Platform: Switch (Reviewed)
Content! I’m drowning in content! It’s hard to argue that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is anything but the most definitive version of Smash yet released, but not necessarily because Nintendo poured over every detail and mechanic with intense scrutiny. Rather, they threw literally everything they can think of including the kitchen sink into this game. Every character, every stage, even every fan-requested mechanic from the days of Melee, they put it all in!
The problem with this design philosophy is that not every aspect of Smash Ultimate appeals to every player. In fact, Smash has been many different things to many different people for as long as the franchise existed. It’s a lot less like I’m reviewing one game here and more like I’m reviewing three. So let’s give all three their fair try and see how they stack up.
Game #1: The Fighting Game
When you play Smash as a fighting game, you miss out on a lot of its content. You turn off items, limit your stage selections, and generally choose only a few top tier characters. More casual Smash fans would say that this is boring, but I would say, this is just how I like it.
So what does Ultimate give to the hardcore fighting game player? A lot! First of all, the Smash Meter is the best thing to happen to the game. It allows final smashes to be used in serious 1v1 matches without the randomness of tying them to an item. They are also drastically reduced in power, forcing you to combo into them and set them up similar to how you would set up supers in other fighting games.
The ability to turn off stage hazards is also a godsend. This vastly increases the amount of “tournament legal” stages the game has to offer. The ability to morph from one stage to another increases that tally even further. While previous Smash titles would limit their tournament legal stage list to maybe 10 or so stages, Ultimate gladly offers 50 or more.
The mechanics themselves feel more geared toward a tournament crowd. The game is faster than almost every other Smash that came before it. The best way I can describe it is Smash Bros. Ultimate plays like Melee without all the finger gymnastics. You won’t be L-canceling your fifteenth short hop in a row, but you will be directional air dashing, wave landing, and performing heavily extended combos with a lot of flair.
That’s not to say that Ultimate doesn’t include a ton of features for fighting game newbies. There are plenty of shortcuts that turn “pro techniques” into easy button presses. You can now short hop fast fall just by pressing attack and jump at the same time. You can smash by pressing attack and special at the same time. There are a ton of small adjustments like this that will have you playing like the pros before you know it.
Nintendo even created a ton of U.I. enhancements to appeal to the tournament crowd. In 1v1 matches, game ending smashes are accompanied with a dynamic zoom in effect. Each death flashes the stocks left on the screen before players recover, making it easy to keep track of. There is even a radar that shows you exactly where you are when you are smashed off screen. It feels almost as if Nintendo made these changes specifically with the pro Smash scene in mind, as they all seem geared toward making the game more enthralling for spectators.
For the first time ever, Nintendo has added a ton of extra modes that actually appeal to the hardcore fighting game crowd. Smash down is a fantastic mode that requires you to change characters in an ever dwindling roster from round to round. It helps determine who is the best Smash generalist, rather than who can play a single character best. 3v3 and 5v5 team modes allow you to make each stock a different character on the roster, allowing for a depth in counter picking unlike anything I have ever seen before. The tournament applications of these modes are numerous and it’s going to make the pro-smash scene more interesting than it ever was before.
Of course, the content does a lot for the serious Smash player as well. With 76 characters, more characters coming via DLC, and over a hundred stages, it’s going to be nearly impossible to hash out their lists and matchup charts. Heck, if you played just one five minute match with every character on the roster, it would take you six hours! That’s insane! If you were to personally test out every single of the 5700 1v1 matchups with one five minute match each, it would take you 20 straight days of 24 hours game playing just to see each matchup once!
And the characters are honestly what is going to make the pro-scene enjoy Smash Ultimate the most. While the subtle differences between Peach and Daisy might go unnoticed by casual fans, they are going to make a world of difference to established Smash pros. Not to mention the newest characters like Ridley, King K Rool, and Incineroar, are some of the most unique and fun to play Smash characters yet.
All-in-all, Smash Bros. Ultimate is a fantastic game for fighting gamers. Yes, it’s about as far from a traditional fighting game as you can get, but Nintendo clearly put more thought into professional, technical, balanced matches this time than they ever have before. If you are a returning Smash 4 pro, or even a Melee fanatic, Smash Bros. Ultimate is not going to disappoint you.
Game #2 – The Party Game
Of course, not everyone wants to play Smash as a hardcore 1v1 competition. Many people want to get as many of their friends together and mash buttons as hard as they can. I’m happy to say that Smash Bros. Ultimate is still great as a party game, but not quite as great.
Once again the massive roster and stage selection is going to appeal to the more casual crowd, but there are a few quirks that might disappoint them. For example, there are only four new stages (on top of a ton of returning ones). If you like seeing a ton of chaos explode across the screen all at once, you might actually be disappointed because even the new stages feel eerily similar to stages of Smashes past.
There aren’t that many new items either, only about twelve at my count, and they are from a disappointingly slim number of games. There are no items from Splatoon, for example. Many of the new items are just general riffs on the same old thrown and melee items that Smash has always had to offer. Once again, it feels kind of same-y to anyone looking for a lot of new shiny things.
