I'm not a huge fan of Super Smash Bros. I've played games in the series before, but my fighting game affinity has always leaned towards franchises like Street Fighter or Guilty Gear. That's not to say Super Smash Bros is not hardcore enough, as my viewing of competitive matches at each year's EVO can attest. I can say the same of games like Mortal Kombat; they have their fans and I'm not always one of them.
That's why I was surprised to find Super Smash Bros Ultimate winning me over when I sat down to play a near final version two weeks ago. I came away impressed with everything Super Smash Bros Ultimate had to offer. Like the Mortal Kombat-adjacent Injustice 2, a compelling package of modes, characters, references, and fanservice can really stand as a winning package.
Classic Mode: Featuring Cool New End Bosses
The first mode I took a shot at was Classic Mode, which returns from Super Smash Bros. for Wii U in a slightly altered format. In this mode, players can tackle a series of basic matches against the AI, with rewards given to players through match performance. Each round becomes more difficult as you move forward along a wall built to resemble the art of the entire roster of Super Smash Bros Ultimate.
To change things up, Classic Mode now offers a side-scrolling challenge stage, moving away from fighting to basic platforming; win and you get a bonus, lose and you still move on to the final round. In Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, the final round was a boss fight against Master Hand, Crazy Hand, or Master Core. In Super Smash Bros Ultimate, the boss fights are varied.
Super Smash Bros Ultimate already delivers a stunning roster of 74 total characters, featuring every fighter from past games like Samus, Yoshi, Roy, Sheik, and Mega Man, alongside new fighters like Castlevania's Simon Belmont, Animal Crossing's Isabelle, and Splatoon 2's Inkling. There's a ton of variety there already, but Nintendo wasn't satisfied. So the fringes of Super Smash Bros Ultimate are filled with even more references to well-loved titles.
The bosses of Super Smash Bros Ultimate are a testament to this. I was only able to tackle the mode with certain characters and your choice determined what you faced at the end. Picking Mario or Captain Falcon offered Giga Bowser as the final opponents. Playing as R.O.B. or Wolf ends your run with Galleom, the giant robot from Subspace Emissary in Super Smash Bros Brawl. The most impressive boss was Monster Hunter's Rathalos, who appeared if you decided to finish Classic Mode with Duck Hunt. Seeing Rathalos flying around the battlefield as a capper to Classic Mode was a treat, and promotional materials have pointed to other bosses like Castlevania's Dracula, so I'm looking forward to seeing who else Nintendo has managed to fit in there.
Adventure Mode: Uncovering Spirits
Super Smash Bros Ultimate's Adventure Mode is a single-player experience entitled "World of Light". It's not as in-depth as the fan-favorite Subspace Emissary from Super Smash Bros Brawl, but it's a mode that offers a lot for players to unlock. The framing sequence sees the roster of Ultimate up against a new angelic force that strips them all of their bodies, with the exception of pink puffball (and most powerful person in the Nintendo world?) Kirby. It's up to Kirby to free the rest from their spirit forms.
Kirby is dropped on a high mountain in a map shrouded in dense fog; I didn't get to see the entire cleared map, but rolling over the fog shows a huge expanse before you reach the final destination: the figure that took every character in the first place. World of Light has Kirby navigating what looks to be a game board, almost like Mario Party, full of branching paths and various challenges.
Each challenge is themed, based on a Spirit. Spirits are the collectible focus of Super Smash Bros Ultimate, standing as representations of each fighter or other characters from their amassed series. When you reach a challenge in World of Light, you'll be faced with a spirit; win the challenge and that spirit is added to your collection. The challenges have you winning fights against fighters that somewhat resemble the spirit in question. A challenge to net you a Clefairy will be against Jigglypuff, a fight against a Guardian from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be against a giant, laser-shooting R.O.B., while a challenge for the spirit of Xenoblade Chronicles' Reyn will actually have you fighting against Fire Emblem's Ike. It's a clever way to feature alternate characters using Super Smash Bros Ultimate's extensive roster.
Handling your spirits is like building a party in a role-playing game. Each spirit has has a type-Attack, Shield, or Grab-and they're strong or weak against other spirits in Ultimate's form of the Fire Emblem Weapon Triangle. Each spirit has its own unique effect, like improving your dash speed, allowing you to start a match with a weapon, or changing match conditions like gravity. Each spirit has a distinct attack and defense determined by their level. You equip a spirit in your primary slot, which determines your overall team power and type. Then every spirit also has a number of support slots where you can equip other spirits to utilize their abilities.
Succeeding in World of Light requires a roster of spirits that will allow you to tackle any opponent in your way, like collecting cards in Magic the Gathering. Equipped spirits gain experience and levels when you complete a challenge, but you can also feed them snacks in order to boost their levels.
