Truly the “ultimate” experience.
It’s been said media reviews for fighting games are irrelevant, as their aim towards a casual audience seeking volume and spotlight-stealing modes holds little regard for the competitive scene that keeps these games alive. I cannot speak for any other outlet, yet I confess this will be the case for my own analysis of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. My passion for Masahiro Sakurai’s beloved crossover franchise — owned and conceived by Nintendo/HAL Laboratory, but developed once again by Namco-Bandai — is deep and vast, but I cannot be depended upon for describing “movement options” or whether the latest iteration emphasizes offensive or defensive playstyles. No disrespect intended for competitive players, of course, but those scavenging for Melee comparisons or character match-up deets may prefer to peruse elsewhere.
All I have to offer you, my reader, is said passion — the very same devotion that spent the past two months saying goodbye to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS — 58 days for all 58 characters, figure facsimiles of gaming’s greatest heroes and villains embarking on one last trip in both versions — and automated through Ultimate‘s first three days as a hype-overloaded zombie: operating only through the directive of consuming everything in sight.
My analysis was not equipped with rose-tinted glasses — I am Smash’s biggest apologist as I am its biggest nitpicker, my heart breaking every time I scroll by the Yoshi’s Island (Melee) stage and witness its stripping of all Mario-related songs — but for all of my quibbles, I cannot stop playing all of it. I’m typically quick to point out Smash‘s clunkers in Brawl‘s homogenized Target Smash! or for Wii U‘s thoroughly underwhelming Smash Tour, but I struggle to perceive such faults here. I cannot stop playing through Classic Mode, or meticulously filing through My Music selections for each stage’s BGM. I find every one of its new Smash modes a wonderful bag of fresh air, and succumb to the irresistible allure in taking goofy screenshots of characters being slapped about, filters applied for every last one as their facial expressions are captured at every last angle. (Oh, and by the way, you’ll be witnessing those throughout this review.)
This is all a long way of saying, “Look, I can call out Ultimate‘s missteps if I felt like it, but do I really need to?” Putting it in a more professional, less fanboy-ish manner: I’ve certainly never stopped playing Smash, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this engaged with everything it offers. Ultimate‘s critics will diligently direct me to the ever-maligned online — as they should, as I’m not about to tackle Business Insider‘s compelling critique — but that I’ve hardly experienced the unfortunate lag and input issues plaguing most other players means I can’t earnestly hop aboard that train. Point is, in its miraculous assembly of “Everyone is Here!”, Ultimate condenses most everything into a laser-focused focal point, resulting in what I proudly proclaim as the finest Smash Bros. yet.
A picturesque scene of Dream Land.
For those unfamiliar with Smash, allow us a brief recap: playing something like a glorified sumo match, fan-favorite Nintendo characters — alongside third-party guests from SEGA (Sonic the Hedgehog, Bayonetta), Capcom (Mega Man, Street Fighter‘s Ryu and Ken), Namco (Pac-Man), and other gaming behemoths — smack each other around familiar battlefields of ages past. True to Sakurai’s beginner philosophy, it is designed as an intuitive playground — there are hardly any elaborate inputs common across other fighters, merely quick n’ dirty button presses and the slightest of manual directionals. Labeling Smash a mindless button presser would be folly, however, for the infinite variables within all 73 characters, 103 stages (and their 312 respective Battlefield/Final Destination/hazardless variations), 88 items, and 55 summonable Pokémon/59 Assist Trophies prove it an unpredictable treasure trove of anarchic hilarity. Be it Wario swallowing his own bike to build up his fart-tastic Wario Waft to Kapp’n’s Animal Crossing: City Folk incarnation kidnapping hapless passerby on his magical flying bus, Smash‘s never-ending tempest of cause-and-effect can win the match just as much as it unearths countless easter eggs and secrets.
(This isn’t an exaggeration: mess around with the Nikki summon via Assist Trophy in Training Mode, and you may be stunned to discover she’ll eventually grant you a…nah, I’ll let you find out.)
With the considerable effort in calling forth every fighter from series history, only a smaller-than-average set of newcomers debut — namely highly requested villains in Ridley (Metroid) and King K. Rool (Donkey Kong Country) to new faces in Inkling (Splatoon) and Isabelle (Animal Crossing: New Leaf). I have earlier praised Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS in achieving an unprecedented feel-good balance across its entire cast — even from a superficial standpoint such as mine, stinkers in Melee‘s Kirby and Brawl‘s Sheik were instantly evident — but I can hardly begin to discern such failures here.
Those more competitively-minded may disagree — early as Ultimate‘s metagame may be, I’ve witnessed citations of Samus, King Dedede, Little Mac, and Bowser Jr. as among the game’s worst — but I find it hardly coincidental that careful moveset adjustments in Pit’s rapid-fire bow slices or Sonic’s newfound dash kick have me gravitating towards previously-unused characters. (That, and well, you’re never not going to convince me King Dedede’s lazy-rollover down-tilt isn’t the greatest move in Smash Bros. history.) Even merely witnessing characters assumed to languish in eternal Purgatory like Young Link and Pichu now partying along third-party stars new and old in Solid Snake (Metal Gear Solid), Cloud Strife (Final Fantasy VII), and Simon Belmont (Castlevania) is cathartic to watch, and a testament to Sakurai and co.’s work ethic.
