Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is Smash Bros. done right, and done bigger than ever before.
As series director Masahiro Sakurai said himself, it’s a miracle Super Smash Bros. Ultimate exists. Having Mario and Zelda duke it out against Street Fighter’s Ryu and Final Fantasy 7’s Cloud on a battlefield from Metal Gear Solid is a weird, wonderful thing that only the Smash Bros. series can deliver – and Ultimate is undoubtedly Smash Bros. done big and done right.
With 74 fighters (depending on how you count), 108 stages, nearly 1300 Spirit characters to collect, and a single-player Adventure mode that took me a full 24 hours of playtime to beat, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate offers far more in a single package than any of its four predecessors. And while it occasionally felt like pruning away some of its weaker bits could have made Ultimate an even stronger and more consistent whole, excellent new mechanical and aesthetic additions make it stand out as far more than just a rehash of old ideas. It’s nothing short of the brand-new Smash Bros. game I’d imagined as the ideal sequel for the Switch.
See us discuss our Ultimate review in the video above on this week’s NVC.
Smash Bros. has always been a fighting series that successfully pleases two crowds that are usually at odds: those who are seeking the pure, chaotic joy of an eight-player button-mashing brawl and those who prefer tense matches of hard-fought, high-level skill. While more competitive-minded players may turn off items and only fight on the completely flat Final Destination stage (or the functionally identical “Omega” versions of any of its other stages), others may find that unexpected items, deadly stage hazards, and epic Final Smash finishing moves are just as much at the core of what makes Smash Bros. great. Both – and every setting in between – coexist beautifully in Ultimate.
Smash Bros. has a rare accessibility that keeps its high skill cap from feeling intimidating.
More so than any previous game in the 19-year Smash Bros history, Ultimate is all about gathering as many iconic characters as possible from all over gaming – stretching far past its Nintendo-only origins – and letting you pit them against each other however you’d like. It’s a digital action figure toy box overflowing with the childhood memories of countless gamers, but with the beating heart of a competitive fighting game.
It’s also remarkably easy to jump in, choose your favorite character and just start fighting, since it doesn’t take much more than the control stick and two buttons to have access to most of a fighter’s moveset. Unlike the Street Fighters, Mortal Kombats, and Tekkens of the world, here there aren’t complicated input-combos beyond pressing A or B along with a single direction, making it simple to learn what a character can do just by playing around instead of having to look up move lists and spend time in a practice mode.
The fact that fighters don’t have health bars gives Smash Bros. a rare accessibility that keeps its high skill cap from feeling intimidating. Instead of wearing an opponent’s life down, you are increasing their percentage – the higher it goes, the easier they are to smash away with a strong attack, and knocking them off the map entirely gets you a KO. While it’s still scary to be at high percentage, this system avoids that depressive feeling of “any little hit and I’m dead, so this is pointless” that traditional fighting games can sometimes cause when your health drops to a sliver. In Smash Bros. Ultimate, it feels like you’ve still got a fighting chance.
And while that accessibility is important, those looking for more technical nuance will find plenty of it in dodges, grabs, shield timings, and a veritable ballet of mid-air movement strategy – not to mention how all of this changes with the different abilities, attacks, and even weights of every character. A fast, tiny character like Pichu feels wildly different from the hard-hitting Bowser, and learning the subtleties of playing both as and against them is vital. There’s a deep well of combos and counterplay for those who want to dive into it all, and it feels like Nintendo is more actively aware and supportive of that side of Smash Bros. than it has been before.
None of these traits are new to Ultimate specifically, but it’s important that the key elements of what makes a Smash Bros. game a Smash Bros. game are all alive and well here. And while the framework and DNA of Super Smash Bros for the Wii U is very clearly present, this doesn’t feel like a simple port or a “Deluxe Edition” by any means. Due to there just not being that many Wii Us out there, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the people playing this latest iteration missed the last Smash Bros. entirely, but Ultimate doesn’t lean on that assumption as a crutch, and leaves essentially no part of the previous design untouched.
Tuned for Destruction
Fighters in Ultimate feel a little bit faster and a lot harder hitting overall. Launching an enemy with a Smash attack now feels a bit like punching a balloon, with fighters flying away faster before losing speed quicker. That means there’s often less ambiguity on whether or not a hit will turn into a KO, with fewer of those frustrating moments where you slowly drift toward an unexpected death. (There’s even a radar that appears when a player is off screen to show where they are in relation to the edge of view and the edge of destruction – an addition I liked, but can be turned off for those who don’t.)
