Super Smash Bros Ultimate Review
In attempting to serve every possible audience, Super Smash Bros Ultimate (mostly) sticks the landing.
Super Smash Bros Ultimate defies possibility. It is a massive fighting game that improves greatly on the gameplay mechanics of its already well-received predecessor. It brings back every character that has ever been playable in the series while adding in a number of new characters. It is packed to the brim with single player content. Most importantly, it sacrifices nothing in its attempt to serve both the casual and competitive crowds, although it also falls just short of perfection at serving either.
For the unfamiliar, Nintendo’s unique mascot fighter series takes a different approach to the concept of a fighting game, with controls and mechanics more similar to an action-platformer than a traditional fighting game like Street Fighter or Tekken. Several players (as many as 8 at a time in Ultimate) take to a large platform filled stage as they battle each other and dodge hazards, with a much higher emphasis placed on movement and maneuverability than the aforementioned standard-bearers of the genre. Rather than battering your enemy until their health bar is empty, your attacks rack up damage in the form of a “percentage”, which roughly translates to how far you send enemies when they are hit. The goal is not simply to rack up damage, but to send enemies off the stage boundaries and make sure they get launched too far away to return.
The gameplay mechanics themselves have been overhauled a bit from the series’ last entry on Wii U. The game is faster and more aggressive across the board. Characters move faster and more fluidly and transition more quickly between the air and ground. Shields break more easily, while dodge options are easier to punish. Despite the game’s overall faster pace, I found it to feel much easier to pick up the controls and play, with moves stringing together more quickly and movement in general feeling more natural. It certainly feels like the changes in the minutiae were made to both please the competitive crowd and create a better spectator experience, but I think that these changes have, if anything, created an intuitive gameplay environment that is easier to learn and improve in rather than harder.
The key to what makes Super Smash Bros work for so many audiences is the somewhat modular nature of its design. Smash lets you choose your victory conditions, adjust rules and mechanics, and even decide what items can show up and how often. Ultimate has taken this even farther, with new options like the ability to turn stage hazards on and off, save custom rulesets, and a new Final Smash meter that allows characters to use their ultimate abilities without the need of the Smash Ball item they previously required. It is this flexibility that allows Smash to be as chaotic as you want it to be; Smash can be an 8-way free for all of crazy items and hazardous stages, or a neutral battleground for two players to test their skills.
Perhaps my favorite of the gameplay additions is Squad Strike, which allows players to select a roster of characters to fight with. These 3v3 or 5v5 matches can play out in a variety of different ways thanks to some flexible rules and options, allowing players to switch characters immediately on death, or treating each matchup as an individual round (with the option to allow the victorious fighter to recover health or not). In my experience so far, this mode can be great fun as a way to inject variety into matches, as well as a sort of official method of setting up crew battles between groups of players.
Ultimate is chock-full of gameplay modes outside of the standard versus match, but the real winners here are the revamped Classic Mode and Adventure Mode. Classic Mode is now a series of scripted fights that is unique to each character. For example, Kirby has an entire sequence of fights where he and the enemy start with a small amount of damage and race to grab food at the beginning of the fight, and ends his Classic Mode gauntlet in a battle with Marx (from Kirby Super Star). Bowser only fights red enemies, leading up to a fight with Rathalos from Monster Hunter and then finally Mario himself. These unique, handcrafted paths for every character give more reason to play through Classic Mode with each of them, which will in turn encourage players to put their hands on everyone in the massive roster. Classic Mode can also be played cooperatively with a friend, which I have not been able to do yet as all my friends just want to beat me up, but if I had nicer friends I’m sure this would be a wonderful addition.
The new Adventure Mode goes hand-in-hand with the game’s Spirits mode, and combines the event matches and trophies of previous games. Ultimate’s Adventure Mode starts you off as Kirby, traversing an incredibly large map and winning unusual fights with specific conditions to unlock either more fighters for your party or other characters from across gaming history in the form of spirits. These spirit characters act as stat-modifying equipment for your characters in the Adventure mode, increasing their attack and defense and giving them unique abilities such as increased defense against fire attacks. Some of these spirits will also gain experience as you fight, eventually leveling up and potentially evolving into more powerful versions of those spirits (usually another version of the character that spirit represents). These spirits can also be used outside of Adventure Mode, but their unbalancing effects mean many players may be resistant to using them in multiplayer matches. At the time of writing, I have put almost 20 hours into Adventure Mode, only to realize that I am nowhere near as close to finished as I thought I was. Attempt to blaze through it at your own peril, but Adventure Mode is clearly meant to be played in chunks at a time over a longer period.
Unfortunately, if there is any one area Super Smash Bros Ultimate falls flat, it’s the online play. There’s currently very little positive to say about the experience. The interface is clunky and unintuitive. Inviting friends to the game’s Arena lobbies is time-consuming. Input lag is rampant and crippling even over an ethernet connection, and it’s difficult (if not nigh-impossible) to actually get a quickplay match with the rules you prefer due to the way matchmaking works. Two friends on the same console can go online, but only into quickplay. It is, frankly, unforgivable how badly Nintendo continues to screw up the online portions of their titles, especially given that they want to charge players for online now. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone willing to pay even $20 a year for the online experience provided by Smash Ultimate. Granted, in today’s day and age it is possible to see this corrected over time, but as of launch week, the online component may just as well not exist.
There are other, much less serious frustrations as well. The game offers a very flexible training room but no real teaching tutorial to speak of, an area fighting games in general continue to fall flat on. The slow unlocking of the game’s massive roster might be fun for many players, but the lack of a quick option to unlock all characters has led to a boring and grindy first week for many players (especially those hoping to be involved in the tournament scene). The game’s massive stagelist also presents something of a conundrum: with 103 stages not counting hazardless/omega/battlefield variations, it is currently very unwieldy to actually select the stage you want (especially since the hazard toggle can not be found on the stage select screen, but earlier in the rules selection screen). It would be nice if future updates allowed players to curate stage lists that mix up the standard, hazardless, omega, and battlefiend variants of stages… or at the very least, give hazardless stages a toggle on the select screen like the other variations.
In the end, Super Smash Bros Ultimate is still a marvel, packed full of more than I have room to write about. I could go on and on about the massive soundtrack full of loving rearrangements of modern and classic gaming music, or how impressively the game holds its framerate, or the tiny little details in each character animation. I could list off the subtle references in many character costumes, or spirit match conditions, or individual character animations. Like I said at the top, Super Smash Bros Ultimate defies possibility. It shouldn’t be this big, this polished, this full of love and craft, and succeed as well as it does. Nonetheless, succeed it does.
Super Smash Bros Ultimate is the best the series has had to offer. Packed full of content for casual players, and with a promising foundation for the competitive scene, Ultimate lives up to its moniker. The online component may be a sore spot on the game’s standard of quality, but as an offline party game and as a tournament fighter there’s almost nothing else that can compete. Do not sleep on Super Smash Bros Ultimate.