Truly an ultimate experience.
My ten-minute experience with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate began in trepidation – I had been informed the day before by a Nintendo rep and my coworker Kenny we were only allowed time for two matches, but being the nervous wreck I am, I simply had to confirm again. After reaching the end of the line, I beckoned the representative and asked, “So, do we just do two matches and then scram?”
She smiled. “Nope, you get four today!”
Arms high, I instantly praised the sun. She laughed.
I had every reason to celebrate: our site had just missed the boat for a VIP play session with the game, and Nintendo’s media booth was booked full with appointments. Having been resigned to the apparent reality that I would barely spend any time with the game, I’d already planned my two character choices – EarthBound’s Ness, my main since Smash‘s beginning in 1999, and Ridley, the much awaited draconic villain from Metroid. With this piece of good news, I’d be adding Splatoon’s Inkling – a newcomer from Nintendo’s breakout shooter hit – and Metal Gear Solid’s Snake – a third-party guest finally returning from 2008’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
After being assured by the infectiously enthusiastic Nintendo rep that the stray Dragon Ball Super comic on the stand was simply a lost article and not an indication Goku would join the battle, I turned to my assigned fighting partner and made a request: “May we please battle on Onett this first round?” It was only fitting, it being Ness’s hometown from EarthBound and my favorite Smash stage of all time. No objections were raised, and off we went, the rep joining us for four rounds of three-player matches.
Right away, I confirmed the whispers I’d heard about Ness’s Up Air: his swinging headbutt’s been replaced with a zapping finger maneuver that scores multiple hits before launching. While it didn’t feel as instantly reliable, it does mesh better with his psychic hijinks (not that he’s the most faithful reproduction in Smash, but he never smacked anyone with his noggin in EarthBound). He felt much the same otherwise, although as I was adjusting to the Switch Pro Controller, I was unable to experiment with his deadly throws (for reference, GameCube controllers place the grab button to your right, while the opposite placement on Switch took some getting used to). By the way, Onett itself has gotten a much-needed visual upgrade not previously received in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U – only the surrounding mountains and a couple background buildings still show signs of aged GameCube polygons.
Next, we took a trip down to the Great Plateau Tower from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. My next guinea pig in Ridley proved an unexpected obstacle – I initially assumed his brutish strength would render him an easier character to pick up than Inkling, but that ended up not being the case. Aside from being an easy target due to his size, his Special Attacks required precise aim to perform correctly; in particular, his Up-B recovery felt stiff in spite of its directional input, although I imagine that’s due to balancing. Still, his smash attacks are unbelievably satisfying to pull off, and I managed to win the day in the end.
As for the Tower itself, many have lamented it’s not something more ambitious, and some have raised concern the tower’s pillars and pronged tip obscure the view – perhaps the latter contributed to my slow adapting to Ridley, but I found the emphasis on destroying said tip oddly compelling, so I imagine it won’t take much time to get used to. It was here I engaged in one new item – the Bomber enemy from Kirby. While I suspect I haven’t seen the full range of its diabolical use – for those unfamiliar with Kirby, it’s a walking missile of death that unleashes explosions upon contact — there is one use I uncovered: when picked up, it’s held like the S Flag item and explodes (no damage to the player, naturally).
On the inverse, Inkling turned out perfectly natural to control: she gracefully swims along in her squid form, the Splat Roller charges ahead as an effective Forward Special, and her smash attacks all came across as reliable killers. As mentioned by director Masahiro Sakurai’s introduction, the ink she splatters on foes increases damage, but I spent more time experimenting with her various tools rather than taking advantage of said ink. Just like in Splatoon, Inklings can run out of ink and must recharge by hiding in ink puddles; in Smash, this translates to pressing B while shielding, you’ll once again need to play keepaway as you recharge your canister. It’s always a thrill when Smash characters hue so closely to their source material, so I certainly can’t wait to play more of the Inklings.
Naturally, we fought upon her home stage of Moray Towers, which initially surprised me as being the Splatoon representative – like everyone else, I assumed Urchin Underpass from the first Splatoon as an inevitability given its crossover appearance in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. However, Moray Towers’ emphasis on verticality and height is a perfect match for Smash’s ring-out design, the use of of stairs to go downwards or jumping up to ascend feeling instantly intuitive. We had spotted a night version in the Direct presentation, but this wasn’t witnessed during our play session.
Our final round found ourselves in a returning stage from Super Smash Bros. for 3DS: the Spirit Train from The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. While the stage looked beautiful in HD, I was naturally more taken with how much I missed Solid Snake. Like Ness, the Soldier of Fortune felt largely familiar, the only moveset change being his Down Smash – his landmine burying replaced with a double-sided kick. Why this was removed, I’m not sure: balance reasons or not, it was unique among Down Smashes for not instantly belting out an attack and instead preparing a trap. Still, his old tricks led to victory – his Forward Smash rocket launcher and rolling attack dash are as reliable as ever, and I await his return with open arms. (Can we also get a round of applause for David Hayter returning to his retired VA role?)
Thanking the representative and my fighting partner for the good games, I walked off ignoring the faint cries of Kirby, Mewtwo, Ice Climbers and Animal Crossing’s Villager begging for my attention. Even now, the game dominates my thoughts: just today, I recognized the Garden of Hope theme from Pikmin 3 has a glorious new remix, and have pieced together what’s possibly this game’s iteration of Final Destination. More questions await: with every single character back, will we see all previous stages return? Will our cries for Dixie Kong and King K. Rool of Donkey Kong Country fame be answered? Will we finally see a Bowser’s Castle stage and a Lower Norfair arrangement from Metroid? Will Simon Belmont of Castlevania indeed join the battle? For now, we must simply await the daily updates over at the official site’s blog: brief as they are, they are now our only window into Nintendo’s biggest 2018 game.
December 7th can’t come soon enough. Please no delays, Mr. Sakurai!