Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

Super Smash Bros. Special Spirits Edition

For years I have considered the “real” Super Smash Bros. to be the hype leading up to each release.  Each title has this amazing ability to instill a sense of childish glee and wonderment into a large section of people, with speculation and anticipation granting those people a level of joy that could never hope to be eclipsed by any game that could ever realistically exist.  It actually got to the point where, despite being positively enamoured with the series during the lead up to Brawl, I lost interest in actually playing the games, mostly on account of how I am notoriously bad at fighting games, and really anything that can be considered competitive.

But then my boyfriend bought a Switch and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, leading me to purchase the game so he could whoop my scrub butt.  Though, Ultimate is not exclusively a multiplayer title, and I did dabble in the single player content, clearing World of Light and Classic mode with every character, so I think that should be enough to formulate a review.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Sora Ltd. and Bandai Namco
Publisher: Nintendo

It is hard to not look at Super Smash Bros. as a series as being something other than a dream come true for a number of people who obsessively follow or intake information about the game industry and its respective iconic characters.  From its expansive rosters of familiar faces, locales, and items, to its core gameplay that strikes a strong balance between a party game and a designated fighter, being one of the best examples of a title that is easy to learn but hard to master that I have ever come across.  

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate positions itself as being the definitive rendition in this 20-year-old crossover concept, aiming to bring back every character who has ever had the privilege of being part of this series, perfect the balance and structure that has been altered and honed over the years, and deliver enough content to be considered the definitive entry in the entire series.  It’s a mighty tall order for anybody to try and pursue, but with a degree of ingenuity, and a well established base to build on top of, that is precisely what the developers accomplished, and it is hard to not consider this the most flourished iteration of this series. Though, it chooses to do a few things… bizarrely.

While the game does indeed offer a near unlimited amount of possible matchups and opportunities between 76 fighters, 108 stages, a plethora of settings, and support to up to 8 players, right out of the box the player is only granted the original first 8 characters to play with, only allowing the player to gain additional characters by playing the game more and more in order to be greeted with new challengers who must be defeated to be unlocked.  It’s a series staple, but whereas prior games permitted players to continuously retry battling each character after every battle, Ultimate instead has a system where fighters can only be battled again after facing off against another new challenger, which is simply bizarre.  Almost as bizarre as how instead of following a clear theme or order in their appearances, characters just show up randomly. Oh, and the final roster is a disorganized eyesore that is only intuitive to people who have followed the series for the majority of its life.

Aside from sporadically appearing as one plays through other modes, these additional characters may also be found in the primary single player mode, World of Light, a campaign that functions as… a lot of things.  A training mode for players new to this series that starts with just one character before gradually growing into the entire roster. An event battle mode where the player must contend with oddball conditions to get through over 600 battles.  And also a fan service riddled tour where each new battle is themed around a character or piece of memorabilia from whatever rights Nintendo could get their hands on for the sake of this game.

Narratively, World of Light follows a dramatic cutscene that was revealed before the game’s release that depicted the overarching and ill defined world of Smash Bros. being destroyed by destroyed and reformed by a force known as Galeem, who captures all of the fighters aside from the god-slaying star warrior himself.  All other denizens of this world were reduced to aimless Spirits who resided in mass produced clones of the various fighters, who are compelled to, for some reason, engage in themed battles against Kirby and his growing ensemble of friends.  

In addition to serving as opponents along what has to be the longest fighting game campaign in history, Spirits also function as equipment that grants characters additional strength, defense, and a variety of effects from increased damage, starting battles with a specific item, or the ability to negate certain conditions like a floor made of lava.  As it stands, I really did enjoy collecting these juicy PNGs with numbers attached just to see who they put into this game and test my knowledge of gaming history. However, the spirits themselves come with very little information on what they represent, lacking the familiar description that once affixed trophies, presumably due to there are over 1,300 of these things, and this game supports 11 languages.

As for the selection of spirits themselves, they contain a veritable grab bag of obscure Nintendo characters, but looking at the collection broadly, there are some oddities.  Such as how Cloud Strife the only Square Enix representative. How certain objects, alternate forms, and concepts are considered Spirits, when in most mythologies Spirits are only assigned to living things.  Or how 95% of all Pokemon are represented using the Dream World art, rather than sprites, 3D models, or the Ken Sugimori Art.

Then there is the World of Light itself, which ocessionally is positively rife with fan service as the world shifts and bends to resemble a given game or franchise, but a lot of it does feel like a generic world map that was constructed more to encompass a broad variety of themes more than anything else.  I really do not mind how it is basically one high quality image file, much like the Spirits themselves, but I would have loved to see every major franchise be directly and blatantly serviced in some way.

If anything, I feel that the mode would have benefitted from a more nonlinear structure that allowed players to choose a specific series to work their way through.  It would have made navigation considerably more easier than it is in the main game, whose world is so large that it necessitates some form of fast travel, and it would have probably helped ease the sense of repetition that builds up after the player has made their way through several hundred battles.  Yes, the battles still remain fun, and the novelty of some of them continued to impress me, but the conditions also began to blend together, and I had more than enough Spirits at that point.

On that note, while I personally love the sheer volume of Spirits available, Ultimate really does not do a good job of making them easy to sift through.  The lack of well defined and easy to select categories, along with how the game always defaults back to “Last Used” Spirits whenever I start a new play session come off as bizarre omissions based on the ample amount of effort that went into Spirits, which, by the way, are not reserved exclusively to World of Light.

