodging multiple times or grabbing the ledge in quick succession without attacking or landing on the stage, both by slower reaction time and shortened invulnerability. Even the aesthetics have been buffed in their own ways, as powerful hits in two-player matches are accentuated by a freeze-frame shot of the attack before the victim is launched. Due to these subtle changes, Ultimate is both exciting competitively and accessible casually, making its core gameplay the best the series has to offer.

SMASH: Overall Content

Along with the excellent controls, the characters are one of the Smash franchise’s defining aspects. Characters from not just Nintendo history, but gaming history as a whole, as well as representing various genres from platformers to turn-based strategy games, are playable. Given the tagline, “Everyone is here,” Ultimate includes every playable character from previous Smash games, including those who were cut from Brawl and Smash 4. This means that, before any DLC fighters are released, there are 73 fighters, the vast majority of which are visually and mechanically unique. Since every fighter returns, there aren’t as many new characters as previous installments, but as discussed in the Electric Retrospective December column, the six newcomers are welcome additions. Even returning characters feel completely revamped, as some fighters have different appearances, attacks and balance changes. Although certain fighters stick out as potentially top-tier characters for competitive tournaments, this is the most balanced Smash roster to date, and every character feels at least close enough in power to everyone else to stand a chance.

hado ken
Ken, an Echo Fighter of Ryu, has mostly similar attacks to his original counterpart with a few extra attributes. However, Ken is one of the few Echo Fighters to have unique moves. Image from Nintendo

The few fighters who aren’t as unique are clones, fighters that function almost identically to another character, and semi-clones, who copy a significant amount of moves from another fighter but have enough new moves to stand on their own. While fans typically praise semi-clones for being different enough, clones were considered an issue in previous games. However, returning clone characters have been altered to the level of semi-clones, and remaining clones have been labeled Echo Fighters, which distinguishes them as similar but not taking development time away from new characters.

Of course, fighters from various franchises would be nothing without locations from their own games to fight on. While a few stages are missing, the majority of levels from previous games return, and combined with four new stages, a total of 103 stages are available. This number extends further with Omega mode, a feature from Smash 4 that allows any stage to be played with the flat, one-platform layout of the iconic Final Destination stage. While this allowed competitive players to enjoy a change of scenery and music, Ultimate takes this a step further by offering Battlefield mode, which gives any stage a four-platform layout, and Hazard Toggle, which keeps the stage’s layout but removes obstacles such as boss battles and environmental objects. If that somehow wasn’t enough, the new Stage Morph feature allows for a single battle to switch between two stages at set intervals. While previous installments had players choose characters before stages, stages are now chosen before characters in the interest of terrain advantage, although this increases waiting time for local matches.

While Smash’s popularity is partially due to its uniquely accessible mechanics compared to traditional fighting games, Ultimate includes aspects that are new to the series, but are common modes in other franchises. The aforementioned Final Smash could only be earned in previous installments by destroying a Smash Ball, one of many items that can appear in battles, but the Final Smash Meter now allows fighters to use a slightly weaker Final Smash after dealing and receiving enough damage. Two new battle modes have also been added: Squad Strike, which allows players to choose teams of fighters that switch out mid-battle, and Smashdown, which forces players to choose new fighters after every battle and locks previously used characters out until the session is over. Due to the various different modes, rulesets can be saved and chosen quickly before battles rather than wasting time deciding on rules before battles.

SPIRITS: Collectibles and World of Light

Previous Smash games had collectible items in the form of trophies: 3D models of characters from various franchises accompanied by a short blurb of information about them. While some of the models were imported from existing games, many of them were made from scratch, and the blurbs introduced players to characters from franchises they weren’t aware of before. Furthermore, trophies fit into the aesthetic and themes of Smash, as the series canonically takes place in the mind of a child playing with toys of game characters. This even extended to the Smash line of Amiibo figures, which are presented like the ingame trophy models. Trophies could be viewed from various directions or even placed together in gallery modes for photo opportunities. To be fair, trophies didn’t add anything to the base gameplay, but they were a nice touch that showcased characters to a new audience, and Smash wouldn’t be the same without them even if the gameplay wouldn’t be impacted.

know my power
While not as ridiculously overpowered as he was in Brawl, Meta Knight is still an intimidating fighter. Image from Nintendo

Unfortunately, in order to save development time for gameplay and characters, trophies have been replaced by spirits, which are static 2D sprites of existing concept and character artwork. Spirits do have the advantage of impacting gameplay, but as collectibles, they’re a complete downgrade. Not only is none of the artwork new, but without a blurb of information or the ability to use them in pictures, there’s nothing collectors can value from spirits that can’t be found elsewhere. Instead of a model gallery that acted as a brief fan wiki, it’s more like a page of Google Images search results. If anything, spirits have more in common with stickers from Brawl, which used existing art for minor stat buffs, but could be easily forgotten considering Brawl still had trophies.

