Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the very best of the Smash Bros. series.
If you’ve got 20 years of accumulated Smash memories, from the button-mashing neighbor kid suggesting you play Kirby in grade school to drunkenly playing a round of all Bowser, Poké Balls only in college, you’ll find that they are done great justice by Nintendo’s latest iteration of its cherished fighting-slash-party game. And if you’re just starting out, there’s a lot to chew on, and it’s mighty good.
Smash Ultimate’s long arms reach for the furthest extremes of the varied and beautiful community of Smash players, pulling everyone in together under its warm, familiar umbrella. An overwhelming abundance of Nintendo memorabilia, including every character that has appeared in any previous game in the series, will satisfy Nintendo-heads who might appreciate a sweeping tour of their childhood fandoms. For serious-minded players, Nintendo is offering one of its most most fine-tuned, precise, and technically deep iterations of a game that has grown an exuberant grassroots esports scene. Pushing Smash Ultimate’s perplexingly silly side-modes aside, it is a tremendous game that will hit the ground hot and running to meet, and satisfy, most everyone’s excitement for it when it lands on Nintendo Switch this week.
The basics: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a “platform fighter.” That means it’s a multiplayer game with several characters, called fighters, who battle it out on platforms, called stages. Up to eight players can play at a time locally. There are a total of 76 fighters who can all jump, grab, do damage, and dodge. Aside from that, each has more complicated and individualized moves, like shooting a laser gun, breathing fire, or gleefully bouncing you off a wrestling ring rope with enough force to hurl you around the stage.
The goal is to knock your opponents off that stage. You can pound them into oblivion, or they can just fall off due to their own mistakes (or your superior strategy). There are also items you can use to buff yourself, harm your enemy, or generally cause chaos. Depending on what mode you’re playing, you win if you get the most knock-outs within a certain period of time, run your opponent’s stock of lives down to zero, or deplete their hit points.
Some say Smash is a party game for tweens idling away a Friday night with a two-liter of Pepsi on their parents’ sectional sofa. Others, myself included, say it’s a fighting game. I think that because I’ve played Smash competitively, obsessively, and adoringly, for a very, very long time, and know that after crossing its childishly low barrier to entry, there is a world of knowledge and sport so in-depth that it’s spurred its own language: “edge-guarding,” “DI” (directional influence), “fast fall.”
I think of controllers—GameCube controllers—thrown furiously across a couch after a missed, and subsequently punished, attempt at a grab. I think of crowds of hundreds or thousands thrusting themselves out of folding chairs to bellow at a Smash pro who, after minutes of cat-and-mouse, deftly dodged, threw, and spiked an opponent deep into the void.
Super Smash Bros. is as an amplifier for players’ wills. For the more competitive fans, it’s high stakes and light trash-talking. For the more creative ones, it’s designing the most hellishly ridiculous stages and fight conditions and taking a shot of vodka every time you lose a life. For the curious ones, it’s taste-testing your way through the roster of 76 fighters and over 100 stages. Just by virtue of being such a mainstay of pop gaming culture, and its relatively simply premise, the experience of Super Smash Bros. is cushiony and elastic, open to be what you will it to be. Like a dodgeball room or a gymnastics studio, it is welcoming to it all, whether serious athletics or just kind of making up your own game with some cool toys. Nintendo has delivered a game that caters to the competitive, the creative, the curious and, the nostalgic alike.
This ecumenical approach is most immediately apparent in the game’s roster. When you first boot up the game, that roster includes only original Smash fighters, some tweaked and balanced with an updated feel. Then, like the dad in A Christmas Story pulling out that BB gun, Smash Ultimate introduces fighters that players have been requesting for years. In polls conducted by fans prior to 2014’s Smash 4 for the Wii U and 3DS, fans furiously demanded King K. Rool (Donkey Kong Country) and Ridley (Metroid). That demand became a meme when, in 2014, Smash director Masahiro Sakurai told IGN that Ridley, an enormous and evil dragon, had not been playable in any Smash games because it was too big and, therefore, it would not make sense in Smash. “It’d have to be shrunk down, or its wings reduced in size, or be unable to fly around freely,” he said. Well, in Smash Ultimate, they’re here. And they were sure as hell worth the wait.