For those who want the Spirits content without the greater campaign, the Spirit Board offers a compelling assortment of randomly selected Spirits the player can freely challenge, trying their best to clear them in a single attempt, or more in some situations, before partaking in a timing based mini-game where the player must shoot the Spirit in the face.  If they fail, they can either spend some Spirit Points, points gained from beating Spirits, to try again, use items, or wait for another opportunity to battle the Spirit, as the mini-game gets progressively easier with each failure.

While I am not a fan of the timing mini-game, as I am already bad at timing puzzles, but am awful at them then they involve a rotating circle, I still enjoyed Spirit Board quite a bit.  For as samey as battling Spirits can become after a while, the encounters do have a lot of variety and creativity placed within them, and the rotating selection of Spirits could easily turn what one expected into being a few minutes of additional playtime into a few hours.  

As for those who are not really into Spirits in general though, Ultimate does also boast some of the single player modes seen in previous games.  Or more specifically, the well trouted Classic mode, along with a handful of endurance modes, known as Mob Smash return, while fan-favorites like Home Run Contest and Break the Targets are bizarrely absent due to a focus on honing this game’s core content, at the expense of what had become series staple modes.  While I did give Mob Smash an honest try, I did not really care for it, as its modes are either too repetitive or difficult for me to really sink my teeth into.

Classic mode however saw a fundamental change from a series of semi-randomized encounters into a series of battles all formed around a character specific theme and a wafer thin narrative.  Such as detailing Donkey Kong’s adventure from his jungle home to New Donk City, or Marth’s quest to exterminate all dragons, all before engaging in a battle against Rathalos. Seeing all of these scenarios play out and trying to guess the theme is actually quite amusing, and it motivates players test our the abilities of each and every character, as that is somewhat necessary in a game with a roster this massive.  

The mode itself saw some notable changes with difficulty over the years, and here they adopted an approach where the player is intended to get through 7 themed battles, a race to the finish stage, and a boss battle without losing a stock, all while the game becomes increasingly more difficult as the player does well in combat.  Sure, the player could use a continue, but that drops the difficulty down and takes a massive chunk out of the player’s score. This approach, rather than encouraging me to test my limits, instead made me content with sticking to a series of very attainable goals. Namely going through each character’s Classic campaign with a final score of 900,000 or higher.

In case you do not really understand what that metric means, it means that I did not become very good at Smash Bros. in my time with Ultimate.  The gameplay is intuitive, lacks the need for any precise inputs, and contains what I consider to be an ideal amount of variety per character between their attacks, allowing for players to quickly pick up on the ins and outs of each character, while still giving them enough to feel like fully fledged fighting game characters.  However, it also has a lot of intricacies and strategy tied into these moves, and that is something I simply have difficulties wrapping my brain around.

As such, I cannot really say whether or not the gameplay is good, but based on what I have seen, and my experience getting pounded by fanny dominated by my boyfriend (who regularly plays fighting games), the mechanics and execution of Ultimate’s combat mechanics are some high quality stuff, greatly surpassing what came before it.  In the 2.5-ish years this game spent in development, building off of the prior iteration of Smash Bros., the developers clearly focused on fine tuning this underlying gameplay above all else, and the result is a surprisingly balanced title that also boasts some of the most impressive computer opponents I have seen in just about any game, let alone one as expansive and mechanically complex as Smash Bros.

Visually, Smash Bros. has had a strong history for being graphically impressive for its time, while also being somewhat difficult to follow at times due to the amount of hectic mayhem that can arise when 4 or more people are tossing Pokeballs and explosives, bursting Smash Balls, and calling in Assist Trophies.  That has not changed in Ultimate, which maintains a high level of fidelity despite the intense speed and smooth frame rate of the game, and is also positively flushed with detailed animations and expressions to the point that I am a bit surprised there is not some sort of intricate model viewer.

The level of detail, love, and care put into every model and stage seen throughout the game is nothing if not impressive, amounting to a game that I could easily spend hours just looking at and savoring the fine details put into the game by its dedicated modelers and animators.  Though a lot of that is naturally obscured when the game is pulled back to necessitate larger battles, which I honestly have trouble following in any meaningful way. As I have gotten further along into adulthood, I have noticed that my ability to follow detailed or fast actions has declined, causing me to space out when encountering something sufficiently wild in terms of animation, and no game brings that out quite like Smash Bros.

As for the soundtrack, if someone were to say that Smash Bros. had the greatest collective soundtrack in all of video games, it would be hard to argue that with anything outside of a technicality.  The hundreds of tracks featured throughout this game are composed of classics, remixes, or just excellent songs that routinely surprised me with just how many deep cuts the developers managed to squeeze in there.  Also, Lifelight is a lovely song, it’s lyrics are cool, and I will not hear otherwise!

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a game that I cannot look at without seeing signs of clear compromise when it comes to certain content and somewhat misguided when it comes to a few mode-based design decisions.  However, minor hang-ups such as that do little to detract from the amount of enjoyability this game provides, in addition to an experience that I cannot help but find to be nostalgic on a deeper level.  When children play with toys, their minds go wild with concepts and storylines, crafting and devising ambitious narratives filled with wild events, and often incorporate existing characters based on the toys they have come to own.  When I was a young child myself, I would spent a lot of time forging extravagant battles with whatever toys I had, planning out and executing grandiose yet ultimately simplistic stories, and in the event that I did not have an appropriate toy of a character I wanted to use, I would improvise with what I had.  

It was hard for me to not reminisce about that when going through Classic and Spirits mode in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, as it feels like an earnest attempt at encapsulating that sensation into game, and I would say that it absolutely succeeds at that among other things.  While I could easily highlight and emphasize a number of, frankly surprising, oversights or exclusions throughout this game, such as the lack of a proper boss rush mode, there is no denying that Ultimate is a triumph in numerous regards, and represents a high point for one of the most celebrated series in the entire medium.

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