While spirits change gameplay, they don’t do so in a unique way. Any spirit collected can be attached to a fighter to provide certain bonuses, such as stronger moves or beginning battles with held items, but this system is strikingly similar to that of custom fighters from Smash 4. More to the point, spirits are missing the one thing that made custom fighters worthwhile: custom moves, collectibles that completely changed how characters’ special moves worked. Even though customs wouldn’t be difficult to import from Smash 4, along with giving Smash 4’s DLC fighters and Ultimate’s new fighters the customs they never had, spirits lose yet another excellent collectible, further cementing them as lackluster rewards.

Spirits are earned through spirit battles, ten of which can be randomly encountered on the spirit board mode. Each spirit has strength determined by rank (novice, advanced, ace and legend in order of increasing power) and a numbered power level that’s exactly as ridiculous and meaningless as those in Dragon Ball Z. Power levels don’t determine how strong the enemy is, but instead how intelligent the enemy AI is. This means that players have to increase spirits’ power levels by constantly taking them into battles, feeding them snacks or placing them in training facilities.

Perhaps that’s why spirits feel so lackluster: they feel like they’re straight out of a gacha mobile game. In all seriousness, if the concept wasn’t attached to the beloved gameplay of Smash, spirits would be near indistinguishable from something like Fire Emblem Heroes. Characters in the form of static 2D artwork and specific abilities are leveled up through grinding, items and facilities, can be released for materials and are summoned in stronger forms later. Additionally, skill trees, item-grinding facilities that require the player to wait several hours, and the feedback loop of mobile games are all present. The problem isn’t that mobile games are poorly designed, since this is an effective gameplay loop when done properly. Instead, Ultimate has a similar issue to Pokemon Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee, which tried and failed to copy the mechanics and gameplay loop of Pokemon GO into a core Pokemon RPG. The real issue here is that mobile games are an inherently different type of game in a drastically different setting, and what works when playing a free mobile game in short intervals doesn’t always work when sitting down and dedicating time to a fully paid console game.

Outside of the mechanics, spirit battles do provide fun references to the character each spirit represents, as specific fighters, items, music and attributes are chosen to be as close as possible to a fight with that character. For example, a spirit battle with Specter Knight, the protagonist of Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, is represented by Richter Belmont holding the Death’s Scythe item while the song “Flash in the Dark” from Mega Man 9 plays on the Bridge of Eldin stage. In this instance, the fighter and music represent the fact that Specter of Torment was creatively influenced by the Castlevania and Mega Man series, the Death’s Scythe represents Specter Knight’s weapon of choice, and the stage’s sunset appearance represents the Plains of Passage intro level from Specter of Torment, which had a similar background. This is just one of hundreds of unique spirit battles that clearly had thought going into them, although they’re sometimes held back by references that only fans of the character will understand. This could easily have been fixed by including blurbs about the character, as that could explain to newcomers where the choices made for each spirit battle came from.

Lucas’s hexagons may seem like simple attacks, but they’re actually powerful blasts of psychic energy. In fact, Lucas has one of the strongest Smash attacks in the game. Image from Nintendo

Spirits also play a major role in the game’s single-player campaign, World of Light. Notice how that was worded as “single-player campaign” and not “story mode,” because World of Light wasn’t clearly advertised. To the untrained eye, it appears to be a story mode like Subspace Emissary, the story mode of Brawl that sent the roster on a journey across different platforming stages, but it’s actually much closer to Event matches from previous games, which had conditional battles like spirit battles did, albeit with less references to characters. Even though there’s an overarching villain (an admittedly bland and forgettable one), the mode is functionally identical to Event matches.

World of Light has the player (keyword “player,” as World of Light surprisingly lacks co-op modes, even after four player support was added for the spirit board in today’s 2.0 update) traverse a large world map to move from one spirit battle to another, but the already tedious gameplay loop is accentuated by how slow the map is. The branching paths take longer than needed to navigate as the clunky map controls send the player forward at random speeds, and this isn’t helped by forced backtracking to find specific spirits when paths are blocked off, nor is it helped by the lack of fast travel or teleportation between set points on the map. Given both Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had massive maps with fast travel options, there’s no reason why World of Light can’t do the same. If it wasn’t slow enough, the campaign lasts far longer than it should’ve, as it extends itself with two extra maps when it could have ended at the first.