That being said, there are a ton of new Pokemon and Assist Trophies to play with, and my guess is that this is where the majority of the item development went into. With characters like Guile, Alucard, Shovel Knight, and even the original blocky Akira from Virtua Fighter just about everyone has come to get a few hits in. It’s just a shame that some of these characters didn’t get to be full roster members, but we have all already heard those complaints before. Sorry true believers, Waluigi is stuck in his little glass trophy cage.
My favorite way to play Smash as a party game was time mode, especially with assist trophies on. The ability to score points by knocking these assist characters out is actually really fun and gives more chaotic Smash matches an extra layer of depth.
I will say that it’s harder to keep track of your character in the chaos of party matches than it has been in previous Smash titles. This is largely due to the extra graphical flourishes that Nintendo has added to the game. Smoke and hit-sparks fly everywhere every time you get hit, and if three or more people are fighting at once it’s hard to see anything.
It’s also worth noting that the same mechanical changes that make the game so fun to play as a fighting game have made it somewhat frustrating to play as a party game. In short, you can’t run away anymore due to dodge degradation, you can’t ledge stall without falling to your death, essentially all the “cheap” things people would do to survive a massive eight person brawl simply don’t work anymore. You’d think this would make the game better but in general it just causes you to run at your opponents, mashing buttons and hoping for the best.
But for all these flaws, Smash Bros. Ultimate didn’t really have to do much to be an enjoyable party game. All stages can be played with eight players as a default now, so that’s cool. The new spirits (which I will go more in depth on later) allow you to change up your character’s moves and stats. There’s still a plethora of options for time, stock, handicap, and much more. Honestly, just choose your own style of party game and go to town.
In general, I think the only reason I feel there are so many flaws in Smash Ultimate’s party game side is because it’s not my preferred way to play. When I step back, I have to say that it’s no worse than the chaos that every other Smash had to offer. If Smash is your party game of choice, then Ultimate will fulfill your need for chaotic button mashing.
Game #3 – The Single-Player Game
Finally we come to the single-player game, the Smash that you play when you just want to kill some time. In the past, Smash has had a variety of story modes, adventure modes, and mini-games to fool around with. Smash Bros. Ultimate, on the other hand, has barely given its single-player content any thought.
The main single-player mode you’ll work with is “The World of Light” the game’s “story” mode. Some weird glowy thing called Galeem killed all the Smash characters, or something, and now you have to save them… or something. The plot is paper thin and aside from a few cutscenes in the beginning and end of the mode it never comes into play.
The World of Light is made up of “spirit” battles. Remember back in the days of Smash 64 when we would turn mines on high and say we were playing a Goldeneye themed battle? It’s kind of like that. You get put up against an opponent with special rules and A.I. that make them seem like some other character that wasn’t included in the roster. You’ll face Ridley as the condor from Ice Climbers, Mii Fighters as random Fire Emblem character, heck you’ll even fight a Pac-Man who can do nothing but barf up bonus fruit.
At the beginning, these fights seem kind of cool. However, the World of Light takes 20-30 hours to complete and they get old after maybe hour five. Frankly, there just isn’t enough variety. All of these fights are simple “kill the opponent” affairs, and aren’t anywhere near as varied as the old event modes of Smashes past. Not to mention, there’s no easy way to retry matches when you fail. You have to sit through loading screens before every match which, frankly take much longer than they should.
Outside of World of Light, there is a “Spirit Battle” mode which is… frankly the same thing without the story context, making it completely superfluous. There’s “classic” mode which runs you through specially designed gauntlets for each character, and while watching Ryu take on opponents one on one Street Fighter style is fun, all of these custom gauntlets lose their charm after clearing them just once.
And the rest of the single-player content? Well, there really isn’t any. Multi-man Smash makes a return but that’s about it. There’s no home-run contest, no “break the targets”, and there’s only one platforming style stage in the entire game and it’s re-used over and over again in Classic mode. The general idea behind Smash Ultimate’s single-player is to keep you fighting matches to earn currency to unlock more things, but honestly this is more of a chore than an engrossing single-player experience. As is the case with most fighting games, you’ll want to stick to the multiplayer.
Three games in one – What a value!
There is so much more I could say about Smash Ultimate but I’d be here forever. I barely even touched on the many match customization options, or the huge soundtrack, or the massive stage list, or the incredible graphics. There’s just so much content here it’s impossible to cover it all in one review.
And that’s why Smash Ultimate is so good. Despite lackluster single-player offerings, there is enough content here to keep you playing for months or even years. From characters to stages to songs to match options, there’s always something new to do, and that’s what will keep Smash Ultimate from getting old. This is, frankly, a must have title if you are a Switch owner, even if you never liked Smash in the past. It’s not just the best Smash that Nintendo has ever produced, but one of the best fighting games on the platform period.