New Super Smash Bros. titles are a magical series of games that never fail to hype up practically anybody who has ever taken an interest in video gaming. From people who play for a living to people who only turn on the console casually at friend/family reunions, the Smash games are some of the truly few games that successfully manage to be fun for almost every single gamer demographic. Not much of a surprise that the latest iteration in the series, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, has been one of the most hyped releases of 2018.
Now that the game’s been out for around a month, does it live up to the hype? In my opinion, definitely; I bought a Nintendo Switch just to play this game (please don’t do this unless you can financially afford to do so). Now, before I delve into this review, I need to get some of my own personal biases out of the way. I’m a Melee “purist,” in the sense that I believe Melee (the 2001 game) is the best iteration of the Smash franchise (excluding the popular Project M Brawl mod since it’s not an official Nintendo release) as I personally liked how its mechanics worked the most, mainly due to its fast game-play and potential for flashy plays as well as a high skill ceiling that one can devote countless hours into getting competent at. Brawl and Smash 4 were also great games in their own right, but each had some issues that held me back from enjoying them to the same extent I loved Melee, so I waited until I had the opportunity to thoroughly test out Ultimate before I made the decision to actually buy it (and a Switch).
So how does Ultimate actually play? I think it’s great, and in my opinion it succeeds in every aspect that Smash 4 did not. Its colossal cast of 70+ characters seems to be the most balanced out of any Smash game (right now, obviously things will change over time with patches and as the meta gets figured out), with each character feeling good and fairly smooth to play while retaining their own unique traits. Even the characters that are considered to be the worst by the community don’t feel that bad, which is definitely an issue that existed in previous iterations (try playing Bowser or Kirby in Melee, they feel awful). The game is certainly a lot more fast-paced than its predecessor, and while it’s not quite the same as Melee, it plays well enough that it doesn’t need to be the same, and it even has its own mechanics to define itself as its own entity. With time, and hopefully well thought-out patches, we will get to see some of these mechanics really get fleshed out as players continuously push the game’s competitive potential. I would personally rank Melee’s game-play the best, with Ultimate coming right in second before Brawl and Smash 4 (excluding Smash 64 as I’ve never played it). Ultimate also features modern gaming perks as well (like the ability to customize your controller inputs, which is a huge quality-of-life upgrade) along with all the mobile/portable advantages the Nintendo Switch provides that definitely makes it more accessible to a wider audience than Melee is. That said, there are a few gripes with the game-play for me personally, and some of those include an awkward buffer system and large amounts of native input lag which takes quite a bit of time to get used to, lack of precise spacing options (dashing is a commitment in this game and real “dash dancing” doesn’t exist), and characters with absolutely absurd recovery abilities (like Pichu or Inkling) which makes attempting to edge-guard (prevent them from coming back to the stage) obnoxiously difficult. Fixing those issues likely shouldn’t require massive code overhauls, but the question is whether Nintendo will actually address them, considering how Nintendo operates with their rather infamous reputation of completely ignoring player-base suggestions.
There can be entire research papers written about the ins and outs of the multiplayer experience, and while the Smash games are advertised as party games involving multiple players, Smash Ultimate does give the player a myriad of activities to enjoy for people desiring a more solo-oriented experience. There’s a Classic mode for each character which basically puts you through a gauntlet of different battles with a final boss battle at the end, as well as an Adventure/story mode that can cover 20+ hours of playable content. The Classic mode is fairly straightforward, though it features an “intensity” mechanic which is essentially the difficulty, and I found it pretty fun and challenging to try and finish each character’s run at the highest possible intensity level (9.9). The Adventure mode is known as “World of Light,” and it features the game’s spirit system.
The basic premise of the Adventure mode is that some light entity called Galeem basically stole all of the characters to help create his army to take over the world or something along those lines, and you have to go through the map to free all of them, as well as acquiring these things called spirits on your journey. The multiple encounters the game pits you against are all very varied, and are pretty different from your standard fights. Some fights feature bigger enemies, some feature terrain hazards, some are stamina (health battles instead of standard percents), and it’s up to you to utilize the spirits you acquire to give you an edge in each battle. At first I didn’t really pay much attention to how the mechanics work, assuming I can just brute-force every fight using my own personal skills, but that is something the game makes extremely hard for you to do. However, by forcing me to actually play the spirits game, I developed an appreciation for how the system works, and collecting the different spirits can be a fun past-time for anybody who is looking for a break from regular Smash. Hell, you can also use the spirits you acquired and actually play multiplayer matches with them, fighting other players and their spirit teams, but let’s be real, that’s like playing with items and obviously nobody ever does that outside of the occasional Final Smash Ball. My biggest gripes with the Adventure mode are its lack of co-op (unlike Brawl’s Subspace Emissary), and that it sort of overstays its welcome; it takes way too long to complete, and while it makes sense considering it’s meant to be a way to unlock all the characters in multiplayer, it shouldn’t take 30~ hours considering there’s very little plot. Most 30~ hour campaigns usually sustain themselves with a gripping story and characters, with reasons and incentives for me to invest that many hours, while World of Light really doesn’t unless you’re not interested in unlocking the characters through standard multiplayer matches as you can unlock them through the story. I would rather have World of Light be shorter, and bring back some of the mini-games in previous Smash games like Target Test and Home Run Contest (not including those game modes is a sin in my opinion). These will add a lot of replayability to the single player modes in case one cannot play the multiplayer/online for any reason.
