It's been nearly 20 years since Nintendo first gathered up all of its beloved mascots in a single game for the express purpose of having them beat the snot out of each other. The Super Smash Bros. series started out as a simple concept, but has grown into a full-blown celebration of Nintendo gaming throughout the ages. It didn't look like it could get bigger than the previous Super Smash Bros. game, but Super Smash Bros. Ultimate absolutely lives up to its name and offers the best that the series has to offer.
Ultimate has something for everyone. It's for the party gamer who wants something to put on for their friends. It's for the solo adventurer who wants to run through a shockingly robust campaign. And it's for the hardened fighting game player looking to test their mettle online. There's no shortage of things to do and there's always something to see.
The concept of Smash Bros. has always been a simple one to grasp. The idea is to bash your opponent into a high damage percentage and then beat them until they fly off the stage in any direction. The core idea remains intact, but now feels smoother than ever before. All fighters feel like they flow faster, land quicker, and are able to maneuver around each other better. There are a few advanced changes, like the inability to run directly through opponents and the new short hop, that gives veterans something to master, in addition to the game's other advanced mechanics, like the meteor smash. It's not easy to learn these things, but the intuitive Training mode that offers up detailed data on moves, launch potential, and other key stats is a big help for those looking to go from the casual Smasher into something more.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting to stay a casual Smasher and this game has plenty to offer those people. There are more stages than ever before, all offering their own quirks, obstacles, and ample music selection. There are times where players will compete against a stage as much as against their opponents, which leads into the refined Rules option. There are many different ways to play Ultimate that go beyond the standard Time, Stock, and Stamina battles. Players can set their item drop rates, handicaps, and new advanced options, like the Final Smash Meter and the Stage Hazards toggle. For those who want to play against each other and not against Mega Man's Yellow Devil, that's now entirely possible.
Ultimate gets points for including the Final Smash Meter, but not making it mandatory. In fact, it's off by default for a good reason. Final Smashes have been made into less interactive, more time-consuming cutscene-style attacks. Very few of them have a manual element to them in this new game and they can not only get old after a while, but they'll also eat up a lot of the timer, if there's one set. Having FS Meters go off repeatedly can take away from the action, which is why it's nice to see that this option can be toggled off, leaving the Final Smashes to the flying Smash Ball.
And of course, I'd be remiss in not mentioning the massive roster. I'm hard-pressed to think of a fighting game that's featured a bigger playable roster, with Ultimate punching in with over 70 characters. Only eight of them are available out of the gate, which makes unlocking them a fast and furious adventure of its own. Having "Challengers Approach" pop up every few minutes is a fun experience in itself, but unlocking every single character can take a lot of time. Given the "Everyone is here" tagline, there's something slightly disappointing in not being able to play with everyone out of the box, especially when company comes over on that first night. But when that full roster is unlocked, the matchup possibilities are endless and no two matches feel the same after that.
When the World of Light campaign was first announced, series director Masahiro Sakurai didn't want to set expectations too high in comparison to the old Subspace Emissary adventure from Super Smash Bros. Brawl. In some ways, I could see why. Outside of the opening movie, one of the most epic openings for a campaign in recent memory, the campaign isn't cutscene-heavy at all. It's focused more on the action.
World of Light plays along a board game-style overworld, with players venturing off to unlock Spirits and individual fighters. All of the Spirit fights are against one or multiple members of the roster, all with different sets of rules. Some of them are straightforward rule changes, like the opponent's moves are powered up or the opponent is giant. Others mess with the environment and create heavy winds or floors made of lava, poison, or electricity. And others invite the game's array of Assist Trophies to act as opponents in themselves.
The main challenge in World of Light involves putting together the best team of Spirits to meet the challenge. An overpowered party will offer less rewards, but is the key to moving forward. Coming up with the best combination of Spirits for a specific situation becomes a huge metagame and can become overwhelming. Fortunately, there are options for the game to automatically assemble your best squad. Even with overpowered Spirits at the ready, World of Light can carry a heavy challenge level. Certain fights are not easy and will require multiple attempts with different fighters, offering a sense of satisfaction whenever that challenge is eventually overcome.
