70+ characters, including every single playable character from past iterations. 100+ stages. 800+ songs. Virtually no game has gone to the lengths that Super Smash Bros. has in order to earn the Ultimate moniker. The numbers are certainly there, but does the package come together to create the definitive Super Smash Bros. experience?
Over the course of the franchise’s lifespan, certain characters have come and gone. Some of the most notable characters to have fallen by the wayside from one-to-the-next are Snake and Ice Climbers. In an ideal world, the next iteration of every fighting game would have every character from before and then some, but I know it’s not realistic for many reasons. For Super Smash Bros. to have all of these characters in their starting roster – including those whose rights are managed by third parties – all in one game is phenomenal. It’s a rare instance of everyone getting what they want and then some. As icing on the cake, the game also features new fighters, such as King K. Rool, Ken, Simon Belmont, and more.
Having a large roster doesn’t make a fighter great, but Nintendo has gone to exceedingly great lengths to celebrate each character and their source material. All of the visuals and animations look spot-on for each character. The hundreds of music tracks from each game are fantastically recreated. Want to get really nitty-gritty and recreate Daigo’s EVO Moment #37 with Ken? You can do that. Even for non-playable characters, whether that be in the form of Assist Trophies or Spirits (more on those later), it’s a joyous celebration of Nintendo and gaming at large.
You will not get these characters right away though. Save for the eight characters that appeared in the original Super Smash Bros., you’re going to have unlock everyone else. Over the course of regular play, characters will unlock one-at-a-time. Some people really like the process of unlocking characters, but I despise it. Not in a fighting game. I have way more fun playing as the characters as I want, versus having to grind the game out for hours beforehand with characters I don’t want to play as in hopes that the characters I actually want to play drop sooner rather than later. There are some ways to game the system, and there’s a logic to the unlocks if you want to try and shortcut your way to specific characters, but even that can be a slog. I know that most will prefer the experience of playing the game and having characters gradually unlock, but I don’t want that hassle because that’s not how I want to enjoy a fighting game. An unlock code would have been nice, as it gives players the option to circumvent this gate if they so choose.
For those willing to unlock characters the old-fashioned way, your best course of action is the Classic mode. As with other Smash Bros. games, you’ll fight through a set of levels themed towards that particular character until you reach the final boss. Playing Ryu’s was a treat, as Nintendo went to great detail to make it feel like you were playing the arcade mode of a Street Fighter game. Every character’s campaign has unique touches, making multiple treks worthwhile.
That said, the one bonus game found in the Classic mode is a bust. Unlike past entries, which contained solid mini games like Break the Targets or Home-Run Contest, this game only has one race to the finish. You run from point A to B, collecting as many coins as you can. The most disappointing part of it is that there’s only one course for every character to play through. I understand that making 70+ unique mini game levels is a lot, but I’d almost prefer it if they had taken this level type out entirely.
Characters aren’t the only thing to unlock, as the game’s World of Light single player campaign tasks players with fighting in an assortment of challenges to unlock Spirits. As the story goes, all of the characters in the world of video games have died – except for Kirby – and it’s up to you to free their Spirits. There are way more Spirits than playable characters, as they essentially replace the old trophy unlocks while also giving your character tangible stat boosts and benefits while playing in this mode. Having so many characters from a smorgasbord of different games represented here is a great touch, but it does get repetitive before you’ve unlocked the 1,000+ Spirits available. Still, it’s a meaty piece of single player content for a franchise – and a genre, for that matter – that has struggled at times to make the solo experience worthwhile.
The single player experience is fairly solid, but most are here for the multiplayer action. It continues to shine as a party game and as a competitive game thanks to a slew of options, items, characters, stages, and gameplay tweaks. Want to get silly and play a Pokeball-only battle? Go for it! Want to turn off all the items and truly test your skills against a rival? You can do that too! If you want to mash buttons, you’ll get the satisfaction of watching your characters perform cool moves you recognize from other games. If you go all the way down the rabbit hole, you’re engaging with one of the most advanced and execution-heavy games out there. I can’t speak to the deeper nuances of what’s changed between iterations, but being able to perform short hop attacks by pressing X and A at the same time is a nice shortcut. Still a long ways from being an expert, but I’m having fun where I’m at and looking forward to getting better.
Besides your usual assortment of 1v1, 1v1v1v1, 2v2, and 8-player battles, the game has a few new modes to spice up the action. Strike Squad allows players to compete in a King of Fighters style 3v3 or 5v5 experience where new characters are subbed in when one is defeated. Smashdown is another neat new mode where characters are removed from play after they’ve been used in battle. I’m particularly fond of the former, as it does give me some Marvel vs. Capcom vibes in that it tests your ability to play multiple characters well.
Getting the band together in one place is tough, which has always made the appeal of online play so strong for the series. However, Smash 4 played poorly online and Brawl was nigh unplayable. Thus far, my experience has been okay. Based on the regions of players I’ve played with that I know, playing with fighters from the Midwest US was not bad, but there were dips at times. Matches seem to have minimal lag, though of course I’ve run into a few. It’s working more often than not, which is a vast improvement over previous entries in the series. That said, I highly recommend playing with a wired connection to get the most out of the experience.
The modes you can play online are a bit wonky though. You can set up an arena with a set of rules to allow strangers or friends to play along. However, if you want to do quick matchmaking, things get weird. You can set your preferences to try and match you up with players of similar rule sets, but since the odds of finding players with the exact configuration are slim, the likelihood of playing matches with rules you don’t like are pretty high. Even when you unlock the Elite mode for online play, which is seemingly meant to accommodate competitive players, you can still be forced to play in match types you don’t want. The only real way to control the experience is to join an arena to your exact specifications, at the cost of losing ranking points.
The game may be a few steps short of “perfect”, but it’s hard to debate its Ultimate subtitle. The game’s suite of content is so vast, yet each bit of minutiae has been lovingly translated into this fighter. Unlocking characters is a drag, and I wish the suite of online modes were better implemented, but it’s not enough to overshadow the plethora of things it gets right. Whether this is your first or the latest one in your life-long love affair with the franchise, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate it sure to please.