In one-on-one fights or when only two fighters remain, there’s a seriously epic freeze-frame zoom effect when you land a hit that will almost certainly result in a KO, similar to what already happened with Little Mac’s KO punch. That alone makes those big smash attacks even more satisfying, and makes it even clearer when someone actually has a chance to recover from a hard hit or not.
The custom ruleset feature is a godsend, though it does mean making small tweaks is a little clunkier.
Many of the Final Smash attacks have been made easier to handle as well. Some of the more inconsistent ones like Pac-Man, Pikachu, and Donkey Kong have been changed to hit more reliably, and Final Smashes that lock enemies into an animation for guaranteed damage are more common across the board. That makes them feel like less of an imbalance when playing with Smash Balls on (which are almost frustratingly hard to catch now), and the introduction of an optional Final Smash Meter that slowly charges up for a weaker version of the move offers a completely new way to weave these exciting finishers into a match.
Thankfully, if you don’t want to play Smash Bros. the same way I do, Ultimate has made it significantly easier to adjust the rules of a match. You can now make custom rulesets to save and reselect whenever you’d like. I had one for my default preference, one for using the Final Smash Meter, one with no items or stage hazards at all, one where the only items are Poké Balls, and as many more as I wanted. Saving rulesets is a godsend so that you don’t have to keep making the same big changes over and over when the mood to play a different way strikes, but it does make slightly tweaking rulesets on the fly (say, if you want to add an extra life for a round or two) more cumbersome, leaving me wishing we had the best of both worlds.
A new rule option called Stage Morph quickly became one of my absolute favorite additions to Ultimate. It lets you pick two maps in stage select and then set how long into a match the level will transform from one stage to the other. It’s a fantastic way to experience more of the absurd 108 maps Ultimate has to offer, and can even let you do interesting things like start on a large map but then transition to a smaller one once some of the combatants have presumably been eliminated – just make sure you aren’t toward the edges of the stage when that happens or you’ll likely drop to an undeserved death.
However, the level-select UI itself isn’t ideal. It’s literally just a giant grid of barely discernible pictures of each stage organized by the date of their debut Smash Bros. game. I greatly prefer this to having to scroll through options one by one as some other games have their stage selects laid out, but there are so many levels so closely packed together that I forgot some existed, and often had to spend considerable time hunting for the specific one I want. It’s a pretty spoiled problem to have, but I still wish I had the option to sort them alphabetically or by game, or at least tag some as favorites.
The levels themselves, however, are generally great. It’s not every single level that has ever been in Smash Bros. like the character list is (I don’t care what anybody says, I miss you, Poké Floats!), but it sure feels comprehensive. It’s a bit of a bummer that only four of them are brand new, but previously 3DS-only levels like Tortimer Island and Paper Mario still feel like fresh additions on Switch – some of the classic returning levels have also been visually touched up and look absolutely fantastic, particularly Fourside and Corneria from Melee.
Still, there are a few bad apples in the bunch that had me confused why they made the cut when others didn’t. Pretty much the only good thing truly terrible stages like Pac-Land and The Great Cave Offensive bring to the party are interesting skins for their Omega and Battlefield variations – the map pool would have been stronger as a whole without them dragging down the average.
Similarly, while cool new items like the Beastball and Rage Blaster have been added, stupid and busted ones like Boss Galaga, the Gust Bellows, and the Beetle have stuck around. These egregious items and stages aren’t a huge issue since Ultimate gives you the tools to easily turn them all off when you make your rulesets, but it does make it feel like Nintendo focused more on quantity over quality when deciding these lists.
Choose Your Fighter
However, I am happy that Nintendo took this approach for Ultimate’s character roster. Having every character ever, good or bad, return was an ambitious and excellent decision. Ultimate’s roster is downright incredible, with a wealth of attitudes, games, and play styles represented. The decision to classify certain characters as “Echo” fighters instead of full new characters is also a long time coming, making glorified reskins like Daisy and Dark Pit feel less like they’re stealing a roster spot from someone else.
Having every character ever, good or bad, return was an ambitious and excellent decision.
Six entirely new, non-Echo challengers have joined the fight, with six more coming as DLC over the next year or so – Piranha Plant will be free until January 31 before becoming paid DLC like the other five, which will also bring new stages with them. None of them particularly break the mold of what a Smash Bros. character can be (though that’s diverse and widely explored territory already) but they are each varied in their own way and all feel right at home in Ultimate.
The standouts for me are undoubtedly Simon Belmont from Castlevania (and his Echo, Richter) and King K. Rool from Donkey Kong. Simon’s abilities feel extremely true to his game, throwing axes, boomerangs, and explosive vials of holy water, with whip-based smash attacks that reward precision and careful timing. Meanwhile, King K. Rool feels like the giant, unhinged crocodile villain he is: a wonderful blend of crazy, terrifying, and extra beefyness.
Isabelle from Animal Crossing is also fantastic in the adorable charm she brings, but feels fairly derivative of Animal Crossing’s Villager in terms of her actual moveset. Inkling shakes things up drastically with a tricky and slightly unintuitive ink-ammo system that you have to refill as you fight. But no matter how new or old they feel, every one of the 11 new fighters and Echos is a welcome and creative addition to the roster.
Just don’t expect to play any of them you want right out of the gate. While there are 74 fighters total, you only start with 11 unlocked – the original eight from the first Super Smash Bros. on N64, plus the three custom Mii fighters if you make them. It’s not hard to unlock more – a new one tends to appear every few matches, or you can hunt them down in the Adventure and Classic modes – but with so many, it’ll likely take you at least at least 10 hours to fill out your roster through multiplayer alone. There are cheesy ways to speed that up, but growing my collection naturally while I played with friends was genuinely exciting.
The more people you have playing with you, the faster unlocks will arrive, and Ultimate has thankfully broken down the barriers between four-player and eight-player Smash. While playing with more than four people was previously relegated to specific large maps, it’s all one mode now. Eight-player Smash Bros. is still an unwieldy but enjoyable mess, but being able to seamlessly get a fifth player in on the action was appreciated.
And if you don’t want to subject yourself to that chaos, playing one-on-one is just as easy as it’s ever been. There are even little added touches here, like the number of lives each player has left being enlarged on the screen anytime any player dies. There’s also a cool new mode called Squad Strike which lets you pick either three or five different fighters and fight in a “Best Of”-style head-to-head match – this mode can also just let you play what is essentially a 1v1 Stock match, but where each life is a new fighter.
Smells Like Team Spirit
While multiplayer really is the point of Smash Bros., the big single-player draw in Ultimate is a new system called Spirits. There are nearly 1300 Spirits in Ultimate, each of which is a character or recognizable thing from video games as ubiquitous as Super Mario Bros. and as obscure as the 1992 Japan-only Game Boy game Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru, and every one is represented by a piece of art from its source material. While I miss the detailed trophies of past Smash Bros. games, the ludicrously large selection of Spirits makes it a worthwhile trade-off – another example of Nintendo choosing quantity over quality.
There are nearly 1300 Spirits in Ultimate, each of which is a character or recognizable thing from another game.
While seeing so many Spirits from all over gaming is extremely cool, everything about the system those Spirits are used in feels overdesigned. In certain modes, you can equip one Primary Spirit at a time (which have three types in a Rock, Paper, Scissors-style weakness system) alongside up to three Support Spirits, all of which give you buffs or new abilities like immunity to poison or electricity. Primary spirits can be leveled-up either through fighting or by feeding them snacks (which also costs a currency called Spirit Points) or Spirit cores, which you get from dismissing duplicate Spirits – but you can also use cores to summon new Spirits, but only if you have the very specific correct ones to do so.
It’s fun to tune your team of Spirits during the Adventure mode, World of Light, or while collecting Spirits on a timed, randomized menu called the Spirit Board, but navigating this system is sort of a mess. As with the level select, the system for organizing and equipping Spirits is just a big ol’ list, eventually hundreds of Spirits long. There are filters to help you find specific abilities like immunities to certain damage types, but if you want to find a very specific effect – say, starting a fight with a Beam Sword – and don’t remember which obscure character that belongs to, you pretty much have to go through them one by one to find it. Because of that hassle, I generally stuck with a few I found powerful and used the “auto-fill” recommendation button otherwise.
