At the time of writing, we’re mere weeks away from Nintendo’s most hotly-anticipated game of the year: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. With the game’s final direct having aired a few weeks ago, many were left wanting to know more about the game’s particulars, especially with regard to the newly announced single-player modes. While some of those questions won’t be able to be answered until our review hits closer to launch, we can answer some right now. At a recent event in New York, we spent a few hours hands-on with a near-final build of Smash Ultimate. The build we played feature all the modes, characters, stages and songs we’ve all heard about, save for Piranha Plant, who won’t be available until after launch.
Despite having a few hours alone with the game, we find it difficult to preview a game like Smash Ultimate. Like most other entries in the franchise, Sakurai’s latest opus is poised to be another evergreen title. Players will return to Ultimate for years to come, and a mere handful of hours simply isn’t enough to cover the staggering amount of content crammed into this game. That said, we played enough to get an idea of what to expect from the finished product for now. All newcomers, down to Ken and Incineroar, were available and unlocked for us to use, so why not start there?
The last opportunity we had to go hands-on with Smash Ultimate was at E3 2018. Since then, Nintendo has revealed the final roster, culminating with the reveals of Ken and Incineroar, and the introduction of Piranha Plant, the first post-launch character which will be given as a free bonus in early 2019 to those who purchase the game early.
Aside from Ridley of Metroid fame, Splatoon’s Inklings and Princess Daisy - who at this point is most well known for her inclusion in various Mario spin-off titles - another handful of brand new fighters have been added. We have Chrom from Fire Emblem, Dark Samus from Metroid, King K. Rool straight out of Donkey Kong Country, Richter and Simon Belmont from the Castlevania series, the adorable Isabelle of Animal Crossing, Ken from Street Fighter and finally, the latest Pokémon combatant, Incineroar.
The build we played at the preview event contained the full 74-character roster, all of which were unlocked. This won’t be the case in the final game, and details on exactly how you'll unlock the full roster aren’t clear yet, but we’re told opening up all the characters shouldn’t take most players more than a couple of hours.
Going into the preview, this particular author was most looking forward to playing as Ken; as a Street Fighter fan, he seemed like the appropriate first choice. To say Nintendo has done Capcom’s most famous echo fighter justice would be an understatement. Ken’s model is by far the best rendition of the character to date, easily surpassing his Street Fighter V model and just edging out his depiction in its forerunner. If you’ve ever played as the brash American shoto (and let's face it, who hasn't?), you’ll warm to this version straight away.
Like Ryu, executing the actual inputs for Ken's specials will increase their strength. If you manage to land the first hit of his Shoryuken it’ll set your opponents aflame and do some extra damage. Requiring a “meaty” hit to execute the flaming version of the move is a departure from how the technique works in the Street Fighter series, but it makes sense in Smash as the arc on the flaming Shoryuken is wide and could cause Ken some serious ring-out problems if used too close to the edge. Like Ryu, Ken has two Final Smashes, based on distance. When he’s in close to an opponent he’ll use the Shippu Jinrai Kyaku, a move which unleashes a flurry of kicks which lift your opponent into the air, after which Ken delivers one final blow which will typically send the opponent sailing off the screen. From a distance, he’ll use the Shinryuken which creates a tower of flame and sucks in nearby opponents. While we enjoyed Ken, the other newcomers piqued our interest a bit more.
Our next stop was Incineroar, the most recently-announced newcomer to the Smash Ultimate roster, and he did not disappoint. The Generation 7 starter Pokémon commands quite possibly the greatest presence of the entire roster, with his larger-than-life personality, frequent taunts and one of the most cinematic Final Smashes in franchise history. Using Incineroar requires you to think a bit more strategically than we initially expected. He’s big, weighty and can deal heavy damage, but if used improperly his moves can be as detrimental to his own survival as they are to that of his opponents. A perfect example is Incinerorar’s recovery move, which sends him flying up into the air, only to dive down at a sharp angle. If you do this on the edge of the stage, for example, you can end up flying off to your doom.
With a few matches as the grappler ‘mon under our belt, we can safely say that he’s going to be one of the more difficult additions to master, but we love him nonetheless. In one match we played as Incineroar against a team of Yoshis in Spirit Board mode (more on that in a bit), and couldn’t help but be amused as he would strike a pose after sending Mario’s hapless helper flying off the stage.
Of all the new additions, Simon and Richter Belmont felt like they were the easiest of the bunch to pick up and learn. Simon feels a bit slower and heavier than Richter, but beyond that their move sets are largely the same, as is the case with most fighters and their echoes. Their normal attacks were decently quick, but their side smash - in which they extend their whips - is incredibly useful, even for beginners, and can be devastating when timed properly.
We didn’t get a lot of time with King K. Rool or Isabelle, but we came away impressed with what we saw. Smash Ultimate’s roster is objectively the best the series has ever seen, if for no other reason than it contains every single character ever in the series while adding several new fighters. If you’ve ever liked Smash, the character you loved is here.
Adventure Mode and Spirit Board
One of the biggest reveals in the final Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Direct was the inclusion of a single-player adventure mode, dubbed World of Light. In it, the entire roster, save for Kirby, are captured, a fact Nintendo reps on-hand were keen to point out. It's up to you to save the day by freeing captive fighters from the clutches of Galeem, the strange wing-like creature responsible for taking out all the characters.
