Since Smash Ultimate’s launch, a debate has been brewing among fans new and old: Is the fighter-unlocking system in Smash Ultimate bullshit, or actually super fun?
Kotaku has gathered four Smash players, also new and old, to talk through their thinking on the issue.
Cecilia D’Anastasio: “Everyone’s here” in Smash Ultimate. Wooooo. Wooo!
Smash Ultimate’s gargantuan roster is one of the game’s most powerful selling points. If you missed Pichu from Super Smash Bros. Melee, Pichu’s back. If you’d always wanted to play Metroid’s Ridley, Ridley’s there. The whole “ultimate” pretense of Smash Ultimate is that it’s got everything goin’ on and players can experience it all. Just not at first.
Now, when y’all first loaded up Smash Ultimate, you might have noticed that there were only eight playable fighters. That’s a hell of a lot fewer than the 76 we were promised. And the unlocking grind is making a lot of people mad. What was your first thought when you saw the itty bitty starting roster?
Gita Jackson: My first thought? “Well, shit.”
Maddy Myers: And here, I thought, “What a relief.” I was not overwhelmed!
Cecilia: I felt the same way Maddy. And actually, I was kind of mad at first when I learned there were so many fighters. (Now I love it.) I like knowing generally what to expect from certain match-ups and like, 76 fighters is just a lot to grapple with. Unlocking one by one made the roster less overwhelming!
Gita: I have always played Smash as a party game. I bought this game as a party game. A lot of my friends who don’t play games want to come over to play Smash, as a party game. I just barely have enough skill to unlock players by myself, and frankly, I don’t want to spend hours doing that so my friends can play this game, at a party, as a party game.
Ethan Gach: The ratio just felt off. Eight fighters was acceptable back in Smash 64, but as the rosters have ballooned and people’s mains have branched out, I think more generosity was called for.
No I do not want to start playing Mario after dropping $60 on another new Smash.
Maddy: Unlocking the fighters one by one, to me, feels like a tradition that is part of Smash, or at least, the latter-day Smash games where it takes several hours of playing to earn everybody. Also, in Ultimate, there are multiple different ways to unlock all of the characters, and there’s even some control over what order you get them. You can get some characters sooner than others depending on who you select in Classic Mode, for example. But also... I actually do want to learn every character. I like that the game “forces” me to do that, because for me, it isn’t really “forced.” It’s something I want to do!
Cecilia: Right! Yeah, and like, you might not have the same main between two Smash games because so much changes. It’s definitely worth checking everyone out I think.
Gita: I can’t stress enough how differently I play Smash than people who play it looking for a fighting game experience, and I feel like it’s the same way a LOT of players play the game. It comes out exclusively at friend gatherings, with people of all different skill levels, and my main goal as a hostess of that event is to make sure everyone has a good time. It’s embarrassing for my friends to get to a Challenger Approaching level and then lose in front of everyone. It’s not conducive to fun. I know it’s a familiar experience and I’d be happy to do it if it were a little easier, but for the first few days, it was WAY too hard. It made me not want to play at all.
After the challenger AI was adjusted, it was a little better. But it still feels like I’m going to be struggling with a game I want to have fun with that won’t let me have fun.
Cecilia: Gita, if your friends don’t like losing at Smash in public... maybe they’re playing the wrong game lol. Someone’s always gotta lose or there aren’t any stakes.
Gita: I really feel like “they’re playing the wrong game” is a reductive way of looking at this situation.
If, in order to have fun playing, you have to “git gud,” you’re just going to be keeping a lot of people from playing a game they might otherwise enjoy and enjoy getting better at.
I don’t think they have problems losing, but problems being on the spot in order to further everyone’s enjoyment.
Cecilia: That’s not what I said at all. I’m just saying someone has to lose because that’s how the game works! I witnessed a super hype moment when I was unlocking characters. My buddy who only plays Mega Man won our four-player versus match and got a chance to defeat Mega Man and put him on the roster. (He was having fun with Simon first.) But he lost! It was really sad. But when when we encountered him again, and it was still super hard, and he finally won, we all were SO PSYCHED. I loved that revenge arc!
Gita: Not everyone does, though, and it sucks that some people have to struggle through hard fights when they just want to play as Young Link.
Maddy: I think I play Smash in a different way too, where I also don’t mind losing, but that’s because me and my friends have turned all the items up to “high” and we’re just screaming the entire time. I like competitive Smash, I like learning all the characters, but I also like the “party game” method. I think where I disagree is on the part where you have to have certain characters unlocked in order to truly enjoy the “real” game. To me unlocking the characters (whether it’s hard or easy) is part of the game, in all its forms.
Ethan: I definitely think the underlying structure of grinding for unlocks is strained by how big the game has gotten. Especially because the actual unlock fights aren’t all that interesting, in part because there are so many to get through. Doing anything at 10-minute intervals is going to start to feel like a chore. A nice middle ground might have been saving a few characters as super difficult “hidden” unlocks, and then using some sort of currency system to let you recruit characters to fight and then gain access to. Maybe you can even pay more of that currency to just unlock them outright instead of having to fight them.
Cecilia: Yeah, the unlock fights aren’t that interesting. That’s definitely true.
Ethan: Then it would feel more like you were strategically building out your roster based on your faves and friends’ faves, rather than being put through an algorithmic grinder that feels very outside of your personal control.