Ridley plays like a dream distilled from fans’ imaginations. Large and imposing, but mechanically tight and faster than he looks, Ridley’s spear-sharp tail and slashing talons are just splendid to fight with. It sounds a little trite to say it, but Ridley does have all the power and grace of a dragon. King K. Rool, too, is an utter delight from top to bottom. Silly and lighthearted, the regal and rotund crocodile’s moveset includes flying into the sky with a tiny propeller backpack, firing a cannonball (for which he wears a special pirate hat) and reflecting opponents’ attacks with his big, fat tummy. At face, it’s hard to imagine Nintendo doing a better job designing K. Rool—although, as with any Smash fighter, it’s harder still to make a final judgment before the world’s players have had the chance to really dig into them and, inevitably, discover annoying exploits.
The new fighter I’ve been enjoying the most has been the Inkling kids from Splatoon. That’s just my personal thing. Splatoon’s bright, slimy skater aesthetic lands in Smash Ultimate with some of the most dope, most eclectic skins I’ve ever seen in the game.
Inkling is a character unlike anything before it in Smash. Seemingly plucked straight out of Nintendo’s ink-based squid-kid shooter, Smash Ultimate’s Inklings (you can be a boy or a girl, although there’s no difference in the gameplay) wield guns that can spray opponents with ink. When they’re drenched, opponents take more damage from attacks. Inkling also wields an ink roller that both grounds enemies and covers the floor with ink that slows opponents down. The Inkling’s moveset—spray, bury, smash—interlocks excellently and, as a result, is great for combos. Here’s the fun thing—when the Inkling runs out of ink, they—like in Splatoon—must take squid form and absorb ink from the ground. It asks players to be very strategic about when they create some distance and refresh their ink.
Hugely exciting for Animal Crossing fans was news that the clumsy pup Isabelle made it into Smash Ultimate. Her expressive little emoticon face and toyish weapons (an inflatable hammer, confetti popper, balloon swing, and fishing rod) feel a little weak, but very cute and fun. Also joining the fight is the Pokémon Incineroar, a two-legged feline wrestler with a buff body and a weirdly suggestive fire belt. He’s got some on-brand wrestling moves, like a German suplex attack. That said, I had some difficulty getting into his playstyle—something about his hyper-specific moveset and risk-reward ratio felt uncomfortable throughout my first few rounds with him.
Also new to Smash Ultimate are Castlevania’s Simon and Richter Belmont, whip-fighters whose frankly ridiculously long range and strong throwing axes are, for me, difficult to defend against. Their hyper-realistic style appears a little misplaced in the game, but also contributes to Smash Ultimate’s scrapbook-of-gaming-history vibe.
New echo fighters—fighters with original animations and voices but whose movesets are copycats of other fighters—include Daisy (copy of Peach), Richter (Simon), Dark Samus (Samus), Chrom (Roy) and Ken (Ryu).
Also new-ish to the game are the fighters who appeared in other installments but were absent for Smash 4, like Young Link, Ice Climbers, Wolf, Snake and Pichu. Buffs and tweaks have made some—like Pichu and Young Link—surprise contenders for the game’s top competitive tiers. And while it’s hard to imagine fans who are excited for the return of some of these fighters, even from Smash 4, I kid you not when I say that I encountered a guy on the subway who, when I asked what Smash Ultimate fighter he was most excited for, silently tilted his ball cap to show the phrase “MEWTWO #150.”
When I heard that Smash Ultimate would offer every Smash fighter, my immediate gut reaction was dread. I don’t expect this to be widely relatable, but I have fond memories of playing 2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee so much that, months in, I had a good idea of what to expect from each match-up. Those expectations gave me some framework for my fighter-picking and stage-picking strategies. It also lent a certain depth to long-fought match-ups (i.e., I know that Samus is going to stand at the edge of the stage, where she’s least vulnerable, and power up her charge shot, and so as Zelda, I’m going to bait Samus into shooting it and then reflect it back at her). With such an inflated, and perhaps unwieldy roster, wouldn’t match-ups in Smash Ultimate feel alien or haphazard?
