Crossovers happen all the time in games, films, TV shows and just about every other form of media out there, but none of them can really be compared to Super Smash Bros.; no, not even that film that you’re thinking of. So it’s beyond a bold move to name the latest entry in a series ‘Ultimate’, thus raising expectations to dizzying levels, so can Super Smash Bros. Ultimate really live up to its name? That’s what we’re here to discuss, because this is a review of it.
The core idea of Smash hasn’t changed at all really; you’re still setting up characters from the world of Nintendo (and from other developers, too) to beat the living snot out of each other until one of them is so badly damaged or poorly controlled that they fly or fall out of the intangible boundaries that Sakurai and his team have imposed upon one of the 104 included stages. Special moves, items, supremely fanatical hardcore community – it’s all largely the same as it was. It’s chaotic, high-octane and an incredibly replayable lump of fun. However the devil, appropriately, is in the detail.
The most notable inclusion here is the new Adventure Mode dubbed World of Light, and by extension the new Spirits mechanic. A strange entity known as Galeem is systematically destroying the world in which all the fighter characters reside, and picks them off one by one in order to create a newer, more perfect world; a World of Light. Being the director’s personal baby, the pink and orb-like Kirby is the only one left unaffected, and in a mysterious pop of colourful stars is transported to a strange new land living in the shadow of the supposedly evil Galeem – or at least the shadow it would have if it wasn’t kicking out its own light like a sun.
You traverse the land through paths on a beautiful watercolour backdrop battling the souls of other characters that aren’t necessarily fighters – such as Joan the turnip seller from Animal Crossing – that have inhabited empty copies of Mario, Link, King Dedede and the rest of the whopping 74 characters you can play as. They’re not without their own perks though, and each Spirit brings with it one or two things that mix up the way a fight plays out. For example, they might be giant, tiny, like to taunt constantly, or even favour one specific move above all others to name just a handful. The stages can also be affected by things such as electric floors, strong winds and reduced gravity.
The variety in these fights is staggering, and practically all of them are insanely good fun and a novel way to breathe additional life into battles without having to code and create 1,297 unique fighters – yep, that’s the total number of Spirits in the game at the time of writing, with more being added in the future. Not every battle is an absolute winner however, and some even spell it out for you in the fight description, simply calling it a 'no-frills' battle. This is a slight disappointment, but these truly are extremely few and far between, and given the colossal scale that the team were working with, we can happily accept that not every one of over a thousand Spirit encounters can be as memorable as others.
But once you’ve battled a Spirit, things don't end there. You’ll acquire each Spirit you defeat in World of Light and the more straightforward Spirit Board, which is essentially a randomised rotating gallery of Spirits you can choose to battle without delving into World of Light. You can assign one primary Spirit and up to three support Spirits to help boost your fighter’s power and make the often one-sided battles in World of Light much more equal. You can freely overpower yourself making many contests a complete breeze, but this will result in fewer bonuses for your trouble – and if you intentionally underpower yourself, you’ll be raking in rewards like nobody’s business. It’s a system that essentially self-regulates itself, and the addition of a Skill Tree that boosts your power as well as pre-determined difficulty levels provides a staggering amount of flexibility in how you approach this particular mode.
The world itself is also absolutely massive, and what you initially see isn’t all you get, as there are a good number of hidden areas that house extra lovely stuff. Throughout it all you’ll be unlocking new fighters to play as, new Spirits to assign and beating seven shades out of special boss fights that we don’t want to spoil, but can confirm are absolutely fantastic, and manage to outdo even the finest bosses from Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s Subspace Emissary.
Other single-player offerings include the appropriately-named Classic Mode, which has had a bit of a re-think and is all the better for it. Now each fighter has their own string of fights to best one after another, all fitting within a named theme. R.O.B., for example, tackles all the most human-looking players in a manner that feels worryingly like a robotic overthrow of humanity, Young Link smashes his way through Hyrule’s elite, and Sonic is forced to tackle numerous references to his past, including the meme-worthy battle of a blue, yellow, and red Kirby team set to the main theme from Sonic Heroes. It’s not a revolutionary way to handle Classic Mode, but it’s absolutely the most fun we’ve had with the mode in the series’ history, and it manages to inject a real charm and self-awareness that has been distinctly lacking in previous entries.
