How often have we struggled with our feelings in expressing game criticism? Does our nitpicking a new game mean we do so out of love, or us gradually coming to terms with a game not living up to expectations? How do we deal with the bitter recognition of a beloved game showing its age? Is every reason to skip a game legitimate? Join Anthony as he addresses these questions and more in his column: Sleeping With The Enemy.
“I am Smash’s biggest apologist as I am its biggest nitpicker.”
When I reviewed Super Smash Bros. Ultimate a week after its release, I uttered the above quote despite my perfect 5/5 score. Indeed, no shortage of nitpicks was listed within, be it the relatively poor Online mode or the occasional music mismatch. Yet despite this contradiction, Ultimate‘s profound success via endless engagement deserved nothing less than the fullest score I could possibly grant. And what better evidence than said engagement enduring three months later? I remain ever devoted to My Music, meticulously testing out song choices on each and every stage. I continue crafting Mii Fighters, be they macho muscle-men donning Woolly Yoshi costumes or Shigeru Miyamoto clad in ninja garb. I still meet up with friends for online play, inside jokes born every night over Discord.
But with the infamous “honeymoon period” having long since settled in, we must ask ourselves: have those same nitpicks become actual detriments? With our hype settling down, have we begun to come around? Smash is no stranger to criticism, but to die-hard Nintendo fans such as myself, admitting there could exist flaws within both gaming’s most beloved crossover and the philanthropic vision of Masahiro Sakurai — the industry’s most passionate designer in upholding both an “everything and the kitchen sink” mentality and his humbling priorities towards the beginner player — may betray not merely the 24/7 daydream expectations, but our own passion for the very finest of gaming history.
Exactly what does that entail? What consequences could be birthed? To quote again from that same review, “Look, I can call out Ultimate‘s missteps if I felt like it, but do I really need to?” That time is now: fully appreciating our favorite games requires admitting fault. Doing so is not an admission of retracting our earlier enjoyment nor our overall opinions, for blind faith a) paves no roads for improvement, and b) breeds unnecessary conflict. Over the past two months, I cataloged three burgeoning issues within my Ultimate playtime— some familiar criticisms from said review, others I’ve slowly recognized — as an attempt to come to terms.
Be it stunning remixes, past Smash arrangements, or even ripped tunes in all their original glory, Ultimate‘s 800+ track repertoire truly possesses the finest gathering of songs within gaming history. Thanks to My Music customization and an instant-access playlist via stage selection, this soundtrack gets an extensive work-out across all 100+ stages. And yet, something’s amiss here — much as I appreciate Sakurai and co.’s gesture to include every series-specific song onto their respective stages, the phrase “too much of a good thing” readily comes to mind. The Mario songs are the perfect example — that we juggle nearly a hundred songs for fifteen out of seventeen Mario stages is already a cumbersome task, especially when you dig into what’s included: referencing spin-offs is all well and dandy, but do we really need representation from forgotten and/or ill-received titles in Mario Party: Island Tour and Mario Sports Superstars?
Ironically, Ultimate‘s developers clearly recognized Mario ballooned a bit too much, as both Mario Kart stages (Figure-8 Circuit and Mario Circuit) hold exclusive dominion over all that sub-series’s songs. A valiant effort, but why not go a step further and clump the spin-offs together? I recognize this could get messy with stages such as Luigi’s Mansion, which always accommodated Mario songs such as Brawl‘s Airship Theme remix, but why not make exceptions for songs within their respective Brawl/for Wii U set-lists? Brawl‘s Mario Tennis/Mario Golf remix just isn’t the same without its original Figure-8 Circuit home.
92 songs? Waaaaaaaay too much!
(And let’s not forget the identity confusion within Super Mario World‘s Yoshi’s Island stage; apparently, Sakurai and co. hued a little too closely to that stage’s Yoshi label, scrubbing all Mario songs barring Melee‘s Athletic remix and replacing them with unfitting Yoshi songs. I mean, c’mon: the source game’s Ground Theme plays right there in Kirby’s Classic Mode! Augh!)
This isn’t even getting into the twelve “Other” stages. Everything from Ice Climber‘s Summit to Wii Sports Resort‘s Wuhu Island possesses over a hundred songs each, and they’re a nightmare to navigate. Putting aside the inevitable reality of cutting certain songs — do we really need Electroplankton’s watery ambiance on anything other than its home stage? — their respective reservation of certain songs also leaves me cold. For instance, Tomorrow’s Passion — an obscure Captain Rainbow vocal — was Super Smash Bros. for Wii U hilariously referencing Little Mac’s cameo in the Japan-only title; now, its exclusion from Boxing Ring renders it only a passing irony. Meanwhile, knowing I’ll never hear Tetris: Type A ever haunt Luigi’s Mansion again renders Yoko Shimomura’s excellent arrangement a grim reminder within Nintendogs’s Living Room.