At the end of the day, after playing dozens of hours of the game, I simply do not care about that. So many of the game’s fighters are so powerfully enjoyable and unique that, in the end, it’s worth it to me to trade off knowable match-ups for an endless bounty of mechanics to learn and master.
It took two days of play for me to unlock all 76 fighters. Every ten minutes or so, Smash gives players in versus or Classic mode the chance to fight and defeat a new challenger, thereby adding them to their roster. I am good at Super Smash Bros., and so are a couple of the buddies with whom I marathoned the game, and yet we lost about a third of the challenger fights we attempted. To evade frustration and shame, we began cheesing the fights, spamming stupid projectiles or zoning the challenger NPCs off the stage.
When that didn’t work, and we ran out of challengers, it took us a long time to figure out that, hidden in the “Games & More” tab’s bottom right corner, unlabeled, is a door called the “Challenger’s Approach” where players can fight challengers they’d previously lost to in succession. (I likely skipped over the tutorial for that.) The fights were still tricky, but within that mysterious “Challenger’s Approach” door, there was a certain electricity to rematching and defeating all these challengers and successfully funneling them into my ballooning roster.
Smash’s versus mode is not its only mode. It is, however, the one most everybody who buys the game will play the most. It is likewise the game’s most polished, and contributing to that polish are a slew of mechanical and quality-of-life updates directly addressing past frustrations from Smash 4 and its predecessors. Kotaku was unable to test Smash Ultimate’s online mode prior to review, which is a shame, because Brawl and Smash 4’s were quite flawed. Matchmaking wasn’t great, connections were unstable and, at least in the beginning, cheesy playstyles were rewarded. I am very curious how Smash Ultimate will address those flaws and others, especially now that Nintendo is charging money for the privilege.
Players can design highly customizable presets for their preferred play mode, so the default mode after hitting “Smash” is no longer always a timed mode. If you’re like me, and you prefer to play in a stock mode with no items, you won’t have to rejigger the game’s settings every damn game anymore. In a smart inversal of how it’s always been done in the past, players now select their stage prior to picking fighters, which lets them specialize their fighter picks for whatever environmental conditions they’ll face in-game.
Adding to Smash Ultimate’s tripping-over-itself player-friendliness are its new stage selection options. I haven’t been enthusiastic about the rough-and-tumble weirdness of Smash’s rotating, windy, cruising-on-a-highway, lighting-raining, things-transforming-into-other-things stages since I was much younger. In Smash Ultimate, every stage has three variations. “Normal” is all the wackiness. “Omega” is a flat line, like the Final Destination stage. And “Battlefield” is a simple set of three platforms. “Battlefield” is a welcome addition for players who want to cut down on these sometimes overwhelming stage designs while retaining a little bit of platforming action. Even if you want to stick with the stages’ original designs, you can turn off “hazards,” those finicky random environmental elements that can, for example, whisk you into the sky with little warning.
In all respects, the customization options in Smash Ultimate are next-level. You can balance the fighters yourself, nerfing and buffing certain characters at will. You can make the stages morph into each other mid-fight. You can give any fighter a tail.
I am confident in saying that I believe Smash Ultimate feels better than any prior Smash game. Moves are executed with pinpoint precision. The pace of the play is fast—not so fast that you can’t fathom it, but fast enough to challenge your neurons to buzz a little bit faster. Fighters seem as or more responsive than ever, landing on the ground near-laglessly and missing the edge of a stage if you’re just a little off. Smash Ultimate’s fighters are extensions of your thinking, and run parallel to your reflexes, and if your thinking is just a little stupid, your reflexes just a little off, then you’re going to see that, in technicolor, on screen.
Subtle tweaks to how characters move, like being able to dodge in multiple directions while in the air or suffering a bit of lag when you dodge repeatedly on the ground, will force players who want to achieve high-level play to control their fighters with more finesse. There’s a new “perfect shield” mechanic, too, which acts sort of like a parry: Releasing your shield just so when there’s an incoming attack triggers the perfect shield, which negates an attack and lets the shielding player take no shield damage. All that precision, speed, and responsiveness results in a game that is, compared to Smash 4, the tactile equivalent of moving from a digital Yamaha piano, with all of its forgivingness, to playing a harpsichord. It asks a lot of players, but rarely feels unfair.