There’s also a plethora of other things to do, such as listening to the phenomenal soundtrack and watching replays of past matches (which can now also be encoded into a video file to prevent future updates from breaking them), but the real meat of the experience – and no doubt what so many of you are here specifically to read about – is the multiplayer.
As previously stated, the bulk of the experience is the same as it’s always been in Smash, which is to be expected, but the number of small tweaks and subtle changes that permeate the game are practically innumerable. Whilst someone unfamiliar with the series might see little to differentiate Ultimate from the previous entries on 3DS and Wii U, if you’ve played the previous games an unhealthy amount like we have, the feel of how it all works has been drastically ramped up and re-worked to a spectacular degree.
We’re not going to go into major specifics about landing lag and active frames, but we’ll give you the broad strokes. The game feels faster, more responsive and tighter than before, although perhaps not as fast and unpredictable as Melee. Character movesets have been upgraded and nerfed in a manner that feels very balanced, although the real proof of this will naturally be once the game is out in the wild and people are playing each other all over the world.
New modes such as Squad Strike – which allows a 3v3 or 5v5 mini tournament – and Special Smash help to mix things up nicely, but the real star of the show is the new Tournament system. It’s nothing out of this world as far as tournament systems go, but everything about it is robust, reliable and extremely flexible. If you plan on having or partaking in a tournament, you’d be mad not to use this mode.
But the flexibility doesn’t stop there either, you can now change more settings and rules than ever before, and what’s even more wonderful is these can all be saved as custom rulesets, allowing you to quickly set up the exact game you want without having to go through and change each little setting every time. You can even go into the main settings menu and adjust an individual fighter character (not player) to have more or less power depending on how you feel the balance lies. Naturally, this is open to abuse, but you have the option to actively nerf or buff characters without the need of an officially-mandated patch. This is probably the feature that best sums up Ultimate; insane levels of customisation and flexibility. You’re encouraged to play the game however you want to, and adjust even the most trivial features to your heart’s content. You can even turn off Tap Jump as standard, which is basically the best thing we could ever have hoped for.
Few totally new fighters that have been introduced here, but considering the fact that every single fighter from all the previous games has returned, we can’t say we’re at all disappointed. Every newcomer feels unique and ambitious, but without verging into Brawl-levels of experimentation. With 74 characters to play as and a starting roster of only 8, you might be forgiven for thinking that you’re going to be spending half your life unlocking them, but that’s not the case. The game is quite generous with how frequently you unlock new fighters, but not so generous that it fails to be an exciting event.
How about looks? Looks-wise, the game is frankly gorgeous, as no doubt you’ve seen in the countless videos that Nintendo itself has already published. But none of this would be worth it if the game didn’t run well, but as you might expect for a first party game with such a prestigious pedigree, it all runs smoother than liquid butter. Try as we might, we couldn’t get the game to slow down at all, or show any signs of struggling. The music is also utterly fantastic, boasting some storming arrangments of classic tunes from the past few decades of video game history. While we're on the topic of general presentation, this game is so polished you can almost see your face in it.
Online is a bit of a minefield for games like Smash that demand precision timing and the lowest latency possible, but thanks to what we can only assume is some sort of cosmic magic, Ultimate plays really well online. You’ll occasionally run into a game with someone whose connection with yours just doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, and latency does become noticeable, but a strong majority of the time it’s so responsive (potentially thanks to the system’s preference for nearby players) that for the average player it’s feels practically as responsive as playing a local game with a wireless controller.
So how does it all stack up? Vocal concerns about past games have been actively addressed, every single fighter from the series is present (even Pichu), the customisability is overwhelmingly vast and it’s all topped off with super-solid single-player modes to boot. We’re not sure how you could make a more robust or pleasing Smash game. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate truly is the ultimate instalment in the series, and it makes you wonder where Sakurai can possibly take this franchise next.