There’s plenty more I could elaborate upon, such as Kumi Tanioka’s infinitely disappointing Vs. Molgera remix or Smash for Wii U/3DS‘s abridged leftovers in Melee‘s DK Rap/Pollyanna (what have they done with Smash’s greatest), but the latter plays more into my main issue with Ultimate’s musical representation: in its bizarre concessions for “order”, it ironically limits our choices. Much as I appreciate its strong arrangements and plentiful choices, the overall representation’s ultimately messy.
(Also, I mentioned this in my review, but what’s with the official site’s false advertising? Here I was all pumped for new Revenge of Meta Knight and Corneria remixes, and the bitter realization they were Brawl reprises was none too pleasant.)
Smash Bros. and online play have never clicked, and Ultimate is no exception. Easily the game’s most cited issue, everything from testimony to video evidence cites endless instances of lag and disconnects. Two months later, most lag complaints have dispelled via patch updates and player workarounds (LAN connectors, anyone?), but complaints regarding function still exist, be it incorrect match-ups or the bizarre set-up of Battle Arenas. Such was the vitriol aimed towards- Ultimate‘s online that some disappointed fans shelved the game and never looked back.
As someone who largely sticks to offline play, it’s all too tempting to ask, “why not just play offline?”. Yet such selfishness ignores not merely industry standards, but other players’ Smash preferences. If they find CPU play tedious and lack convenient access to friends — or worse, none at all — online play is their remaining avenue for enjoying the game. If the service fails to provide even that, they have every right to be upset. (Especially considering Nintendo’s online now requires a paid subscription.)
So yes, while the lag may have been cleared up, inherent problems still exist within Ultimate‘s online. Much ado has been made over the inconsistent quickplay match-up system, which often situates players with undesired match set-ups; for instance, those seeking serious one-on-ones may be met with items galore. Let it be known I am not opposed to infrequent gaffes like this…so long as they’re relatively minor. One can quickly adapt to more minutes or lesser stocks than desired; the same cannot be said for suddenly shifting into Team Matches. I still distinctly recall a steady stream of free-for-alls interrupted by a team match, constantly reminding myself that Bayonetta — my teammate — was not the enemy.
Okay, uh, how does this work, again…?
Battle Arenas, too, provide awkward set-ups and make little sense even with friends or strangers. Yes, it’s good we can search for our preferences, but what’s with Spectator videos being reserved only for Waiting Line combatants? I mean, don’t the Spectator Stands exist for a reason? Furthermore, unlike previous games, two-player co-op’s no longer available, meaning you’ll have to share the controller and wait your turn. For a series designed around intuition and ease-of-play, it’s a shocking omission, and renders online all the more cumbersome.
All in all, online adds up to easily being the weakest component of Ultimate. I could apply Sakurai’s “Don’t Need This, Don’t Need That” rhetoric — if you don’t like one feature, move on to something else — but think on this: does my lack of engagement stem from its failure to meet expectations?
When given the miracle of “Everyone is here!” and “Over a hundred stages!”, I feel downright guilty for expressing this. Yet the more I engage with Ultimate, the more I can’t help but linger upon an undeniable emptiness within Games & More — the dubiously-named Solo mode. Pretend the wonderfully multi-fledged Spirits section doesn’t exist for a moment, and simply observe the options laid before us — Classic, Training, Mob Smash, Mii Fighters, and amiibo. With the last two merely quick customization pit-stops and Training offering little value to the casual player, we’re left with only two main attractions in Classic and Mob Smash. Ultimate‘s growth in its multiplayer options may have rendered a solo mode the size of Wii U/3DS and Brawl impossible, but the loss is painfully felt.
I’m aware this stands in stark contrast with my review theme of “Smash’s laser-focused focal point,” which praised the game’s single player. While I stand by this in regards to their quality — for the record, Classic, Mob Smash and Spirits all still captivate me — I can’t help but feel the game doesn’t take advantage of certain features; for instance, shouldn’t a Boss Battle mode be a common sense inclusion? With all the new bosses present in both World of Light and Classic, surely we should have more convenient methods of fighting them all rather than just replaying those two modes. Oh, my kingdom to battle Marx’s Eldritch-nightmare spookiness whenever I want!
In contrast to the main Smash mode — showered with an embarrassing amount of riches in Stage Morph, Smashdown, Squad Strike, and more — it feels particularly lopsided. Let us be clear: I’m greatly indebted to these modes and think this is the most varied the Smash’s multiplayer, the undeniable lifeblood of Smash Bros., has ever been. But I desire this variety across the board! Some may be content with simply sticking to multiplayer Smash sessions, and that’s fine, but I like setting records. I relish challenging high difficulties again and again! Just two outlets for that isn’t enough, and maligned as Smash for Wii U’s solo mode was, I find myself missing Trophy Studio’s brilliant incongruity: pointless, yet calculated nonsense paving into endless creativity.
Pointless? Yes Infinitely entertaining? Also yes.
Thankfully, there is some light at the end of the tunnel — with Version 3.0 announced in the last Nintendo Direct, something resembling a new mode was likely teased. While blurred, many speculate it’s the return of Stage Builder — a perfect mode to bring back! Sure, that feeds into multiplayer, but what’s to stop them from building upon single player? In fact, datamining has unveiled clues towards the resurrection of Home Run Contest — not my favorite mode, but I’d gladly take it in a content-filled package.