Edit: Home Run Contest and Stage Builder are back!
Regarding some more minor aspects of the game, the soundtrack for Ultimate is about as amazing as it gets for a game, though it is kind of cheating; due to its nature as a “cross-over” game featuring so many franchises, it has the privilege of taking the best tracks from each franchise so it already has a very solid foundation to stand on. That said, it does add its own twist on a bunch of those classic tracks and for the most part those all sound really great. The opening theme is also incredible, though honestly I’m not too big a fan of the vocals, and that’s not a knock against the vocals (the singer does an excellent job), but it’s more that it just doesn’t really fit an introduction sequence for a game like Smash. The game also looks really nice, and I’m a fan of the art style. However, I’m not a fan of some of the artistic choices the game took with its effects. The game has a lot of smoke trails and other random visual effects when characters get sent flying or are doing other various things, and in my opinion those are completely unnecessary, and do nothing but add visual clutter to the screen. I’m playing a fighting game and I want to see both my character and my opponents’ characters clearly, and not be distracted by all this extra “noise.” This is especially bad in games involving 4+ players; it becomes really difficult to follow due to all the extraneous effects clogging up the screen.
Another big knock against the game is its online system, which right now is somewhat of a broken mess. Online matches are already pretty spotty as far as connection goes; whether a match goes smoothly or not is rather inconsistent, but more importantly, the Quickplay matchmaking more or less doesn’t work properly. The matches you get placed into are determined by your matchmaking preferences, and the preferences system can definitely use some refinement, in particular regarding stages. Right now the only filters you can set for stages are Omega (Final Destination), Battlefield, and no hazards, which really prevents one from searching for a variety of competitive stages. For example, Pokemon Stadium is a popular stage due to its layout, but if you want to play on Pokemon Stadium, the only way you’ll be placed there is if you searched for no hazards and hoped that the random stage selector put you there out of the many stages in the game. The matchmaking preferences also forces you to only search for one type of stage, so I can’t search for both Battlefield and Omega. To make things even worse, re-matching somebody in Quickplay doesn’t alternate preferred rule-sets between you and your opponent, which is absolutely baffling. If I played the first game with my rule-set, then it only makes sense for my opponent to use his/her rule-set the next match we play, but nope, it’s a complete coin toss every single match.
The Battle Arena system serves as some sort of work-around, and it lets you play with friends, but that system has its own faults; you can’t invite people to your own arenas (you can only join others’ arenas), and character selection between matches is extremely clunky. You also can only host arenas as a single player per console; that means no luck if you have a friend over and you two want to play with other friends online. However, as far as playing randoms online goes, it’s far better than Quickplay, as it at least lets you dictate the rule-set and actually choose stages instead of being forced to random, Battlefield, or Omega, and it’s also great for re-matches. Part of me wonders what the hell is going on through the minds of the people working for Nintendo, because while Smash Ultimate is an amazing game that gets a lot right, you’d think that they would have a remotely decent online system which is really important for a PvP fighting game like Smash, but evidently not. Smash Ultimate’s online in its current form is a terrible joke, and by far the biggest problem with the game.
Edit: I believe the Arena feature is now capable of friend invitations, so I think that problem is addressed, albeit I rarely ever play online now and almost exclusively play offline with friends.
Aside from the online (and some issues with controller inputs/buffers pointed out by various professionals who play the game), most of my gripes with Ultimate are fairly minor nitpicks, and at the end of the day, I’m a fan of how the core game plays out, which is by far the most important aspect of a Smash game as I buy a Smash game with the intention of playing it for the long haul. Assuming Nintendo fixes the online, and doesn’t screw up the game-play and character balance too much with subsequent patches (right now the early competitive meta looks super diverse), Smash Ultimate will hopefully have huge staying power. This game is really damn good, and is the first game I actually bought a whole new console for just to play.
Rating: It’s Smash, of course it’s worth getting at retail price. Hell, I bought a Switch just to play this game!