Moreover, Ultimate‘s emphasis on pre-match rules render Smash as its most accessible — getting back to my being a Smash apologist, I’m never not scratching my head at endless complaints lodged at easily-disposable stage bosses and the Danger Zone-filled euphoria that is The Great Cave Offensive (Kirby Super Star). The cries for a hazard toggle finally manifested form, and I admit I have no use for it: I find the hazardless version of Kalos Pokémon League (Pokémon X and Y) boring and those of Magicant (EarthBound) and Pirate Ship (Zelda: The Wind Waker) serviceable, but ultimately empty. Regardless, it’s more than welcome considering a) I’m not forced to play them, and they work just fine for those preferring chaotic stages stripped down, and b) There’s plenty of other alternatives to standard Smash play, be it randomizing Stage Morph so I never know what’s coming next, or five-on-five Squad Strike match-ups (heroes vs. villains!). Best of all, no longer must we switch from Time to Stock every time we play — that’s certainly something everyone can celebrate, right?
I gotta know what’s inside!
Speaking of stages, previous Smash games were content with merely porting and touching up past arenas, but true to Ultimate‘s Japanese subtitle, over 90 stages from series past have been lovingly, painstakingly handcrafted into glorious, “special” HD. True, the N64 stages hue closer to their 1999-esque simplicity, and a couple Melee stages still present GameCube-esque geometry (looking at you, Onett and Green Greens), but the likes of Lylat Cruise (Star Fox), Port Town Aero Dive (F-Zero GX), Halberd (Kirby Super Star), and Fourside (EarthBound) are veritable stunners, full of gorgeous setpieces and unforeseen background details. In particular, Halberd’s sundown never fails to reduce me into fanboy babble, although Fourside’s rundown apartment-top shack – as seen above — may surpass Rainbow Cruise’s mountain town as Smash‘s most enticing background element. (Or maybe a certain addition to Magicant — has anyone else peeked inside Dungeon Man?)
Meanwhile, my fervor for Smash‘s music should go without saying– after all, I did head a Top 25 Smash for Wii U/3DS remix list not even two weeks ago — but much as I adore the new main theme, it’s impossible not to be distracted by Smash’s ever-evolving army of famous game composers arranging their favorite tunes. There’s Yoko Shimomura working her immaculate accordion magic on Kass’s Theme (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild), Yoshino Aoki perfectly capturing Pikmin 3‘s tranquil essence in Garden of Hope, or just how many outright bangers they produce for Mega Man and Castlevania (can you believe there’s over seventeen remixes for the former? My most wanted in Crash Man Stage made it!).
Sure, I could harp upon Smash‘s occasional sloppiness in musical presentation — being one of Zelda: The Wind Waker‘s biggest champions, it brings me no pleasure to report Kumi Tanioka’s Molgera arrangement is akin to a MIDI accompanying a long-abandoned AngelFire homepage, and I’m miffed there’s not more than two Kirby arrangements (excellent as said two are!) — but needless to say, I’ll be a slave to My Music’s randomized selections for years to come. (By the way, since I’m airing my thoughts on a public platform and whatnot, just what’s up with the official site‘s false advertising in Brawl‘s Revenge of Meta Knight and Star Fox SNES’s Corneria remixes as “new music”? Not cool!)
Some expressed disappointment in the excising of Solo modes like Stage Builder and Home-Run Contest — much as I sympathize with their loss, I must confess this is Smash‘s most succinct single-player offering in some time, and that’s all in accordance with Ultimate‘s aforementioned focal point. For instance, I was initially saddened All-Star Mode as we knew it as gone — yes, Smash‘s ever-ballooning roster has made the systematic “fighter wave” approach a rather tall order, but rationing out healing items rendered it a unique challenge within the series’ pantheon of modes. (That, and traipsing around the sacred Rest Areas was an aimless joy of mine.) It being relegated to Mob Smash may seem like a downgrade, but its “how far you can go” design — cycling over once you’ve defeated every character — hooks in its newfound strategies to perpetually survive. Being the Smash superfan I am, it’s my eternal goal to overcome it with each character, but moreover: I welcome the new.
Sentient being of radioactive energy patiently awaits dinner.
