Originally released in 1999 for the N64, Super Smash Bros was the first in a now-distinguished line of family-friendly fighting games featuring the best of Nintendo's characters. With each new release, the roster grew, stages and features improving with each generation's new capabilities. Now the final month of 2018, the ultimate release is upon us: just how far has this franchise come in 19 years?
A Smashing Time
The mode that immediately grabbed my attention is the series staple: Smash. Each battle plays out as the series has defined as standard, with recognisable fighters from franchises Nintendo or otherwise taking to the stage. With that in mind, you might be wondering what this supposed Ultimate release adds to the formula. For better or worse, I don't feel much has changed, at least from a non-competitive standpoint. Starting with the original cast of eight fighters, characters old and new become available to you the more you play. There's a pleasant sense of progression to be found in this, each challenger approaching screen feeling deserved, and offering a satisfying challenge before gaining access to them as a part of your roster.
If there's one thing to be observed, it's the overall step up in difficulty the game has taken from its previous releases. For the first time, I found myself actually losing against new characters as they appeared, forced to rechallenge them later. With the release of version 1.2.0, the difficulty of these challengers has supposedly been reduced. While I don't feel either difficult or easy challengers to be bad in themselves, it would've been great to have seen some kind of setting to define how you want to play, in oppose to bringing down the difficulty altogether. If it's a case of accessibility, make visible accessibility options and give the power to the player akin to how you can decide the difficulty of your CPU opponents.
What's left in regards to changes feel minor, but all add up to create what is probably the most refined and polished Smash Bros experience to date. You have the FS Meter, something charged as you deal and are dealt damage, which rewards you with a Final Smash when full. You have stage morphing, which will switch between two stages mid-battle at random or predetermined intervals. You have the underdog boost to throw a bone to a player in a pinch. All these features can be toggled and saved as rulesets, and I really suggest you try everything. With the ability to save and pick between rulesets each time you go into a game, there's nothing stopping you from going from everything to a more mundane no items, Final Destination-only setup depending on your mood.
It's really quite difficult to pull up things to dislike here, the only thing coming to mind being that you have to reselect your character after each battle. For all the quality of life changes made, it surprises me to see something like this overlooked. Of course, you can get around this to some extent by making each battle the first to two to five wins, the game transitioning fluidly between each one with your selected characters, but it would have been nice for the cursor to already be over your previously used character if nothing else. It feels as though there's an unnecessary delay between battles that could be so easily addressed.
Outside of the standard battles, Smash Bros Ultimate brings in two really cool new ways to play: Squad Strike and Smashdown. Squad Strike is something I never knew I wanted, letting you pick three or five characters to face off against your opponent's selections. This mode diversifies into Tag Team, Elimination, and Best of. The first of these is by far my favourite, the fight flowing just as a standard stock battle might, the difference lying in what happens after you're KO'd. Instead of respawning as the just-fallen character, you move onto the next fighter in your roster, keeping the game fresh and adding a fun layer of strategy to your choices and the order you decide to bring them out. Elimination functions similarly, but lacks the fluidity of Tag Team, starting a new battle each time a fighter falls. Best of is exactly as it sounds, functioning the same way as the first to X wins in standard Smash; where it is more interesting is again in the choice of characters. Deciding the order you'll use your roster is the key to each of these battle types, and the mind games and predictions of how your opponent will decide serve as the foundations of the strategy and fun to be found here.
Smashdown is something I always knew I wanted, and I struggle to express how happy I am to finally see it, especially with as many characters on offer as this game has. This mode sees you pick one character at a time with them removed from your available pool after each fight, the player with the most wins at the end being crowned the victor. There's so much to love here for how simple a concept it is. You have the debate of picking your best characters versus picking your opponent's best to deprive them of the option. There's little more to say, but I definitely encourage you to try it if you want an intense string of fights with a friend.
Something severely lacking in the previous release, Super Smash Bros for 3DS and Wii U, was a significant single player experience. Ultimate remedies this with spirits, spread across Spirit Board, and the game's Adventure mode. At their core, both modes offer the same content: themed fights against spirits inhabiting the bodies of the game's roster. These fights always come with twists; be it environmental changes like the arena being littered with lava, or your opponents being metal, being able to launch you easier, or being large or small, amongst other things. While a lot of these fights can appear unbalanced at first, I found myself constantly impressed by how well they suited their respective character. The choice of fighter and respective special conditions have kept me hooked, and have given me a reason to keep picking up my system, even when my friends are too busy to play. To add depth to these fights, you can pick your own set of spirits to bring with you to battle. These can make certain attacks stronger, add special characteristics to your fighter, or simply negate the environmental advantage your opponent has. Combine this with a rock, paper, scissors aspect of red beats green, green beats blue, and blue beats red, and you'll find yourself gathering and using a large variety of different spirits for every situation.
Adventure mode sees the game's cast enveloped and subsequently taken by a mysterious light, leaving only Kirby to save the day. The premise isn't much, ultimately acting as a structure to allow you to move through the same battles seen in Spirit Board, but as a framework to make you want to gather and use spirits it does incredibly well. Breaking up these battles, you'll also find bosses and more standard fights when you challenge a fighter for their freedom to make them playable. For how simple it is, I found myself incredibly impressed at the sheer scale of the world. As strange as it might sound, it truly felt like a world. Each area is themed to a certain game or series, giving you pleasant moments of belonging as you roam through a familiar setting. While the mode as a whole can feel a little repetitive, it does well in constantly giving you a reason to come back to the game, whether you're only picking it up for one fight or ten. Also acting as a way to unlock characters, it's an ideal place to start.