Difficulty-wise, World of Light is all over the place. Most spirit battles are either exceptionally easy or can have obstacles removed by having specific spirits, which means that for most of the campaign, players will slog through what feels like standard Smash battles rather than fighting hundreds of unique characters. However, the occasional legend-rank spirit will be placed haphazardly between a long stretch of easy spirits, and even in the campaign’s final moments, the player still faces lower rank spirits. World of Light essentially throws out conventional difficulty progression in favor of grinding through basic battles, although the occasional dungeon mixes things up by giving the player puzzles on the world map, two of which are particularly obtuse.

Almost every fight is either a standard Smash battle or a stamina match, which means that most battles feel similar, especially since conditions can be removed with specific spirits. The only exceptions are boss battles, which, while welcome, are just stamina matches against a stronger enemy. For variety’s sake, spirit battles could have included platforming levels like those of Subspace Emissary, or possibly other modes and challenges. For example, imagine the spirit battle with Tails the Fox challenging the player to race him to the end of a level, similar to the Tails stages in Sonic Adventure. Alternatively, imagine a spirit battle with Wishiwashi from Pokemon Sun and Moon that had the player enter a Mob Smash match. Since Mob Smash pits the player against 100 weak enemies, it would reference how Wishiwashi can combine with hundreds of other Wishiwashi to form a massive behemoth.

GAMES AND MORE: Returning Modes

big starring tom hanks
Ridley, a Subspace Emissary boss in Brawl and a stage hazard in Smash 4, was upgraded to a playable character after massive support from his sizable fanbase. Image from Nintendo

In a refreshing twist on Classic Mode, which typically had players enter a series of matches before fighting bosses Master Hand and Crazy Hand, every fighter has a personalized Classic Mode route with specific opponents. Some of these routes are simple, such as Bowser fighting characters that wear red clothing, but others are more interesting, with many paths having matches that represent characters and mechanics from the fighter’s own series, such as Ryu taking on opponents in stamina matches like Street Fighter is known for. Some of the routes even get creative and tell a story, with one of the highlights being Mewtwo’s route, in which he battles characters who have been brainwashed in their own games’ stories and gains them as an ally for the next match. Additionally, there are a variety of bosses so that not every fighter needs to battle the Hand duo. This includes returning bosses like Giga Bowser and fantastic new picks like Dracula, although some of the best Subspace Emissary bosses, such as Rayquaza and Porky Minch, are notably missing. The only issues with Classic Mode are the bonus and credits games, which are noticeably more boring than those of previous installments.

If this section feels a bit smaller in scale, that’s because Games and More is as small as these two paragraphs make it seem. While Mob Smash, All Star and Cruel Smash modes, which each pit characters against a horde of fighters, all return, and the training section now includes a special stage that measures launch distance, the majority of popular modes are missing. Smash Run, Adventure Mode, Stadium, Stage Builder, Custom Fighters, Master and Crazy Orders, Target Test- while it’s unclear if any of these will be added as free content updates like Nintendo has done with many of their recent games, the lack of any of these is both surprising and disappointing.

ONLINE: Multiplayer Lobbies and Nintendo Switch Online

While the random matches have their issues, arena battles with friends allow for better multiplayer experiences, be they serious battles or just plain tomfoolery. Image from Nintendo

Smash games don’t have the best history with online modes, although Smash 4 came closer to standard practices for online multiplayer. Particularly, online modes have been plagued by lag issues, and Ultimate doesn’t do much to solve this. There are no dedicated servers, so players are prioritized to fight others that are closer to them, and even then, there can still be sizable lag issues. It’s worth mentioning that the online component has improved since launch and the developers are aware of the problem, but there’s still a ways to go. This was at least forgivable in the previous console generation when Nintendo was the only one of the major three console manufacturers to have free online multiplayer, but with Nintendo Switch Online being a paid service, customers deserve a better online experience for their money’s worth. Switch Online is already off to a rocky start due to lackluster offerings and little online improvement, and although this is offset by reasonable pricing compared to competitors, Ultimate could have potentially turned things around if there were dedicated servers. That said, online arenas are a welcome addition. While random online matches can now load in the background of other modes at the cost of not guaranteeing that a chosen ruleset will be used, arenas allow for one ruleset and more player choice.

VAULT: Menus, Music, and Graphics, and Other Aspects

Incineroar is by far the most expressive newcomer, due in part to a large number of unique animations. Image from Nintendo

While Ultimate mostly uses an upgraded version of the graphics from Smash 4, this choice is for the better, as it already had the best art style the series had to date; unlike Melee’s rigid models and Brawl’s gritty realism, Smash 4 kept its visuals jovial while staying true to the art style each character was created in. Ultimate continues this art style, but completely overhauls stage models from previous games and brings them into the modern day. Additionally, fighters are more expressive in their animations, which especially works in favor of characters like Incineroar and King DeDeDe, whose animations are always a joy to watch. While the effects can occasionally be obnoxious, as launching moves send fighters out with a puff of smoke that can cover the screen if too many fighters are launched at once, this is rarely an issue. The framerate is consistently smooth as well, although it can slow down if the maximum of eight players are in the game, which in it of itself becomes chaotic with or without framerate issues and isn’t recommended.

