Super Smash Bros. Ultimate laid its lofty aspirations bare from the first reveal trailer. “Everyone is Here” the video cried, announced to the world that every character to ever grace a Smash Bros. game would return, along with a few newcomers. This ambition became a reality and the game is in my hands… So, does the dream work? Incredibly, despite a few minor nitpicks, Smash Ultimate proves to be the best Smash ever.
The series’ heart did not changed in Smash Ultimate. Up to eight players choose from a roster of 74 (!) characters and one of 103 (!!) stages, then let loose with quick and chaotic action. The objective is to cause enough damage to an opponent (shown via the growing percentage at the bottom of the screen) that you can knock them off one of those stages. This can be played like a serious fighting game, or as a fun party game with friends, and Smash Ultimate’s balance of those two idea impressed me greatly.
The action in Smash Ultimate is faster than in its Wii U predecessor, too. That’s a good thing. Excitement heightens as character deftly navigate the screen, avoiding obstacles and attacking opponents whenever able. There’s also a small, new-to-the-franchise flourish on each match’s final hit. It’s a quick zoom-in and slowdown that really drives the impact of that last smash home. Scoring knockouts was always satisfying, but this added touch adds so much to that last moment of victory.
One Ridiculous Roster
The legions of returning characters fit into these new features right where they left off. Meanwhile, the roster’s new additions are some of the best in the series. Pokemon’s Incineroar, a flaming pro wrestler tiger with precise strikes and a penchant for posing after each move, is my personal highlight. Two of the Belmonts from Castlevania, Simon and Richter, are also amazing fits. They bring the most recognizable weapons from their home series into Smash Ultimate and turn each match into a projectile-fest. Of the returning characters, it’s great to see Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid back, while the Ice Climbers and Young Link represent Super Smash Bros. Melee very well.
However, 66 of the game’s 74 fighters must be unlocked by playing the game. This will turn a lot of people off — particularly the newer crowd of players who are more familiar with DLC than on-disc unlockables. But I found that it added an extra layer to the game. It was another reason to play “one more match” until I unlocked the character I was aiming for. There’s a certain nostalgia that these unlocks tap into, too — a fleeting moment of traditions from gaming’s past that I really dig. Would the game be as interesting if all 74 characters were available from the jump? I’m not sure, but I know I appreciated unlocking the majority of the roster.
The unlock process ranges from easy (play a ton of regular matches, fighting new characters along the way) to time-consuming (completing the World of Light adventure mode). You can also unlock fighters by playing each hero’s Classic Mode route. They’re not as robust as the single-player campaign, but they also don’t take as much time. Smash Ultimate smartly gave me multiple ways to unlock characters how I wanted to. With a roster this big, making 66 different specific scenarios would have been the most time-consuming of all.
Nostalgia Done Right
Taking the edge off the unlocks is the sheer number of ways to play Smash Ultimate. The game is destined to keep me busy for hours on end. I can play standard matches against the CPU or with friends — online or offline. I can play Smashdown, a sequence of matches where each player cannot choose the same character twice until the entire roster is exposed. But my favorite new modes is Squad Strike: a really interesting 3v3 or 5v5 team-based match where each KO brings out a different character. Squad Strike is a really cool spin on the Smash Bros. Team Battle idea that suits a 74-character roster very nicely. I can see it becoming one of the collectively most-enjoyed modes in the game.
The most unique section of Smash Ultimate is easily the Spirits Mode, which combs through years of video game history to create a Pokemon-style mini-RPG. Spirits are essentially living Trophies. They’re people and things from decades past that enhance a playable character. There are two types of Spirits: Primary and Support, and four color types of Primary Spirits. The colors follow a rock paper scissors format where each is strong against one and weak against the other. Meanwhile, all Primary Spirits can be enhanced via power-ups earned in battle. This may sound convoluted, but the system works surprisingly well. Plus, finding Spirits of characters I haven’t seen in years gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling that’s hard to replicate.
There are two ways to earn Spirits. The first is the Spirit Board. The board is filled with what I describe as “wanted posters” of Spirits. You can choose one and initiate battle at any time. Spirit Battles are all themed around whatever Spirit you fight for — sometimes in really cool and unexpected ways. The Dr. Wily Spirit, for instance, pits you against eight tiny Mega Men, two at a time, with each pair coming right after the previous one is defeated. Then Dr. Mario appears after the last pair. Every Spirit Battle I’ve engaged with so far has some sort of callback gimmick. The nostalgia factor is thick. I love the different trials the Spirit Board put in front of me, as each shows a level of creativity few other games do.
An Incredible Package
The one, true Spirit Battle in Smash Ultimate, however, is the game’s World of Light. This robust story mode sees every fighter (except Kirby) obliterated by a nefarious force. The player then controls the pink puffball at the start. A massive map dotted with Spirits and Statues awaits, each marker signaling either a Spirit Battle or a new challenger to unlock. World of Light has enough content to be a full game on its own, yet here it is inside Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which is simply ridiculous.
World of Light will rub people one of two ways: either it’s a fantastic, light RPG romp bursting at the seams with gaming history, or it’s a bloated, dragging grind-fest that’s about twice as long as it needs to be. I personally lean toward the former category. I love all of the Easter eggs strewn about the map and the battles that commence among them, but I admit I suffered some fatigue the longer I played. There were moments where I almost tapped out, nearly succumbing to the grind-y nature of this mode, but it always pulled me back in with some new throwback to re-energize me. Is it a grind? Absolutely. However it’s a grind down memory lane with reference after reference, turning any playthrough it into a labor of love.
Smash Ultimate packs an unbelievable amount of content into one small cartridge, offering hours upon hours of fun and frenzy. The roster is huge, the Spirits mode adds a new and interesting layer, and the gigantic World of Light mode is truly impressive — even when it’s a grind. The amount of time and energy that went into making this game a reality must have been enormous. It shows every time I score a sweet KO or unlock a new character. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the best Smash Bros ever. It’s a must-play for everyone who owns a Nintendo Switch and a game I’ll go back to for a long, long time.