Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review
When the first entry arrived on the Nintendo 64 nearly 20 years ago, few could have anticipated the Super Smash Bros franchise becoming the monolithic juggernaut it is today. A cute mascot-brawling party game on the surface, it laid the foundations for a series of games that each arrived with an unparalleled level of hype and anticipation. With each entry adding a cavalcade of new modes, features and characters, we arrive at Super Smash Bros Ultimate – the culmination of two decades worth of frantic fighting action. Everyone and (almost) everything is here, and the frankly ridiculous array of content on offer results in a comprehensive package that is the most enjoyable smashing fest to date.
By the time the soaring opening movie is finished and the theme song is well and truly entrenched in your mind, the Ultimate moniker proudly splashes across the screen and it’s a more than apt description of what awaits players beyond the home page. This collection is designed to give you access to all the memories you’ve loved from prior games, whilst at the same time trimming some fat in the way of unpopular modes and stages. Gone are some of the less popular side attractions, and some of the more irritating vertical scrolling levels also haven’t made the cut (RIP Pokéfloats). Ultimate has the brazen confidence to tighten its focus and provide a compelling single player mode, every single multiplayer feature and option you could ever want, and the most refined fighting mechanics in the series to date.
This is a faster paced, more aggressive Smash Bros than its Wii U counterpart, and it’s a more exciting experience for it. Every tweak to the fighting engine has been made with the intention of putting you on the offensive, keeping you moving and discouraging overly defensive types of play. Characters generally move faster, most attacks seem to come out quicker, and landing lag on aerial attacks has been severely reduced. Ground dodges also get progressively less useful the more they are used, so constant defensive rolls are a less viable option this time around.
Other changes also encourage you to get up and go more often. Air dodges can now be done in 4 directions, adding another layer of mind games as well as providing some further recovery assistance for the vertically challenged. Throws tend to send your opponents further, making it more difficult to immediately combo and juggle your opponent. You’ll need to stay on the move to follow them up and keep the pressure on. Final Smashes have also been subject to several changes. Gone are long-lasting effects like Fox calling down his Land Master, and in their place are mostly quick hit or miss attacks that keep the pace flowing. The introduction of the Final Smash meter which allows you to build up a weaker Final Smash may also encourage more serious players to turn them back on during regular play.
This all makes for suitably chaotic fighting, however, one new element can make the action a little tricky to follow. The knockback on attacks now causes fighters to rapidly accelerate after taking a hit and then suddenly stop, meaning less time to track your trajectory as you go flying. You’ll need to retrain your brain after years of the Wii U version, and it can mean that when the action gets particularly hectic with a lot of players and items, it’s a little more common than before to lose track of where you are amongst the madness. The new mini map does help, and over time you will learn to keep track of your movement, but it does take some time to adjust nonetheless.
Overall the changes result in a fresh-feeling game, and makes it fun to try out your old favourites to see how they now play. Many remain highly faithful to their prior iteration, though some characters such as Ganondorf have received significant changes to their move sets. The star attraction is no doubt the new challengers, several of whom are extremely powerful characters I expect to see making regular appearances on the competitive scene.
My personal favourite of the newcomers is King K. Rool. His powerful hits and respectable speed for a heavyweight combined with his belly super armour make for a formidable foe. Simon will likely also prove a fan favourite, with powerful special attacks that are perfect for zoning out your opponent. The fire cat wrestler Incineroar introduces a very unusual style of fighting to Smash which is slow and tricky to master but incredibly satisfying. Inkling’s unique requirement to restock ink feels fresh and plays unlike anyone else on the roster. Giant meme-turned-reality Ridley arrives on the scene, monstering stages with his massive size and packing some terrifying moves that will dominate larger group battles. Isabelle and a host of echo fighters round out the new additions, and whilst they don’t bring much to the table in the way of new moves they’re a welcome addition nonetheless.
There are several ways to unlock these characters for use in Smash mode, including Classic Mode and standard Smash battles, but many will likely head straight to World of Light to begin their journey to reclaim the lost spirits of the Nintendo universe.
Make no mistake, this is a big world.
After the famous introduction where our saviour Kirby escapes the perilous demise to which the rest of his companions fell victim, you’re set free on a giant vibrant map filled with spirits to fight and locations to unlock, not to mention the occasional puzzle to solve and sub-area to explore. The spirits are the core element to the adventure. At spots on the map you’ll stumble upon a spirit blocking your path. These essentially replace the Event matches from previous Smash Bros games, with each encounter offering up a unique scenario and set of rules for the fight.
The breadth of variety and creativity on display is seriously impressive. Through clever use of colour schemes and Mii outfits, each spirit fight suitably invokes the history of the spirit you are fighting. One such match will see you taking on the spirit of the dragon Valoo from Wind Waker, in which you’ll fight a giant red Charizard on top of the volcano on Wuhu Island from Wii Sports Resort. Other creative battles see you fighting a Shedinja spirit in the form of Mr Game & Watch, who only has 1% health and is invincible 90% of the battle. It’s a fitting homage to the Pokémon spirit, and this level of thought and care perpetuates across the hundreds of spirit matches you’ll complete in World of Light. Beating a spirit will add it to your arsenal, and you can also select new spirit encounters from the random selection available on the Spirit Board. The downside here is that you’ll have to complete a catching mini-game after winning to secure it for your collection.
