I still remember the first time I tried playing online in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Playing on a fiber connection in Japan, I was stunned and disappointed to find everything running in slow motion. It was completely unplayable.
Online play has since proven to be a major thorn in the side for the otherwise acclaimed series. Online multiplayer has never been Nintendo's strong suit—Splatoon might be its most noteworthy success to date—but Smash Bros. has long been an especially bad case. It's been slow and limited since its introduction, keeping it firmly in the realm of living room party games.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is Nintendo's latest chance to turn it all around. With paid subscriptions now available through Switch Online, the pressure is higher than ever for Smash Bros. Ultimate to actually be fun to play online. So does it succeed? Depends on who you ask.
Opinions on Super Smash Bros. Ultimate's online play have thus far ranged from "It's not too bad!" to "This is a slideshow." These tweets neatly encapsulate the conflicting experiences players have had.
I've been having a blast with Ultimate's online so far. Hasn't been perfect, but it isn't annoying me nearly as much as on Wii U. Not 100% sure if it's changed or I have haha— Andre Segers (@AndreSegers) December 10, 2018
Really hard to play Smash Bros Online. The lag is absolutely unreal. Please remove Peer to peer and add dedicated... @NintendoVS— TheZelph (@TheZelph) December 10, 2018
Smash Ultimate has the worst online I've experienced in at least the last 5 years. Not referring to the lag but rather the terrible structure of matchmaking. How does Super Smash Bros. Brawl, from 2008, have a more competent matchmaking system? This is unacceptable.— Milin Phillips (@MelonSaurus) December 9, 2018
Very impressed with Switch Online's performance in Smash Bros Ultimate so far. Only a couple wayward lag spikes on launch night, and flawless thereafter.— Turbolence1988 (@Turbolence88) December 10, 2018
The quality of the online play has sparked discussions on whether Smash Bros. Ultimate should have dedicated servers, which have been met with other players pointing out that almost everything is peer-to-peer these days, and it wouldn't help much anyway. In general, those who are happy are reasonably satisfied, while those who are unhappy are really unhappy.
As always, your experience largely depends on your online connection, but with Smash Bros. Ultimate connection quality feels especially critical. In the early going, I couldn't even connect to Smash Bros. Ultimate online until I fiddled with my router long enough to get it out of Nat Type D—the status that has bedeviled more than a few Switch owners. Once I figured it all out, I was pleased to discover a reasonably smooth experience on a connection that generally sits around a wireless upload speed of 5 Mbps per second.
Since then about 75 percent of my matches have been perfectly smooth, with only a tiny handful hitching or freezing outright. I've generally stuck to playing four-player quick match with items, and thanks to Smash Bros. Ultimate's healthy online population, I've had little trouble finding games. It's helped passed the time while watching Bob's Burgers on the couch; a fine alternative for when my friends are unavailable.
By today's standards, of course, it's rather limited. The available options are the aforementioned quick matchmaking or a private lobby. You can play with Spirits if you so desire, but there's no ranked matchmaking or stats tracking. Unlocking challenges are the closest thing you'll find to tangible rewards for playing online.
What's there seems to be geared toward satisfying the bare minimum requirements for online play in 2018. It's utilitarian as hell, but at least it doesn't inundate you with microtransactions like Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and other popular multiplayer games (unless you count the Fighters Pass). And more importantly, it's actually playable this time around... assuming it plays nice with your connection.
Smash Bros. Ultimate Still Isn't an Online Game
Where Smash Bros. Ultimate differs from its competition is that's still not really intended to be an online multiplayer game. In an era where it's common to throw on a headset and party up in everything from Destiny to Overwatch, Smash Bros. Ultimate is still resolutely a local multiplayer game. It's a game you're meant to laugh over with friends while crazy things happen on screen and everyone dies.
Looking even deeper, fighting games have many special challenges compared to other games. Even a little bit of input delay can mean the difference between successfully landing a combo and whiffing. The most intense fighting game fans will go as far as building their own controllers to try and shave a few milliseconds off their inputs.
Capcom has spent years trying to get games like Street Fighter to the point where hardcore fans are happy with the online play. Some would say it has yet to achieve this goal. If Capcom can't reach this difficult summit, then Smash Bros., which doesn't consider online a priority, barely has a chance.
As it stands, this is easily the best Super Smash Bros' online play has ever been. This may be damning with faint praise given just how bad it was on the Wii and Wii U, but getting to the point of being playable online is a big milestone for the series. It opens up new frontiers that fans and developers alike may never have considered.
Super Smash Bros. is unlikely to ever be what you would call a "good" online game. Its roots as a local party game run too deep, the challenges are too formidable, and the will on the development side isn't really there. At best, it's a sideshow.
But what online play can do for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is open new frontiers for those who don't have local friends to play against. It can be a pleasant chaser after hours spent playing World of Light, or an extra distraction while binging Netflix.
That is it to say, it's actually worth playing now, even if it's not enough to sell a Switch Online subscription on its own. Hopefully your internet connection is up to it.