Fighting game fans might be surprised and excited to discover the small touches in Smash Ultimate that echo competitive fighting games like Tekken, Street Fighter, and Marvel vs. Capcom. Prior to a fight, title cards garnished with fiery ashes introduce the contenders. In one-on-one stock mode, when somebody loses a stock, the stock count shows up large on-screen. When one player in a game gets the final kill, the camera zooms in on that killing blow for a little extra drama. There’s a tournament mode. There’s a setting where you can play with a Smash meter that, after it’s filled up by doing damage and getting damaged, gives players a powerful final Smash attack.
And there’s a mode—my new favorite—called Squad Strike. It lets players each pick three or five fighters, organize them in a secret line-up, and switch to the next fighter when they lose a stock. All of this together says to me that Nintendo is keeping its eye on the fighting game community, despite its prior apathy toward competitive esports.
Then, there are the items. You either like items in Smash or you don’t. For me, having all of the items available and dropping with a medium level of regularity just made me frustrated. Items held too much sway over the trajectory of a game. I’d lose two out of three stocks to assist trophies, randomly-dropped items that summon characters from Nintendo or third-party games to fight on the player’s behalf. Or to Smash balls, items that grant fighters an original, lore-inspired attack that often KOs an enemy.
Playing with items was significantly more fun for me when I kept items on low frequency and removed the senselessly frustrating ones, like an evil mushroom that reverses left and right controls. Then, I could enjoy Smash Ultimate’s fun and mirthful items like the beehive, which mobs fighters with a swarm of bees, and the Alolan Exeggutor Pokémon, which is so tall that it acts as a barrier separating the stage.
It is at this point that I must turn away from what makes Smash Ultimate an impeccable expression of the Smash series and toward the game’s side modes, which I’ve saved for last for a reason: They’re disappointing, bizarre, at times maddening, and thankfully, easy to completely ignore should you desire to. Much of these modes are unnecessarily involved. A list of resources found in Smash Ultimate’s side modes: cores (shield, attack, grab and neutral), skill spheres, tickets, spirit points (SP), gold, snacks (small, medium and large), shield spacers, and sluggish shield and support items. Buckle in.
Smash Ultimate introduces something called Spirits. These are characters from games like Mega Man, Sonic The Hedgehog, Fire Emblem, F-Zero, and of course Pokemon that lost their bodies. Players are asked to save the possessed characters’ spirits. There are like 1,300 of these things to save. They’re not 3D trophies. They’re not even animated. They look like stickers, actually.
Spirits fall into one of several categories. They can be a primary spirit that, when equipped to a fighter, boosts its abilities. Or they can be a support spirit, who buffs a fighter with more specialized abilities like damaging enemies by running into them, reducing poison damage or starting battles with a Super Leaf item. Spirits are also categorized by their type: attack, grab or shield. Spirits also fall into the categories of novice, advanced, ace or legend—how hard they are to get and how good they are. Spirits can be leveled up, too, when they’re fed Spirit snacks. All together, primary Spirits and their attached support spirits form a Spirit team.
There are a few ways to obtain Spirits. You can unlock them from the game’s Spirit Board, which is a bounty board-style screen in which Spirits are posted for short periods of time. You can unlock them by playing through Smash Ultimate’s adventure mode, World of Light. You can unlock them by accomplishing in-game challenges. You can also unlock them by dissolving spirits you own into cores and, with those cores, summoning a new spirit, like in a gacha game.
In most of those situations, after you encounter a spirit, you may win them by battling some impressionistic representation of it, all translated into Super Smash Bros. fighters and stages and items and win conditions. For example, Rabbid Mario is not a Super Smash Bros. fighter, so to collect its spirit, the player fights against a Mario wearing an American flag skin and rabbit ears. For Pokemon’s Snorlax, the player battles a King K. Rool who doesn’t move; to defeat it, they have to diminish its hit points, like in Pokémon. Sometimes, the battle concepts are loopy. You might be facing off against four tiny Villagers with a lot of soccer balls. Other times, the floor is acid and it’s hard to tell why. Then you either get the spirit—yay—or on the Spirit Board, you get the chance to get the spirit by firing a gun at just the right time through a swirling circle shield.