If the 74 fighters in Super Smash Bros Ultimate blow your mind, the huge number of spirits will turn your corpse to dust in the wind. According to Nintendo, there are over 700 spirits in Ultimate, and I believe it. There are spirits for Mega Man foe Dr. Wily and many of the Robot Masters, the Rabbids from Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, Ever Oasis' Tethu, or various characters from franchises like Street Fighter, Punch-Out, F-Zero, and Fire Emblem. I caught glimpses of spirits for Ricky, the boxing kangaroo from The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Seasons, The Wandering Samurai from Rhythm Heaven, Sonic the Werehog from Sonic Unleashed, Julius Belmont from Aria of Sorrow, the Octopus from Game & Watch, Mona from WarioWare, Issac from Golden Sun, some Galaga ships, Geo Stelar from Mega Man Star Force, the Excitebike Racer, Tsubasa from Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, and Tron Bonne from Mega Man Legends. There's an absolutely absurd number of characters included as spirits, which speaks to Nintendo's real love for gaming history.
Outside of these support spirits, you'll also run into other fighters that can be unlocked. The choice of unlockable fighters is where the major branches in the World of Light map are. The first branch in the demo I played offered a choice between Marth, Sheik, or The Villager. Choosing one path locks the other two out. I went with Marth, which sent me wandering towards the west of the map. You'll have to make several choices like that before you see the end.
Spirit Board: Easy Unlocking For Portable Play
The Nintendo Switch is a hybrid platform though and it's clear that Nintendo kept an eye towards portable play with Super Smash Bros Ultimate. While Adventure Mode is more in-depth, you can also unlock new spirits in Spirit Board. This mode is just the spirit challenges: loading up the Spirit Board gives you ten random challenges for a limited time. Once a challenge's timer is up, it goes away and is replaced by another. Each challenge clearly indicates which spirit you'll get and its overall difficulty: Novice, Advanced, Ace, and Legend.
Spirit Board looks to be something you can load up quickly to have a little Super Smash Bros fun and get some rewards. It helps build your roster over time, or grab spirits that might be on locked paths in Adventure Mode.
There are a bunch of other mechanics surrounding spirits, including summoning new spirits by combining others or training them in the dojo. The entire concept adds a bit of longevity to Super Smash Bros Ultimate, like Trophies from Super Smash Bros. for Wii U with more gameplay benefits. Adventure Mode and the Spirit Board were probably the most enticing element of Ultimate to me; I get the feeling the collector in me will spend a lot of time in both modes building out the full roster.
Smash Mode: The Meat and Potatoes
Smash Mode is the free-for-all versus mode. You can have anywhere from two to eight fighters in any match, in any combination of live players and CPU opponents. In Smash you can set the match type from a host of options to make your couch competitions really rock. You can even turn on the use of your spirit loadouts in Smash Mode!
Super Smash Bros Ultimate comes complete with over 100 stages according to Nintendo. Each character has at least one stage they can call their own, and every stage has multiple versions and Easter Eggs. On the new Dracula's Castle stage, for example, the familiar blue werewolf will occasionally leap out and leave a candle for fighters. Attacking the candle will drop an item, just like Castlevania. Other new stages include New Donk City Hall from Super Mario Odyssey, Great Plateau Tower from Breath of the Wild, and Moray Towers from Splatoon 2.
Every stage in Super Smash Bros Ultimate looks to allow the full eight player compliment, unlike some stages in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U that topped out at 4 players. Even better, there's a new option called Stage Morph, which allows you to select multiple stages. Once selected, your match will cycle through your chosen stages, providing new layouts and challenges with each switch.
Having all eight players in one match can be visual nonsense, but fighting with around four players feels like the sweet spot, especially on the big screen. I came away from the demos with an appreciation for Incineroar, who can clothesline enemies after bouncing off his summoned turnbuckle, toss them high in the air, or slam them with a devastating suplex. I was less enthused by Simon Belmont, whose game-accurate moves and animations couldn't make up for his equally-accurate (and slow) movement speed.
And that's just the highlights of the stuff Nintendo showed off. That leaves out the 900 music tracks in the game, 59 Assist Trophies, online Battle Arenas, two-player cooperative play, Mob Smash modes against armies of CPU opponents, and even the ability to set fighter balance in personal play.
Super Smash Bros Ultimate feels like Masahiro Sakurai and his team are throwing everything Nintendo in a huge crock pot and seeing what comes out. They're daring fans to ask for more. If you love Nintendo, Super Smash Bros Ultimate might be the premiere release in the company's cap. (Unless the next Mario Kart decides to one up it.) And what they've shown might be enough to get me to pick up a Smash Bros game, which surprises me most of all. At the end of the day, a fully-featured fighter with a clear love of its subject material will always be a winner, and Super Smash Bros Ultimate should fit that bill.