After the confusing menu design of Smash 4, Ultimate has a sleek and avant-garde menu layout that manages to look fantastic while not putting form over function. Menu items have been rearranged to more appropriate sections, and each mode has been given icons with sizes matching their importance to the base game. Developer interviews have stated that the menu design was inspired by Persona 5, which, among other positive aspects, was hailed for its user interface. Of course, this isn’t the last part of Ultimate being influenced by Persona 5, as the leader of the Phantom Thieves, Joker, will be added as a DLC character later this year, but that’s another story for another day.

Mega Man is one of the best represented fighters in terms of music, as his franchise received the largest amount of new remixes. Image from Nintendo

As per usual, Ultimate contains numerous remixes of songs from represented franchises, with the total track list before DLC reaching over 800 songs and 28 hours of music. Admittedly, certain franchises were shown bias from the composers, as the remixes aren’t distributed equally. The majority of new remixes come from Fire Emblem, Pokemon and the newly represented franchise Castlevania, with the most new remixes added going to the Mega Man series. Now, if the entire month of October wasn’t enough of a sign, this is a pro-Mega Man blog and any new Mega Man content, especially music, is greatly appreciated, along with the many excellent tracks from Castlevania and more. However, it’s understandable how this could be an issue for fans of franchises with little or no new remixes. That aside, many of the new remixes are some of the franchise’s best, with a notable highlight being the remix of Gang-Plank Galleon, which has taken on a life of its own among the Smash community after it played in King K. Rool’s reveal trailer. Music can also be saved to playlists, which can be listened to even when the console’s screen is turned off.

The item shop has also been significantly improved from previous games. While Smash 4 only allowed players to buy trophies, Ultimate allows players to purchase spirits, items for the spirits board and Classic Mode, and even music tracks, which gives a better incentive to return to the shop. There are also shops in World of Light that sell exclusive spirits, although the game doesn’t make it clear that they can only be found this way.

Challenges, a mainstay mode of the series since Brawl, provides players with certain conditions to unlock rewards. Admittedly, this is one of the easier sets of challenges the series has to offer, with only a few that pose a serious challenge as the title suggests. Part of this is due to easy methods and workarounds to finish them quickly, but other challenges are just not as hard as they sound, as many of the challenges are just confusingly described in order to sound more difficult. Challenges are now separated by game modes from each part of the menu, but strangely enough, rewards given for each section aren’t as useful to the player once these sections are completed. For example, completing the World of Light and spirits challenges gives rewards only usable in those modes, despite the player needing to finish World of Light to complete all its challenges.

Regardless of unlock method, Palutena takes a significant amount of time to find, meaning players that main Palutena and no other character will have a rough start with Ultimate. Image from Nintendo

The lack of difficult challenges could have fixed one large issue with the game, however: character unlocks. Characters are unlocked either by locating and fighting them in World of Light, which is time-consuming and doesn’t guarantee fighters the player wants early on, completing Classic Mode with specific characters, which typically unlocks characters the player wants the fastest but doesn’t explain which ones are coming without a guide, and character unlocks for every ten minutes of standard gameplay, which guarantees a set order of fighter unlocks but leaves certain characters until late in the game. All three unlock methods are time consuming and don’t always guarantee fighters the player wants, and considering that the game only begins with the original roster of eight fighters from Super Smash Bros. 64 (plus Mii Fighters, which can be made at any time in Games and More), unlocking every fighter can take hours of waiting. While everything is unlocked eventually, a better solution for character unlocks would be to have characters also appear with set conditions in challenges, as previous games have allowed character unlocks from certain modes.

Ultimate is a fantastic game, and it’s likely going to hold up as the most fun and accessible title in the series, but it isn’t the Ultimate Smash game, as there are a few major changes that hold it back. Removing modes like custom moves and content like trophies, as well as a slog-fest of a single-player campaign, give its predecessors major advantages over it, and while this could be solved in future updates, it’s unclear if this will happen. Additionally, calling this game “Ultimate” could potentially devalue future installments in the long term if Ultimate isn’t simply ported to future consoles. However, this may have just been an issue with the localization, as the Japanese title is much more fitting: “Super Smash Bros. Special.” Super Smash Bros. Ultimate isn’t a perfect game, let alone a perfect Smash game, but with its outstanding gameplay, massive roster, excellent presentation and improved mechanics, it’s certainly one of the most special games Nintendo has yet to put out.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is available for $59.99 on Nintendo Switch.

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