I also cannot speak highly enough of Ultimate‘s Classic Mode, and I say that as someone who — gasp! — defended the Wii U iteration. In my head, I’ve always crafted backstories in these nebulous journeys for each character, and now Ultimate takes the mantle by illustrating elaborate campaigns for the entire cast, such as Donkey Kong traveling to New Donk City or Bowser Jr. seeking Princess “Mama” Peach. With each battle carefully being woven into the narrative, us recognizing why Ness’s first match has him fighting a blue-alt mirror match on Magicant or why Ivysaur joins Dark Samus on her Phazon-spreading quest further proves Smash’s attention to vindicating the tiniest, insignificant slivers of gaming trivia. With still over twenty characters to go, I’m thoroughly addicted to the point of neglecting the actual Smash mode, and am still at in deciphering, pondering, and ultimately gobbling up reference after reference. (That I roll over laughing at the out-of-the-left-field character clear pictures is a bonus.)
Much as I also lament Trophies being gone, I cannot deny how superbly Spirits blend into the actual gameplay. Taking the form of playable characters, their respective battles and collectible power-ups reference location, character lookalikes, items, or attacks; in effect, they brilliantly cull from nearly forty years of gaming history in everything from Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Shovel Knight, Big Brain Academy, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and, yes, even Super Mario RPG. Be it something as simple as Boo (White Kirby, who turns invisible) to every Street Fighter character being fought on flat stages to Stamina Matches, laugh-out-loud representations of Elite Beat Agents (three Corrins packed with Rocket Belts?!?), or a two-part recreation of Kirby’s Dream Land 2‘s final battle, it’s an endless onslaught of creativity. Much like Classic Mode, the bounty-bound Spirit Board is a never-ending obsession us seeking as many unknown/familiar references as possible, all clicking together as a puzzle in which Spirits to equip and utilize.
Weaved within the Adventure Mode — World of Light — and it becomes everything Brawl‘s Subspace Emissary should’ve been: frequent references to familiar gaming locations and cameos from gaming co-stars on top of superb boss fights. (Being a massive Kirby fan, it was a wonder witnessing a ten-year-old dream fight of mine finally come to life, complete with nightmare fuel!) I am no encyclopedia on single-player modes in fighting games, yet I imagine claims of World of Light being the genre’s finest aren’t too off: Spirits are constantly utilized not merely as referential puzzles but as nostalgic obstacles — for those who still haven’t played it, I dare not give anything away, but Castlevania, Donkey Kong Country, and Street Fighter fans are getting the biggest kick out of it for a reason. Its minimizing of story and cutscenes may disappointment Subspace fans, but the ensuing emphasis on gameplay paves the way for everything from a surprising length (I believe I clocked nearly twenty hours before completion?) right down to an epic finale I’m still reeling from.
(Critics have pointed how difficult some of these Spirits can get too tough — Woolly Yoshi, 9-Volt/18-Volt, and Giga Mac certainly gave me trouble — but I must point out most of the hardest Spirits are often optional, and I find it imperative to share my in-law’s advice: play smarter, not harder. Remember: you have equippable Spirits at your disposal, and those erasing nasty conditions like poison floors and reversed controls can go a long way. Personally, I’ve found Spirits granting Bob-ombs or Staffs are a perfect help for hostile Assist Trophies or keep-away foes, and there’s no shame in retreating and leveling up your stats. Feeding, cataloging, and experimenting with Spirits is key!)
To round everything off, let’s address the elephant in the room: Much like every Smash game since Brawl, vitriolic criticism has been diirected towards the laggy online; as mentioned earlier, I’m at a crossroads here. While I can’t ignore all the video evidence, I’ve only ever experienced one match with lag, and it was hardly match-ruining without none of the dreaded input lag I keep hearing about. Considering I also had relatively lag-free experience with Brawl and for Wii U/3DS, I must live in an area with great Wi-Fi or something, but regardless, I can only critique what I see, and that begins and ends with interface. For instance, much like Splatoon’s weapon-changing, selecting a new character by exiting matchmaking is a nuisance, and I find the new “waiting room” set-up for Friend Matches clunky and unintuitive. As seen with the latest patch’s successful renovation of Personalized quick matches, improvements — however limited they may be — can be made, so I’m hardly ready to dismiss it just yet. More time is needed with this mode for an honest evaluation.
There are other things perhaps deserving criticism — the never-ending stream of character unlocks might be a bit too much for some, certain My Music listings aren’t to my tastes (why only split Mario Kart songs as opposed to including the rest of Mario spin-offs?), and the pause camera’s oddly restrictive regarding stage corners — oh, my opportunities for photo-taking! But somehow, Sakurai and co.’s nitpicky gaffes aren’t as evidently irritable. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is every bit as grand as Hideki Sakamoto’s main theme echoing throughout, inviting in (most) every successful mode it presents, nostalgia-laced in every last callback, and every bit as miraculous as all the above not merely working as well as they should, but in merely existing.
I mean, hey, my deceased brother can resurrect as a Mii Fighter and rejoice in the return of his favorite Smash stage: Mushroom Kingdom. That’s gotta be a miracle in itself.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: Switch; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Namco Bandai; Players: 1-8 ; Released: December 7th, 2018; ESRB: E10+; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate