Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s title alone promises the biggest, best and most complete Smash Bros. to date. Yet the word “ultimate” can also be read not as an enthusiastic superlative, but merely as a coda to the franchise, a blunt culmination of its design. This is the ultimate Smash Bros. because its scope is so massive that it’s hard to imagine adding anything else.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, developed by Sora Ltd. and Bandai Namco Studios, unapologetically adopts “do what the fans want” as its compass. You want all the characters, even the ones that were ever-present, half-joke rumors? Here they are. You want to play every stage in the series’ history? Say hello to an inscrutable collage to pick from. It feels primed to satiate its most passionate players first, but the developers didn’t throw out its party game soul during its creation.
[Ed. note: We were unable to test Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s online multiplayer features prior to publishing. We will revisit the online component shortly after the game’s launch so that we can test the experience on live and busy servers.]
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s most notable feature, besides being on the popular portable console Nintendo Switch, is its roster, the largest in fighting game history. You’ll be able to unlock 74 fighters in the base game, with one more coming as a pre-order bonus and five downloadable characters promised for the future. The roster liberally pulls characters from Nintendo’s decades of history as well as partners that feel at home alongside Mario and Princess Peach (Simon Belmont of the Castlevania series, and Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter, for example). Nintendo included 10 playable Pokémon (three belonging to Pokémon Trainer), three different versions of Metroid protagonist Samus Aran, and an arguably excessive six characters from the Fire Emblem series. Not every character is unique; the game has six “echo fighters,” characters with different models who share a rule set, like princesses Peach and Daisy.
This plethora of fighters is a blessing and a curse. Your fave is probably here (unless it’s Waluigi). And along with the hundreds of other characters that appear as trophies or spirits, Ultimate’s character catalog serves as a thorough, albeit superficial, tour of Nintendo history. It’s a daunting selection, even when I’m familiar with each of the represented series and its characters. I can’t imagine viewing this as a younger player relatively new to the greater Nintendo mythology.
Perhaps the overwhelming variety won’t be an issue for most players. After all, the abundance of fighters means an abundance of combat styles. Even with echo fighters and a few cloned characters, the game caters to every single player type. Tweaks to classic characters mostly improve their feel — Link’s remote bombs allowed me to get creative, and Ness’ bat feels powerful again — and Ultimate’s new class has some standouts, like Ridley and Incineroar.
Ultimate preserves the series’ madcap battles just as we knew them. A four-player match in this game is manageable, but visually chaotic, especially on some of the stages with busy moving backgrounds. (I stand by the feeling that any more players than four is a novelty, and not actually fun for anyone involved.) Few fighting games capture the pace and energy of Super Smash Bros.; even for folks who aren’t the star of the battle, or especially good, there’s pleasure in sowing disorder. Smash Bros. doesn’t get enough praise (or criticism) for how its multiplayer allows for grade-A trolling, letting you spoil your pals’ fights with a single well-placed trophy attack.
Even when I get knocked out of a match early, I enjoy watching how it unfolds. During that break, I get to appreciate how beautiful some of this game’s stages can be — especially early levels that have been given a full face-lift — and I savor the lovingly remastered versions of songs plucked from my childhood gaming memories.
Customizing Ultimate is blissfully easy. Granular options for multiplayer can be tweaked and modified in near-infinite ways, and an excellent menu system makes most options easy to find. (The fact that they show up before stage and character selection is probably one of the game’s most impactful quality-of-life improvements.)
It took little time or effort to pick my favorite rule sets. Sometimes I limited the game’s chaos by fine-tuning the item frequency and toggling the Final Smash from the floating Smash Ball to a meter that builds over time. Other times, I ratcheted the pressure by adding random stage swaps and raising my favorite explosive items to high frequency. The ability to name and save each custom rule set has allowed me to swap between multiplayer flavors with the toggle of a single menu setting.
I do wish the simplicity of rule management translated to the level select screen. Ultimate has 103 playable stages, and they’re all jammed on one crowded grid. Nintendo hasn’t included basic options, like sorting by franchise or level type. It’s all too complex, favoring Nintendo fan service over accessibility.
Countless more knowing winks and nods have been embedded into Ultimate’s single-player Spirits mode, which encompasses the World of Light campaign and the Spirit Board. Spirits are basically collectible PNGs with a loose narrative peg, and they’re mined mostly from the depths of Nintendo’s secondary and tertiary characters, some with the loosest of connections to the publisher. Within an hour of playing, I encountered two Castlevania characters, a Metroid Fusion boss, a character from the horror series Fatal Frame, and Blaze the Cat from the Sonic universe.
World of Light’s journey has the narrative oomph of a pro wrestling royal rumble from a WWE knockoff. All creatures in the unnamed Smash land have been captured by an unknown villain, and he’s puppeteering their bodies for his own ends. By traversing a sprawling overworld map, you’ll slowly save these spirits, and harness them to raise your attack or defense during your own travels.
The matches are diverse and challenging enough that I enjoyed the 12 hours I’ve spent with Spirits’ modes — by no means enough to see the whole thing. Challenges ranged from an army of large Jigglypuffs that favored an extra-powerful sleep attack to a floor covered in lava, sticky muck or poison. Not every matchup was a breeze; World of Light starts with only one playable character, and my roster never expanded above 10. While this pacing slows the game down, it’s a blessing: I picked matches with fighters I was less familiar with, and began to appreciate characters beyond my clutch team.
The mode warns of each battle in advance. To counter the fights, the game advised selecting spirits that would boost my stats and give me buffs — there’s a rock-paper-scissors bit of strategizing to conduct here that doesn’t have a rational connection to the spirits themselves. No matter which spirit I picked, my character never changed its appearance or fighting style. It may not be the easiest system to grok for novice players, but there is thankfully an auto-pick selection if you’re muddling through it. The whole mode has much more complexity than I originally expected from a Nintendo title, and explaining it leaves you feeling a bit mealy-mouthed, And yet, World of Light offered me a palate-cleansing grinding experience unlike anything in previous Smash games, where number crunching mattered as much as my fighting skill.
This is a Smash Bros. so full of ideas, wishes and demands pulled from the player base that it can be overwhelming. This is no longer the simple game from our childhood, and it’s not shy about rewarding the series’ biggest fans, whether it’s through the choices made for each fighters’ designs, music track curation, unlockable bonus art, or the wild and varied army of spirits. For a company often concerned with accessibility, there’s quickly a point where Ultimate will drop casual Nintendo fans into the deep end.
But Ultimate is also the most enjoyable entry since Super Smash Bros. Melee devoured the free time of my social circle through most of college. Because I can fine-tune the options I want, and pick the characters and stages I love from the franchise’s whole history, I’m almost guaranteed to be able to craft a fun match with whomever I’m playing with. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s gameplay is so snappy and fluid, its characters so rewarding in their variety, that it feels destined to dominate living rooms once again.