Your spirit army is comprised of primary and support spirits. Primary spirits determine your attack and defence and can be levelled up through use and with items. Support spirits add enhancements such as starting with a weapon, automatic healing or increased stamina for one of the numerous stamina battles. The sheer number of spirits can be a little overwhelming, but the recommended spirits button does a good job of equipping you with what you need for a fight (such as immunity to lava floors) and you’ll no doubt settle on a few favourites that you can save for quick access. There’s nothing quite like hurling a Bob-omb right at your opponent’s face to start the match.
The World of Light map is nothing short of enormous. Areas continue to expand and open up, and you can expect to spend around 30 hours getting through to the end. You can add another 10 if you plan on fighting everything single spirit and collecting all the treasure along the way. There are shops to unlock, caves in which you can send spirits on expeditions for items, and dojos where you can customise a spirit’s characteristics. There’s also the seemingly obligatory Skill Tree to complete which can unlock a wide assortment of permanent abilities such as increased smash attack power to aid you in your quest.
It’s a robust campaign to be sure, however it’s important not to go in expecting a single player mode in the vein of Subspace Emissary here. There are a few cut scenes but nothing approaching the volume or scale of the Brawl story. With that said, the trade-off is that you get intriguing fight rules and conditions that are infinitely more entertaining than the side-scrolling affairs found in Subspace, and the fantastic ending makes the mode well worth seeing through to the end.
Once you’re done with World of Light, there’s a host of other staples to choose from. Classic mode is back, with each character having a uniquely tailored line up for fighters and arenas. There’s also the traditional Century Smash, Cruel Smash and a stripped down All-Star Smash, but they’re all pretty generic modes by this point that are unlikely to hold your attention for long outside of trying to complete any related challenge stamps.
Far more entertaining options lie in the huge variety of ways you can engage in everyone’s favourite part of Smash Bros: standard Smash battles. Squad Strike is the new tag battle mode, with three different settings to provide some new ways to play. Smash Down is even better, removing fighters from the board as they’ve been used to encourage you to develop your skills across many different fighters. You can also use a saved team of spirits in standard Smash match by turning it on in the rules.
These modes drive Ultimate’s intent on giving you more interesting ways to fight that you will actually use, and providing the best user experience for those modes. There are general quality of life improvements across the board, including the option to now select your stage first, choose a Battlefield variant for each stage (in addition to Omega variants), turn on stage morphing, create rule sets you can save for quick access, and much more. These are extremely welcome changes that we will no doubt wonder how we lived without.
With the ludicrous amount of content on offer, it’s easy to overlook the omission of a few features from previous games. Stadium games like Home Run Contest and Target Blast are gone, the stage builder has been cut, and bonuses like the character reveal trailers and Masterpiece game demos from Smash 4 have been removed. Some may also lament the loss of trophies despite the impracticality of their implementation from a development standpoint. Nintendo likely decided that the level of engagement with all these elements in previous games was so minimal that they weren’t worth the resources, and honestly, I doubt anyone will really miss anything that was left on the cutting room floor.
This tiny blip aside, it’s hard to ask for more from a sequel to an already incredibly robust series of games. There is a level of love, care and passion that permeates every element of this package, with every piece polished to perfection. The game simply looks stunning, with a vibrant colour palette and extreme attention to detail on every pixel. It never stutters despite how manic the action on screen becomes, and every animation sells the impact of the fight and the personality of the characters dishing out the pain. The number of characters, stages and songs verges on insanity, and you’ll never be short of new and varied combinations of ways to duke it out with your favourite characters.
After spending some time with the online modes post-launch, we’re happy to report that it’s a great experience, for the most part. The entire Vooks team were able to play together without problems in Battle Arena which is essentially like matchmaking a room for you and your friends. If the battle arena is full, get in line and ready for the next battle or watch your friends duke it out. You can also find public arenas based on search criteria or with ID codes.
Matchmaking is a take it or leave it proposition, you can’t say I specifically want to play this mode, with this many players and have items on/off. You’ll get matched into matches you might not want to play. And suiciding and quitting punishes you. You can say you prefer to play under certain rules but there’s no guarantee. Waiting around for someone to play isn’t an issue as you can also search for matches in the background and play single-player modes in the meantime. The game will alert you when it’s found something.
Super Smash Bros Ultimate is a celebration of Nintendo’s long history, of the video game medium, and of the people who have poured their own spirits into crafting these characters, worlds and experiences we are all fortunate enough to have enjoyed over the years. It’s a meticulously-crafted joy to play that I will surely be returning to for years to come. It’s hard to know where Smash will go from here. Hopefully at the very least Sakurai can finally get some rest. He deserves it.
+ World of Light is creative
+ The most refined fighting mechanics in the series to date
+ An absurd amount of content and options
- Some minor features omitted