Sometimes I feel bad for Masahiro Sakurai. As the creator of Super Smash Bros., he has poured his heart and soul into the series for more than 20 years now. And yet, one way or another, Smash Bros. has seemingly struggled to escape the long shadow cast by Smash Bros. Melee—the game that many still consider the apex of the series.
Melee was the game that made Smash Bros. what it is today. It greatly refined the N64 original, and in the process introduced a huge number of new characters and stages. It was fast and smooth, achieving a fluid pace that many fans enjoy to this day. That Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the newest game in the series for Nintendo Switch, still supports the classic GameCube controller after all these years is symbolic of the franchise's undying connection to Melee.
Smash Bros. Ultimate feels like an attempt to consolidate all of that history, as well as the franchise's dual personality as a fighting game and party game, into one comprehensive package. It includes every character to date, including all of the downloadable content (DLC) from Smash Bros. for Wii U (called Smash Bros. 4 by the community), as well as long lost guest stars like Snake. It has nearly every stage, including old favorites like Hyrule Castle, which hasn't been seen since the Nintendo 64 days (watch out for that whirlwind).
It includes numerous nods to its own history. You begin with just the eight original characters, a callback to the series' debut on N64. It's frustrating to be so limited at first—I've never been one for having to earn characters—but the roster quickly explodes to a massive 70 plus fighters, including newcomers like Inkling and Ridley (Nintendo even just announced Persona 5's Joker will soon be in the mix via DLC). They appear so fast, in fact, that I've been able to unlock almost all of them in less than a week.
Nevertheless, even by Smash Bros. standards, the sheer size of the roster feels dizzying. It includes representatives from every major Nintendo franchise (sorry, Arms), as well as guests from Mega Man, Metal Gear Solid, and more. Every character is meticulously designed and feels faithful to their source material. Inkling, for instance, combines strong mobility with the ability to coat most everything in paint, utilizing familiar weapons like bombs, rollers, and paint blasters. Their style, which forces you to refill their paint at various intervals, is unusual, but is also wholly in keeping with Splatoon. With up to seven other players on the stage at once, Smash Bros. Ultimate rapidly becomes a chaotic but brilliant cacophony of conflicting styles.
It all makes for an impressive, almost overwhelming, fighter. It's so big that I have to wonder where the series can possibly go from here. Anything less is bound to feel disappointing going forward. It helps to put to rest fears that Smash Bros. Ultimate is a souped up remaster or "Smash Bros. 4.5," which was my initial concern back at E3. It not only includes a tremendous amount of content, plus a half-dozen or more new characters, but it plays very differently as well. This version of Smash Bros. is just a smidge heavier than the Wii U game; you can feel it in the way that characters move through the air and on the ground. It's also far harder to launch and kill opponents—traditionally the primary means by which you eliminate enemies. It's very common to see damage counters make it all the way to 160 or even 200 percent; numbers that were practically unheard of in previous versions.
Adjustments like these seem to be geared toward competitive players, as one of the complaints about previous entries was that characters were often being launched and killed at numbers as low as 60 percent. It's an interesting turn for the series, as it's always seemed as if Sakurai has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into supporting competitive play. Typical of his outlook is this line from 2010, "Melee fans who played deep into the game without any problems might have trouble understanding this, but Melee was just too difficult."
But as many developers have discovered over the years, you don't really get to choose what players end up embracing. Despite Sakurai's best efforts, Smash Bros. is undeniably a competitive game. And in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it seems as if Sakurai is beginning to accept that as well.
While Smash Bros. 4 took some big steps in this direction, competitive play feels like an equal partner in Smash Bros. Ultimate. Every stage now has a Battlefield form (three simple platforms and a flat stage), joining the simpler Final Destination forms introduced in Smash Bros. for Wii U. There's a new 3v3 tag team mode reminiscent of Marvel vs. Capcom—the perfect format for streams—and there's even a tournament mode. When a character lands a heavy smash attack and the action freezes for a beat, you can almost see a "Gasp and Cheer Now" sign flashing overhead.
Melee, of course, was where the Smash Bros. competitive community really began, so this feels like one more attempt to reconcile the two halves of the franchise's personality that split with that game. In its heart, Smash Bros. will always be one of Nintendo's anchor party games; a game about bombs falling from the sky, dragons setting stages on fire, and wacky environmental kills. But the longevity of Smash Bros. and the passion of its fanbase is owed in many ways to its competitive community, which up until fairly recently has had to rely on grassroots efforts to garner notice. I don't know if they will end up embracing Smash Bros. Ultimate in the same way as Melee, but it's nice to see them finally getting the attention they deserve.
A Spiritual Successor
Single-player tends to be one of the more underappreciated elements of Smash Bros. Every Smash Bros. game since Melee has had some sort of unique single-player element, whether in Brawl's Subspace Emissary or Smash Bros. 4's Mario Party-like Smash Tour, but such modes have usually been overshadowed by the multiplayer.