Gita: Imagine every ten minutes you see a character you want to play as... and every ten minutes, you lose. And that just keeps happening, no matter how much you change your strategies or how many hours you spend playing. A lot of people just aren’t invested enough in Smash, or games in general, to spend the time grinding to get all the characters. After a while, it can feel demoralizing.
Maddy: I think also my longtime interest in fighting games has made me incredibly used to the disappointment of not getting to play as the character that I really want to play, either because they aren’t available yet or because they aren’t even in that game at all. I think it’s pretty cool that “everyone” is in Ultimate, so I guess I’m willing to put up with some of the grindy bullshit that comes with unlocking “everyone,” because I know that eventually I will get to play as the characters I want to try. That wasn’t always true in past Smash games, or even in other fighting games that I like!
Cecilia: I was so intimidated when I fired up Tekken 7 and all the characters were unlocked. I had no idea where to start. The other thing is that Tekken 7's story mode makes you play everyone. Smash’s....... doesn’t really go out of its way to encourage that.
Gita: A lot of people who play Smash don’t even really consider it a fighting game, though. I wish there was a mode that just let me play as everyone because I give just enough of a shit to want to know what characters I’m good at, but up until this year I had never actually owned any Smash game at all. I still played a ton, because I played at friend’s houses, but I don’t know that everyone needs a mode like the one Tekken 7 has, for example.
Ethan: I agree with Gita and think that as a fighting game AND a party game, it’s imperative for Smash to find some middle point that avoids that feeling of futility. And it would also be much less of an issue if the starting eight weren’t full of trash.
Cecilia: LOL Ethan… u mad?
Maddy: Damn!!! Back in the N64 days, we made do with that trash and LIKED IT.
Ethan: Link was good back then. It’s a travesty, what they’ve done to my boy. My big, beautiful, son. Pikachu is the only starter I still like.
Maddy: Pikachu’s down-B was overpowered, as it should be.
Cecilia: Can anyone explain how the balance changes have affected how much fun they’re having unlocking fighters? I unlocked everyone before the changes and lost like 1/3-1/2 of the fights.
Gita: Before the balance changes, I couldn’t unlock anyone. Now I can. It’s honestly still super boring.
It’s kinda like... were you having fun playing Smash? Well every ten minutes you have to do something very tedious and there’s no way to not do it. Enjoy!
Maddy: Well, you could ignore it, right? And just do the fight later? Unless it’s someone you really want to unlock.
Gita: If you’re staring at the paltry starting roster and see a Challenger Approaching are you just gonna NOT do it?
Maddy: In which case, yeah, I guess you “have” to stop the party and try to beat them so everyone can enjoy them from that point on. But to me, that activity is fun, because I guess I have drunk the Smash Kool-Aid.
Cecilia: I’ve traditionally done all of my unlocks while playing four-player. And so it’s always been fun for me to watch whoever wins (or me lol) face off against a new challenger. I don’t view it as stopping the party at all! It’s part of it. So have the changes made it too easy…?
Gita: No. the changes to the game certainly do not make them too easy. The people who I play Smash with don’t even know what all the buttons do. That’s truly the player I am concerned about here. I get that Smash diehards love it the way it is, and the game is definitely fun. But my roommate, who wants to play games with me to share time with me? Not going to work for her.
Ethan: Another possible solution, because I’m full of armchair game designer ideas today: Pack in an Amiibo you can train up and do all the bullshit fights for you.
Cecilia: Ethan. Ethan.
Ethan: I guess what I keep coming back to is: as someone who is decent at the game and didn’t have much trouble with the unlock fights, they did not bring me enough joy or interesting challenge for me to say they really need to be in there and potentially ruin the game for someone else.
Maddy: I’m kind of surprised that World Of Light doesn’t include some sort of tedious spirit-card-juggling option that could still unlock fighters without you technically having to fight them. That really seems like it should exist. But it doesn’t, as far as I know? Or uh... does it and I just haven’t played World of Light enough?
Cecilia: Yeah, you’ve always gotta fight ‘em! One thing I think people would be really upset about is if there was some currency-per-fighter aspect of Smash. That model has a ton of baggage because of free-to-play games and I wonder whether, even in a paid game without microtransactions, it would rub people the wrong way.
Gita: Yeah microtransactions are not the solution here. I wish fighters were unlocked for other kinds of milestones, though.
Maddy: Right, like if you could earn “fight money” from doing certain in-game tasks (or by spending actual money), and then you can unlock fighters with that. Street Fighter V does that.
Cecilia: Would you like that?
Maddy: I wouldn’t want to see Smash go that way, but I feel like that will happen no matter what because we’re already getting a lot more DLC fighters in Smash that you do have to pay for (the “fighter pass” thing). That’s not new for Smash but it’s increasing with this game.
Ethan: What we have instead is a game where you do all the same tedious bullshit but without any numbers attached.
Gita: If I could unlock a fighter for playing a certain number of fights, or getting a certain number of Final Smashes, or reaching some other metric, I think that’d be a happy medium. I don’t necessarily want it to be something I could use real money to do, though.
Ethan: Totally agree Gita.
Maddy: I’ve already seen it happen in other fighting games so I guess I’m making the “slippery slope” argument here
Cecilia: Seems like we aren’t going to agree on this, which is fine, because life is not neat and tidy and neither is Smash.