The most impressive part of the Spirits is the fights you have to win to collect them. Nearly every Spirit has a battle specific to it modeled after the character itself, using Ultimate’s roster and special effects to loosely recreate them. Some are funny, like Snorlax being a giant, gray King K. Rool who doesn’t move an inch, while others are challenging and emulate the games they are from, like Dr. Wily, which is essentially a “Boss Rush” where you have to defeat eight Mega Man fighters in a row in a Stamina-based match before a Dr. Mario appears to face you.
The Spirit Board is great, but the post-fight minigame it forces on you to earn a Spirt feels pointless and annoying.
Beating these Spirit fights earns you that Spirit outright in World of Light, but annoyingly, that’s not the case on the Spirit Board. There, beating one gives you a strange roulette wheel challenge where you have to try and shoot that character through a spinning shield. Hitting gives you the Spirit, while missing means you have to wait for them to randomly show up again, beat them again, and shoot again with a smaller shield guarding them.
It’s a pointless and frustrating step to add to this process, especially when there are over a thousand spirits to collect. I never found a Spirit fight I didn’t find amusing or clever, which is impressive in itself, but they are also a novelty, and that’s fleeting. That Snorlax fight is fun once, but it quickly lost its charm when I was forced to do it again because of a bad shot after the fight. And unfortunately, for the fights I did find clever enough to want to revisit, like Dr. Wily, there’s no way to refight a Spirit you already have apart from hoping it shows up on the Spirit Board again. Still, there are just so many Spirits here that the sheer variety of the Spirit Board keeps it fairly amusing on its own.
Blinded by the Light
Spirits really feel like they were designed with World of Light in mind, though the mode ends up being fairly one-note because of that. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s Adventure mode has a shockingly elaborate and long campaign that took me 24 hours of playing to beat, and even then with only 84% completion. It’s a consistently amusing mode, but despite being longer than many full games nowadays, I came away from it feeling like it was still just pretty good icing to accompany Smash Bros.’ excellent multiplayer cake.
World of Light has you exploring a massive board full of winding paths, all blocked up by hostile Spirits along the way. You start with only Kirby unlocked and wander the board picking fights, collecting and leveling up Spirits, and unlocking characters as you go. There are smaller dungeon-style maps to enter, some light puzzles to solve, and even massive unique bosses to fight, as well as a whole bunch of secrets to collect.
While World of Light’s overworld can start to feel rather samey after a bit – a series of arbitrary paths over a varied and lovely 2D map – the dungeons offer some really exciting surprises. The standout for me was a whole section modeled after a Street Fighter World Tour mode, with custom rules that make it Stamina-based with low jumping to emulate Street Fighter gameplay. Others are similar hits of nostalgia that recreate or pay homage to different games, and they’re worth discovering on your own.
The problem is, through all of this you are still just doing endless Spirit battles. They are themed nicely around each section of the map – a racetrack area is where I fought Captain Falcon and the Excitebike Spirit, while I found Star Fox’s Peppy and Super Mario RPG’s Geno among the stars – but it’s essentially the exact same process of fighting Spirits on the Spirit Board, just set on a hodgepodge map of unique areas.
Everything you do in World of Light is centered around getting and improving Spirits, but I found enough strong Spirits to get me through almost any fight roughly 10 hours into the campaign. That meant I played roughly 14 more hours without any sort of significant progression for my character, and most extras I was incentivized to collect were fairly pointless. Seeing what creative new Spirits fights were waiting for me was still consistently fun and amusing, but my strategy not needing to change for so long made it start to get dull toward the end.
World of Light never stopped being amusing, and the Spirit battles are consistently clever, but the mode’s simple progression causes it to drag after the first dozen hours.
There’s also a skill tree in World of Light that lets you get some massively powerful abilities. By the 13-hour mark, my smash attacks charged extremely quickly, healed me, could be charged indefinitely, and gave me super armor so that I couldn’t be interrupted during them. That meant I could win most Spirit fights in two or three well-placed smash attacks, trivializing most fights I faced. That also made the copious amount of unlockable Spirit training Dojos and item shops similarly pointless, despite being super cool from a flavor standpoint.
While they also get significantly easier, the boss fights did continue to delight. I was blown away by the fight against Monster Hunter’s Rathalos in particular, as it recreated the feeling of that game far more faithfully than expected. You first had to chase the Rathalos around a dungeon map to its nest, then could use Pitfall and Deku Nut items to trap and stun it to deal damage. It was extremely cool, even if it wasn’t overly difficult by that point in the campaign.