Perhaps realizing that many people will be playing solo in the Switch's portable handheld mode, Smash Bros. Ultimate overhauls many aspects of the single-player experience. Trophies, a mainstay since Melee, are gone. So is the old Home Run Sandbag, the Event challenges, and All-Star Mode, where you would fight every character until you ran out of health.
In their place is a new mode called "World of Light," in which you explore an expansive world map while taking on challenges. Beginning only with Kirby, you progressively unlock more characters as you go, all the while uncovering more and more of the map. There are bosses to fight, shops to unlock, and unique battles, all of which yield rewards.
Spirits are the currency of the realm in World of Light. Serving as a replacement for trophies, they can be equipped to increase your power and confer unique abilities. Some buff up magic attacks, others let you begin with a sword. All of them are a nod of some sort to a classic game, several of which come as a pleasant surprise.
They are pitched as items to collect, as there's a gallery to fill, and Spirits can be unlocked through multiple modes. The challenges in which you acquire them are by turns clever and a little disappointing. Unlocking a Spirit usually involves a quick battle in which you beat an existing Smash Bros. character serving as a stand-in. It can be really fun to see how some of these translate: one of my favorites being a battle on the Umbra Clock Tower, with dozens of little Pits standing in for Bayonetta's angels. Many times, though, it's a reminder that you can't put literally every character in video game history in Smash, even if Sakurai seems determined to try.
Once you have a Spirit in your collection, you can equip it to your main character. This is meant to be an experimental process in which you try different combinations, level up new Spirits, and deploy certain builds for certain situations. Mostly, though, I've been trotting out a level 99 Xerneas with a support that gives me an automatic Ore Club, allowing me to easily club away foes with my weapon's outrageous reach and built-in whirlwind attack.
This is all to say that I find Spirits just a bit... boring? I like the idea of trying to make trophies mean something from a gameplay standpoint, but they end up overwhelming the skill-based elements of Smash Bros., which I think is a mistake. At its core, Smash Bros. is a fighting game. Trying to make it into a sort of vague RPG just makes its challenges feel kind of rote.
This is not to say that the World of Light itself is a waste of time. It's perhaps the most expansive Smash Bros. solo experience this side of Brawl's old Subspace Emissary campaign, featuring a huge map and dozens of challenges to complete. Part of me misses the Events, which were a very entertaining way to test my skills in previous Smash Bros. games, but I like how World of Light combines exploration and rapid-fire challenges that can be knocked out in less than a minute.
When combined with the returning Classic Mode, which confers a story mode of sorts to every single character through a string of themed fights—even the palette-swapped "Echo Fighters"—it ends up being a decent single-player experience. But as always, multiplayer Smash Bros. still reigns supreme.
The Ultimate Smash
I've given a lot of thought over the years as to why Super Smash Bros. speaks so deeply to me, and to the gaming community at large. I've loved the series since basically the beginning, when I got to see Link take on Samus for the very first time. Smash Bros. has followed me ever since: from my college dorm, to playing Brawl with friends in Japan, to late night parties with the Wii U version.
It's a tremendously fun party game; one that will invariably get the entire room laughing and cheering after a particularly crazy result. But I keep going back to Smash Bros. as an almost educational experience. It's a series that has become an interactive museum over the years, filled with trivia, familiar characters, and a spectacularly huge catalog of retro music (seriously, take a look at the music menu sometime).
One of the reasons fans get so wound up about character reveals is that their inclusion always means something. Sonic feels like Sonic, so when he fights Mario, you get a real feel for how a battle between them would actually go. The incredible attention to detail given the costumes, the animations, and movesets is ultimately why Smash Bros. is so beloved.
As usual, Smash Bros. Ultimate has all of that, and more. As a long-time fan, it's been a pleasure to have old favorites like Pokemon Trainer back on the roster. It's been wonderful to be able to revisit some of my favorite old levels, like the Spear Pillar from Pokemon Diamond and Pearl. And it's been really neat to play with some of the new characters, particularly Inkling, who gets a near perfect translation in Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Even the online is finally in a place where it can be considered adequate, featuring the ability to play online with friends, create private rooms, and even setup background matchmaking. It still chugs a little bit at points, especially with multiple characters on the battlefield, but it's at least playable, which is more than could be said for previous version. It makes for a surprisingly pleasant evening chilling on the couch playing with four people online in handheld mode.
In that I suppose Smash Bros. Ultimate puts the franchise's real issue to rest. Online and offline, competitive and casual, it seems to have a little bit of something for everyone now. You can customize it to be a hardcore fighting game, or you can make it the silliest experience ever, with giant characters and a huge numbers of items. As a tribute to classic gaming with an enormous amount of content, it truly earns the name "Ultimate." It may never top Melee in the hearts of fans (what can?), but I think it'll be a staple on Switch for a long time to come.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate feels like a mic drop for the series. It packs in almost every conceivable character and stage, plus a sizable single-player mode. Spirits don't quite land, but the battles feel better than ever. It feels like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate will be a Switch party staple for a long time to come.