Tucked away in the Games & More screen, you'll find many a familiar mode. Offering your standard multi-man smashes, Century, All-Star, and Cruel Smash, as well as the classic… Classic Mode, you've again got content upon content to satisfy a single player, but also tag team efforts. With each of your Mob Smash modes allowing for up to four people to participate, and Classic up to two, both storing high scores relative to the players present, you can happily drag others to suffering the same terrible fate as yourself in Cruel Smash (or happily play the other modes together if that's your thing).
Cruel Smash offers a challenge unlike any other in the game.
The mob smashes fairly self-explanatory, I feel the light truly deserves to be shined on the game's implementation of Classic Mode. Instead of a standard selection of fights to be played universally by the cast, each member has their own story to tell, dictating the battles they face. Lucina's path pits her against heroes from her franchise, Chrom's battles are always with a CPU partner, each tells a tale you'll smile at if familiar with the character and their origins. Though each route is short, you'll find yourself coming back to clear each character's route and better your high score. If you're not confident in your skill, the intensity meter from the previous game returns, allowing you to dictate your own starting difficulty, with it adjusting based on how you perform as you progress. For those wanting a challenge, trying to finish each route with an intensity of 9.9 is an incredibly fun and rewarding experience.
It isn't all roses here however. Perhaps more notable to long-running fans of the series, two familiar modes are missing: Endless Smash, and Home-Run Contest. While these aren't necessarily significant in the content they provide, I can't understand the removal of the fan-favourite minigame that's been a hit since Melee. Toting that every character is present is one thing, but to remove two long-standing game modes is entirely contrary to the game truly being the ultimate package.
This review being post-release, I'm able to discuss the uproar surrounding the game's online when it first launched. Put simply, it was substandard and dissatisfactory, throwing many into confusion over just what their Nintendo Switch Online subscription money was being used for. Now a few patches in (the game being on version 1.2.0 at the time of writing), I'm glad to report things are at least better. Playing 20 or so matches online, some alone and some coop with a friend next to me, we experienced minor moments of lag, but the experience was largely positive. These moments definitely aren't enough to ruin a casual fight, but if they happen at the penultimate moment of a more competitive game, I could definitely understand frustration.
Connectivity aside, the actual implementation of online features is interesting to say the least. Discarding the notions of fun and glory present in the previous game, you simply jump into online games. Where opinions are mixed is in how the game does its matchmaking. At launch, priority was heavily given to players in close proximity in an attempt to make matches as fluid and lagless as possible. This came at the cost of discarding a player's preferred ruleset, throwing competitive players into matches on large stages with undesirable items, and casual players into a more mundane setting. With the latest update, preferred rules are at the core of matchmaking. While still not perfect, I did manage to match with other players relatively quickly and had my devilish ruleset a good deal of the time. Though through a lack of skill I am yet to unlock it, the game does also feature a mode for the more experienced players in Elite Smash. Pitting you against other high ranking players, the idea behind it is to keep you hooked on intense fighting action by constantly challenging you. It is however worth noting that there is, to the best of my understanding, no difference from standard online battles aside from this. It could still be four-player, it could still have items, and it might not even be set on Final Destination. At the moment, all you can do is hope Nintendo change this in future, but for now, you might just have to learn to make the best of it.
Give these rules a go with a partner for an alternate way to play!
Battle Arenas are the game's answer to a lot of people wanting to play together. Featuring a queue system and the option to spectate, I imagine this to be the go-to mode for streamers and casual online tournament organisers. Being able to fully customise the rules, as well as the player rotation, this mode presents a surprisingly intuitive way to get together with faraway friends and play with minimal effort. It's also worth noting this is the only mode you can really be certain you'll get the rules you want, so you might see competitive-hungry players flocking here, even if it has no impact on your online ranking.
Training and More
The last major thing worth mentioning from my perspective is the game's training mode. Much to my surprise, it is the best it has ever been, even for a more casual player such as myself. The map itself is huge. Featuring a large flat platform, as well as a battlefield-esque stage to the side, on top of clear markings for distance and blast zones for both Battlefield and Final Destination, you're really able to understand how each character works. The settings available to change range from your standard CPU damage percentage, to more interesting things like being able to lock their damage percentage, show the trajectory of attacks at varying percentages, and even make the game move a frame at a time. Everything I want, and everything I never knew I wanted, is here. In every other game, I've simply overlooked the training mode and learned by doing, but here, I almost feel like the game is pushing me towards it. It feels a waste not to use it when everything is laid out so perfectly.
On more minor notes, several things return from previous games. Amiibo training, tournaments, and eight player smashes are all here. A nice addition is that every map can now be played with eight players unlike the previous game where only select maps were compatible. Custom Smash now features more options, the personal favourite of mine being the ability to start with Rocket Belts—try this with Little Mac for some serious fun.
Overall, I struggle to deny that this is in fact the ultimate form of Super Smash Bros. Riddled with a plethora of addictive content for both single players and parties of people alike, you'll find time an abstract concept as you proclaim "just one more" after each battle. Though missing a few modes I had thought to be standard of the series, it offers more than enough to keep you hooked for tens, if not hundreds of hours.