The best aspect of World of Light is its overworld, which offers many subsections that pay homage to the fighters' various franchises. The main overworld has certain sections that are gated off until players can unlock a certain Spirit. For example, there's a race track section near the center of the map and to get through it, players need the Spirit of any F-Zero racer. Some of the puzzle solutions are novel, but as the campaign goes on, the puzzles get much deeper and more complex. The overworld's various puzzles help World of Light stand out in a positive way, making it feel much more involved than the Subspace Emissary. There's a lot to explore and it takes a surprisingly long time to do it, clocking in at around 30 hours.
Lastly, the core concept might start to wear thin near the end, but World of Light's ending is absolutely worth seeing through to the campaign's conclusion. The final battle is among the most epic (as well as the most difficult) experiences I've ever had in Smash Bros. as a solo player. Just getting to this final battle involves a clever story twist that I won't spoil here, but I definitely didn't see it coming and got a kick out of a payoff that feels like it was 20 years in the making.
Flexing your Smash muscles
Beyond World of Light, there are many different ways to experience what Ultimate has to offer. Classic Mode has arguably hit its peak, with specific paths curated for each individual character. While some of the characters will still end their journey by facing off against Master Hand, a handful of characters will face off against various boss characters, like Giga Bowser and Dracula. The variety in the Classic paths is much appreciated and creates a greater desire to run through every character.
Spirit Boards is an abbreviated version of the World of Light battles, where the principle largely remains the same. Assemble your best Spirit party and go into battle, with the catch being that it's a one-time thing. Mess up and the Spirit goes away for a while. While I could do without the Pokemon-esque capture sequence, Spirit Board does a good job of mixing up the action and feels more open-ended than the limited Event Smash mode, which has sadly been retired.
And of course, there's Online play. Shacknews originally held our review in order to evaluate Online mode, expecting to review it based solely on latency. On that note, Ultimate had a rough first few nights, lagging frequently and even dropping me from a few matches. Connectivity has since improved and I'm now smashing opponents online with less trouble than before, albeit with a few lag spikes still present. What I didn't expect was to review Online negatively based on its design. Players can set their Preferred Rules set and search based on those parameters, which is great on paper. However, there are some key things missing and also some baffling design choices.
For one thing, Quickplay doesn't allow players to select their preferred stage. Instead, stages are randomly determined. At most, players can select their preferred layout of the standard stage, the Battlefield variant, or the Omega (Final Destination) variant. Players can pick their stages in Battle Arenas, which seem more curated towards small groups, but not having this option in Quickplay is strange. The other, far more head-scratching design choice is in randomly determining the game type from session to session. Did you enjoy that last Time battle? That's cool, because you're playing Stock now. Worse yet, games will go from Free-For-All to Team Battle with almost no indicator. There were several instances where I saw people trying to beat up their partner to no avail because they didn't realize they had been thrown in a Team Battle. It's a strange transition and one that could have been fixed with an announcer cue either yelling out "Free-For-All!" or "Team Battle!"
Two decades in the making
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is an easy recommendation based on how easy it is to pick up and play. It's among the simplest platform fighters out there and there's something cathartic about being able to throw down against some of gaming's most iconic characters. It's also easy to recommend based on just how many fighters, stages, music tracks, and easter egg Spirits are out there. There's so much to discover and so many different ways to enjoy this game that casual and hardcore fans can enjoy this for years to come. It truly feels like the pinnacle of a series that started off with a simple concept and has since blown up to celebrate everything great about gaming.
The World of Light campaign is the absolute icing on the cake, offering up tens of hours of fun and some genuine surprises. The only thing really holding Ultimate back from perfection is its online play, both because of its connectivity hiccups and because of some odd design choices.
Smash packages don't come any better than this. It may not be perfect, but it sure feels Ultimate.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch retail copy provided by the publisher. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is available now on the Nintendo eShop for $59.99. The game is rated E10+.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
- A massive roster of over 70 characters from across the gaming world
- Over 50 stages celebrating every fighter and offering their own twists
- Still easy to pick up and play, with different ways to battle
- Movement feels smoother and quicker
- One of gaming's greatest soundtracks, with original tracks and new remixes
- World of Light campaign is a pleasant surprise in many ways
- Classic Mode feels more curated
- Spirits add a whole new metagame to solo play
- Online play has gradually stabilized
- Doesn't have all 70 characters out of the box
- Online play started off rough
- Some Online design choices are baffling
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate review: Ultimate warriors