With Super Smash Bros. Ultimate not held back by two versions ala the previous entry, it’s fair to assume developmental resources aren’t as restrained; in other words, this is the most likely complaint to be addressed via additional content, so I’ll be more than vocal in keeping my suggestions heard.
Which brings me to my final point.
Did my impulsive “suggestion” for online play ring a bell? Emotion can override those who perhaps imbue themselves too deeply in the media they love, absorbing any and all criticism as perceived slights. Over a decade ago, I made this very mistake with Wii’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl. While game that granted countless hours of joy, I cannot deny it’s heavily flawed now. Much as I’d like to think tripping didn’t define my Brawl experience, it’s an objectively terrible mechanic benefiting no one. I may not have suffered the crippling online lag others did, but the paltry options involved rendered it bare-bones. Single-player modes felt homogenized in offerings such as Classic and All-Star, and trophies were largely recycled from GameCube/Wii games.
But how honest was I about this? Not very: having paid no attention to the competitive ascent from its Melee predecessor, I began begrudging these people for their dismissal: What did Brawl being “too slow” have to do with anything, I asked. It being “too campy”? It being too defense-oriented? Whatever happened to simply smacking each other with beloved Nintendo characters? The blatant toxicity “confirmed” my over-emotional 16-year-old suspicions they had the wrong priorities: a casual glance at Smashboards post Japanese-release unveiled an unbelievably burgeoning poison that would grow to envelop any and all Brawl-discussion with never-ending Brawl vs. Melee debates, vehement fans insisting Smash played a “specific” way and that the other side was “playing it wrong.”
Luigi’s expression says it all.
From someone paying little heed to the “Melee scene,” it’s tempting to claim this all arose from patronizing competitive players, but the prejudices involved stuck; if anything, my earlier quotes were largely ascribed to Brawl players. Drive-by inquiries of “why can’t you guys just move on?” are just as oblivious “Sakurai made Brawl bad on purpose and clearly has a vendetta against Melee/competitive Smash!” — both are tell-tale signs of emotional projection, subscribing to self-centered beliefs born from insular experience. Putting it this way: unbridled frustration that Brawl/for Wii U and 3DS didn’t follow Melee‘s design philosophy may birth outlandish conspiracies, whereas others simply preferring an older entry might come across as obsessive and stubborn to those peeking in. Our own experiences surely, nay, must be iron-clad law for others.
Going back to myself for a minute, the grudge born from my competitive ignorance led to a curious side-effect: I pretended Brawl was a perfect game. The two-year hype following its E3 2006 reveal and its DOJO!! dripfeed couldn’t not bear fruit, so clearly it met every expectation. Sakurai’s ambitious direction expressed such genuine love and reverence for the properties involved, so his vision MUST be infallible. Any incriminating defects from the cacophonous Area 6 Ver. 2 remix to the presence of Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast content was simply brushed off and easily ignored. How ungrateful Smash fans were for this wonderful tribute to Nintendo history, I proclaimed.
What good does this mentality provide? Absolutely nothing, and serves only to enforce bad habits of the very creators we revere. Say we greeted Animal Crossing: City Folk‘s cut-and-paste composition from Animal Crossing: Wild World with mere content — would Nintendo, as Satoru Iwata once admitted, meditate upon what went wrong and eventually repent with Animal Crossing: New Leaf? I shudder to think of a world without a game as beautifully crafted, polished, and wholesome as that, let alone any future Smash developer — Sakurai or not — registering my bad-faith comeback of “The Omega Forms are Smash Wii U/3DS’s stage hazard toggle” as an excuse for stubbornness. No product, however well-intentioned, is exempt from criticism.
Admitting fault of media we love is not a point of swallowing one’s pride nor an inherent admission of wrongdoing; rather, it is our duty as a video game enthusiasts not to cape for any missteps. I refuse to purchase any Paper Mario titles until Intelligent Systems sheds the inherently disastrous “card” system born from Sticker Star. I support my distaste for Namco’s current Tales output by highlighting everything wrong with Tales of Zestiria and purchasing Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition — an updated remaster of the series’ last great game. I embrace Smash Bros. Ultimate not merely by enjoying it every day, but by carefully observing its critiques. I might not, for instance, ever step into competitive Smash, but my disappointment that others don’t enjoy the same product hardly means I can’t afford to lend an ear and understand what “defensive gameplay” means. Will it ever apply to my enjoyment of Smash? Probably not, and I’m certainly free to be frustrated at what I perceive as disingenuous criticism (oh, how my heart aches as being The Great Cave Offensive’s only fan!), but if I truly want as many people to enjoy Smash, I must step out of my comfort zone.
While Ultimate‘s era hosts no bitter fan divisions — or, at least, nothing remotely comparable to Brawl or even Wii U/3DS — such a spectacular product in spite of its shortcomings could only have emerged from careful feedback analysis. My engagement with Ultimate rings true in everything else it offers, and for all this and more, it’ll entertain me for years and years to come.
He’s single, ladies!
I mean, hey: what other game lets me do this?