Players can equip spirits in normal versus mode, too, and fight with their fighters and a spirit team in highly modulatable battles.
If you paid no attention to the trophy system in previous Smash games, it’s possible you’ll be tempted to check out Smash Ultimate’s Spirits system. I found it insipid and unnecessarily involved. Spirits are only slightly more interesting than trophies, however, even when I equipped a spirit team before a versus fight against a real-life opponent, I could not bring myself to care about them.
Similarly, I had next to no fun playing through Smash Ultimate’s single-player adventure mode, World of Light. Here’s its backstory: An evil thing named Galeem entraps Smash Ultimate ’s fighters and turns them into molds to create evil puppets of themselves. Kirby, of all fighters, miraculously escapes. It’s up to Kirby to fix the puppet situation. So he’s got to free the fighters’ spirits.
On a giant map, a series of battles against those puppet fighters are laid out at points. In between those fights, players encounter lots of spirit battles. There’s a small puzzle aspect, too. Some battles benefit from the buffs acquired through support spirits, like immunity to windy conditions in a fight where you’re subject to lots of wind. A couple of times, to traverse the map, you need to acquire a certain spirit to, say, explode a rock blocking your path. Between these fights, you can buff yourself using a skill tree—yes, in Super Smash Bros.
World of Light feels like a forced march through a Nintendo product catalog. It failed to elicit an iota of nostalgia in me. Mostly, I was frustrated. I did not have fun cheesing my way through battles in which my button inputs were reversed. I did not have fun chasing Peach across an enormous, hazard-packed stage while, as she evaded me, other Smash fighters wielding hammers and flame swords attempted to ruin my life. I didn’t really have a lot of fun searching for exactly the right spirit to help me traverse some broken bridge. After a while, I wasn’t even a little delighted by Nintendo’s cutesy interpretations of Spirits for their battle conditions. I will say, however, that the map is a little charming.
For me, World of Light wasn’t worth it for the stickers. It would have been significantly more satisfying to play if, say, there was a short cutscene after I unlocked a fighter or even, like, a bit more plot. I don’t play Super Smash Bros. to collect things or make numbers go up. Those who do may enjoy this. After reviewing Smash Ultimate, I will probably never look at Spirits mode or World of Light again.
The game’s other single-player mode, Classic Mode, is significantly more comprehensible, and even pretty fun. Still, it’s got its own weirdnesses. Each fighter has a unique Classic Mode adventure that comprises six battles, a bonus platformer mode and a boss fight. They have cute names like “Best in Show” for Isabelle or, for Inkling, “An Inkredible Journey.” Intensity is measured by a number. It’s also measured by a position on a long, cluttered mural painting showcasing all the Smash Ultimate fighters. The mural scrolls based on the intensity level. The furthest to the right, at 9.9, you’ll receive more points than if you’re playing at 2.0. The fights are nice and plain, in contrast to whatever’s going on in Spirit Mode, and basically resemble any old Smash Classic Mode fare. From these fights, you receive gold, which can be spent on another stock if you lose during Classic Mode.
My favorite side mode actually involves no fighting. In Smash Ultimate’s “Vault” tab is a button titled “Sounds,” which contains an index of over 800 musical tracks that are fully playable offline, like they’re loaded onto an iPod. This unequivocally rules. On the train, you can listen to bops such as one of six “Zelda Overworld” themes, Castlevania’s corny ‘80s guitar tones, Splatoon’s off-beat pop, the weird Metroid sounds, you name it. It doesn’t hurt that a lot of Smash classics remixed for Smash Ultimate are an improvement on Smash 4’s takes—especially the “Battlefield” theme, which resounds with dark low brass instruments.
It’s difficult to imagine the type of gamer for whom Smash Ultimate has no appeal. This is a big game, and with the fat skimmed off, a remarkable one. Its core attraction—fighting on a platform—is as polished and brilliant and sharp as ever, its fighters the most unique and deep. Sure, Smash Ultimate is herding Nintendo fans all under one roof, tempting them alike with that top-notch gameplay and with nostalgia in many forms. It’s like opening up presents on Christmas and getting all the stuff you asked for, but also socks and a few silly stocking-stuffers from your weird aunt. Fortunately, you can just ignore whatever you don’t love and play what you do.