When you start out, as the trailer implies, you'll only be able to control Kirby. As Kirby you'll be placed on the overworld map, and will have just one point you can travel to, to begin a fight against Mario, who is possessed by the spirit of Smoky Progg, a boss from the original Pikmin game. Mario being possessed by this spirit means he will occasionally become Metal Mario during the match. If you've ever battled against Smoky Progg in Pikmin, this link will make sense as the boss is known for being incredibly tough. Once we defeated Mario, we got the spirit to add to our party and could then equip it to Kirby if so inclined.
The first few matches all played out in a similar fashion. Our Kirby battled a group of Yoshis possessed by Eevee which limited Pokeballs on the stage to summoning Eevee, and we battled a Jigglypuff possessed by Celeste from Animal Crossing before finally happening upon our first captive fighter, Mario. In this battle, we faced Mario without any fancy bells or whistles, but with his AI clearly a bit smarter than that of previous opponents. Upon defeating Mario, he was unlocked for us to use.
As we continued through the map, we found ourselves at a crossroads in which we had to pick one of three characters to rescue: Sheikh, Marth or Villager. We chose Villager, and after defeating him and adding him to our party, Master Hand showed up and blocked the two remaining fighters, meaning we were effectively locked into our choice. At this point, we zoomed out to check out our available options and were blown away by just how little of the map we had explored.
There's still a lot we don't know about World of Light, but we were impressed with the variety of spirits add to the standard Smash Bros. experience. While we suspect we'll see more varied match types, and even a boss battle or two, we didn't see any of that in our brief demo of the mode.
World of Light isn't the only way to add new spirits to your crew, however. There's also the other new single-player mode, Spirit Board. In Spirit Board, you'll find 10 different tiles, each containing a different spirit challenge. If you clear the challenge, you have a chance at winning that spirit by taking a shot at it with a laser rifle. If you shoot through the gap in the spirit's shield and land a direct hit, it's yours. If you miss, you permanently remove a piece of that spirit's shield meaning it'll be easier to hit the next time you come across it. Spirits are broken into four tiers: Normal, Advanced, Ace and Legend. The higher the tier, the more difficult the challenge. If you clear the challenge the spirit's shield will also rotate faster and have smaller gaps in it, depending on its rarity.
Once you've cleared a challenge, its spot on the Spirit Board remains vacant for five minutes, encouraging you to go after any remaining challenges before the global timer expires and a fresh set of spirits is brought in. Each fight takes no more than a minute or two, and with the sheer number of spirits in the game, it seems Spirit Board may be the best place to get them. More importantly, Spirit Board appears to be the best way to play Smash in handheld mode. Each match takes just a minute or two and we're already imagining capturing a few spirits on the train or on road trips when we're unable to enjoy the full chaos of multiplayer.
Of course, not everything is new in Smash Ultimate. Most of the things players love about Smash are present and accounted for. Classic mode is back, albeit with a twist. You'll still face a series of opponents in a variety of matches, but this time they'll be focused on a theme for each character. For instance, Duck Hunt Dog's theme is animals, and Star Wolf will only fight against characters that are returning combatants. Characters appear to fight different bosses in the new version of Classic as well, with Duck Hunt facing off against Rathalos from Monster Hunter and Wolf fighting Galleom.
Four and eight-player Smash feels great, and distinct from its predecessors. Roster additions aside, a lot has changed since the days of Smash 4. Smash attacks can be held much longer than they could previously, for instance. Dodging and guarding feel more forgiving, too, but the most impactful change in our opinion is the addition of the Final Smash meter; it grants each player a Final Smash roughly once a minute and makes each match even more chaotic. Speaking of chaos, the new stage morph feature is utterly glorious as well. Switching between stages in the middle of a match isn't something we knew we wanted, but now that we've tried it, we find ourselves wondering how we ever lived without it.
The theme for Ultimate, however, is Everyone is here, not everything. That means some things appear not to have made the cut. Homerun contest appears to have been the most notable omission, and not all stages are in this version either, but it's incredibly difficult to find fault with the game when there's such an incredible amount of content on offer.
Nintendo was unwilling to tell us just how many spirits are in Ultimate, but some counts are already above 500, and many previously unknown spirits were found in the build offered at the event. We wouldn't be surprised to see that number end up closer to 1,000 once they've all been found. Depending on the spirits you equip, you can completely change the rules of a match, by limiting items, changing gravity, powering up or weakening types of moves - and that's just scratching the surface. We're excited to see what players will do with the new tools at their disposal.
Not Long Now...
While we spent a scant few hours playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, we couldn't be more optimistic. The near-final build we played exhibited zero performance issues and contained a breathtaking amount of content. Adventure mode looks as though it could provide hours of fun, Spirit Board seems like it will be the way to play in handheld mode and the new twists on Classic mode aim to make it interesting again, and in our estimation, that seems to have worked. The real test of Ultimate's worth will come when we're able to sit down and temporarily make foes of friends to take to the field of battle on 7th December.