And that’s sort of World of Light overall: it’s amusing, enjoyable, and extremely detailed, but also pretty thin. The Spirit fights are neat and their quantity is downright unbelievable, but the only difference between fighting them on the Spirit Board and on a map is that one gives you access to abilities on an incredibly strong skill tree. The problem isn’t directly the campaign’s length itself, but the lack of significant change during that time – as it stands, Nintendo likely could have trimmed five hours of fat and had a more compelling Adventure mode for it.
That makes me a little sad, because there are undoubtedly enjoyable surprises worth experiencing buried amongst the tidal wave of Spirits that are very difficult to access. The last hour of World of Light in particular is one of the greatest video game finales I’ve played in years, and actually made the preceding 10-plus hours of repetition worth it. There isn’t much story during World of Light, with cutscenes that are gorgeous but only appear at the beginning, middle, and end, but that ending still managed to get me invested and absurdly excited about what was unfolding before me.
Still, despite World of Light’s well not being nearly as deep as it is wide, it’s a mode I enjoyed overall. Smash Bros.’ alternate modes have never traditionally been full-on slam dunks, which isn’t a problem as long as they don’t mess up the multiplayer along the way. And while Spirit teams can be optionally turned on in PvP, there’s no pressure to do so, which lets World of Light live happily as an amusing distraction.
A Twist on the Classics
Outside of the realm of Spirits, Classic mode makes a return with a slightly tweaked format. Every fighter has a custom-made gauntlet of six opponents to face, themed loosely around them – for example, Bowser has to fight through every red character in Ultimate before facing off with Mario. There’s also a surprisingly amusing auto-scrolling platformer in each run, and the boss fights from World of Light are reused here as well, making them easier to revisit than the Spirit fights themselves.
100-Man Smash makes a return, now called Century Smash, alongside All-Star mode and the still aptly named Cruel Smash. There’s no target or challenge mode, but there are enough achievement-style challenges that offer rewards to keep you exploring old modes in ways you might not normally think to. I am also particularly a fan of the new Smashdown multiplayer mode, which eliminates fighters from the select screen after you’ve used them once. Simply put, there’s a lot to distract you when you need a break from standard Smash and World of Light.
Ultimate has one of the most impressive libraries of game music I’ve ever seen.
Another returning feature from the Wii U Smash Bros. that I absolutely love is the music selector. Ultimate has one of the most impressive libraries of game music I’ve ever seen, and you can hand pick which track a stage plays when you select it. You can even create playlists of your favorite songs and turn off the screen to use your switch like an iPod, though I had pretty rough results with buttons getting pressed and songs getting skipped around while mine was in a case in my bag, making it better for home use than on the go.
That said, I was shocked by just how great Ultimate looks and runs in handheld mode. This is a truly fantastic-looking game – a noticeable step up from the last one – and it doesn’t feel trimmed down at all when played mobile. (Its level-select issues are made predictably worse, however.) But there seemed to be no noticeable performance difference between the two modes.
Either docked of handheld, the only real issues I noticed were related to load times, but mostly in places where it didn’t matter much. For example, waiting for Mii fighter outfits to load in the creator makes building a character annoyingly slow, and a fighter’s alternate colors can sometimes take a few seconds to appear on the character-select screen, but matches, menus, and everything else important loads fairly fast. There was also some very slight frame lag during character select with eight players, but that seems forgivable considering it disappeared during the match itself.
On the hardware side, playing with the Switch’s Joy Con controllers works okay, but they don’t really allow for the best Smash experience. I am a huge fan of the Joy Con generally, but the flatter joysticks and digital triggers aren’t ideal for the fast and precise movements Smash Bros. demands. I spent most of my time playing Ultimate with my childhood GameCube wireless WaveBird controller with a USB adapter, but the Switch Pro Controller works extremely well, too. It’s nice that there’s a variety of control options, and you can even use a single sideways Joy Con in a pinch (though I don’t really recommend it), but getting a peripheral controller feels more necessary here than with other Switch games.
Ultimate also has some pretty interesting online features, including a system that essentially lets you collect the virtual dog tags of anyone you beat online. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test this out because the online features weren’t available ahead of launch. We’ll have to monitor those post-launch and see if there are any issues, but if Splatoon 2 and Mario Tennis Aces are any indication, Nintendo seems to have a significantly better handle on online play than when Super Smash Bros. launched on the Wii U.