I have no idea what sort of introduction to write for this review. I’m talking about Smash, a game that most of humanity is likely aware of at this point. It used to be this fun little niche party game in the ‘90s and now it’s become one of Nintendo’s biggest hit franchises ever. If you (somehow) don’t know what Smash is, it’s a crossover platform fighting game featuring Nintendo’s best and brightest. Smash Ultimate is the most recent release of this crazy series, hitting the Nintendo Switch in December of 2018 as the 5th (or 6th if you count 3DS and Wii U separately) entry. With more characters, more stages, and more music tracks than ever, does Smash Ultimate keep the Smash hype train going?
Want to see my first impressions? Check out my Progressive Looks series on Super Smash Bros. Ultimate before reading this!
At its core, Smash has always had a pretty simple premise: Nintendo’s all-stars beat the piss out of one another. That’s really all there is to it. However, it is worth mentioning that Smash Ultimate does have a story mode called World of Light which cranks the stakes to 11. The story starts off with the army of a roster that Ultimate has facing down the Lord of Light, Galeem, and its own army of giant floating Master Hands. But before our heroes have a chance to strike, Galeem decides that it’s a good idea to just finish things early and elects to wipe out all life in the universe right on the spot and use their Spirits to further fuel its army. Galeem nearly succeeds too, with our only survivor being Kirby, who manages to get away just in time with his Warp Star. Now it’s up to Kirby to save the spirits of all those killed by Galeem and bring the fight back to the Lord of Light in order to save the world.
Smash Ultimate is an extremely impressive game for the eyes and ears. The colours just pop out, the stages and character models are highly detailed, and all of the animation effects look amazing. The animation in general for Ultimate is really well done, with a strong attention to detail and extra care being put into showcasing each character’s personalities whether it be Donkey Kong’s facial expressions or Dark Samus’s movement patterns. The game runs very well, keeping a steady 60fps at nearly all times. I saw nearly, because unfortunately there are some stages that will cause some drops in framerate. This isn’t such a big deal for the casual player, but with any competitive fighting game, the expectation is that the game is locked at 60fps so that the hardcore players can optimize their play according to framerate and animation frames. On another positive note, Ultimate has added a number of visual tweaks that add dramatic effect to matches, those being the scoreboard display when someone gets a kill in 1v1 and the dramatic zoom-in effect on the finishing blow of a match, which I just love. As both a player and a spectator it just adds to the feelings of tension and relief when those zoom-in moments happen.
The audio in Smash Ultimate is top-notch between the amazing soundtrack and the great sound design. The sound design makes every hit satisfying and give so much life and personality to the characters. The soundtrack has got to be some kind of achievement in gaming as well, boasting over 850 music tracks ranging from existing video game soundtracks, video game remixes and arrangements, and original music composed just for Smash. The remixes and arrangements are the most impressive part of Ultimate’s soundtrack, featuring legendary composers taking on legendary music tracks. Just listen to ACE’s rendition of Gangplank Galleon from Donkey Kong Country and you’ll understand.
This is what we really care about when we talk about Smash: how much fun is the game? If for whatever reason you haven’t played a Smash game before, you fight your opponents on a stage with platforms, but instead of having a health bar your objective is to knock your enemies off the stage until they can’t get back onto it. Players have a percentage number that goes up as they take damage, and the higher the number goes up the farther they get launched by attacks, and the easier it is to get knocked off the stage. It’s a pretty easy to understand idea, which makes Smash a great game for anyone to jump into. There’s an absolutely massive roster of characters as well, with 75 characters currently, and even more stages than that. With as many characters as there are in this game, there’s bound to be something for everyone. I myself tend to play Pokemon Trainer the most considering they’re a 3-in-1 type of character with Squirtle, Ivysaur, and Charizard, while my partner opts for Lucario and the Piranha Plant. The stage selection brings so much to the table as well. Not only are there 103 stages to start with, but each of those stages have a Battlefield variant (a flat stage with 3 platforms), an Omega variant (a flat stage with no platforms), and a toggle to turn stage hazards on and off. It’s such an impressive amount of stages that it’s almost impossible to fit them all on one screen and make it look good. Unfortunately that’s what the developers tried to do, and it doesn’t look great. Each stage icon on the stage select screen is so small that it’s hard to tell which stage is which.
The game itself feels really good to play. Movement is fast, attacks come out fast and end fast, there’s little downtime between lives, and all of this combines to give the player some creativity with how they play. There’s been a few gameplay tweaks in Ultimate coming from the previous game that make Ultimate really stand out, like parrying, directional air dodging, and dash cancelling. The biggest of these changes is the parry. In older versions of Smash, if you put up your shield right before an attack connected you would perform a perfect shield and be able to act sooner than normal. In Ultimate if you drop your shield right as an attack hits you’ll parry, you’ll get a very brief opening to punish your opponent. One thing I could go without is this weird move buffering system the game seems to have, where if your character is performing an action they’ll do the next action you’ve input as soon as they’ve finished what they’re doing. Only it feels inconsistent to the point where I keep doing things I don’t want to do at the worst times. Now I’m not sure if this is due to a flaw with the system or my own lack of understanding, but it’s definitely soured my enjoyment of the game a little bit while playing 1v1 matches.
The single player modes in Smash Ultimate are pretty decent for a game that’s designed and marketed as a party game. The biggest focus in Ultimate’s single player is on Spirits, which are images of video game characters that you can equip to your characters to make them stronger and give them passive skills. The Spirits mode is split into two main options: World of Light and Spirit Board. World of Light is Ultimate’s story mode, and has you exploring a large map full of Spirits to battle and gain for yourself in order to gain stronger. You also have a skill tree similar to those found in many modern RPGs where you can spend Skill Points to learn even more passive skills. The Spirit Board is a very toned down version of what you can find in the story, where you can choose from a selection of randomized battles in order to obtain even more Spirits. The Spirit battles themselves are probably the most creative aspect of Smash Ultimate. Each Spirit battle has its own set of rules modifiers that somehow manage to capture the feeling that you’re fighting the actual spirit of the video game character within the limitations of Smash. One of the cooler examples has to be the Dr. Wily Spirit, in which you have to fight 8 different Mega Mans (Mega Men?), each one using one single attack in order to mimic 8 Robot Masters found in the Mega Man games, and a Dr. Mario once all 8 Mega People are dead to mimic the final Dr. Wily fight. The mainstay Classic Mode has been beefed up and vastly improved over the older games as well. The difficulty of your Classic Mode run goes up or down based on how well you’re playing, up to a maximum of 9.0, but you can only start from as high as 5.0. The real kicker with Classic Mode however, is that each and every single character has their own unique route with their own set of fights that looks to pay homage to their character. Just look at Incineroar’s classic route: a series of 1v1 and 2v2 matches with other martial arts-based characters and every match taking place on the Boxing Ring stage in appreciation of Incineroar’s theme as a showboating wrestler.
The single player in Ultimate is just amazing. Unfortunately the online multiplayer is anything but. Nintendo somehow took the sub par online infrastructure from Smash 4 and made it worse. Your two main methods of play in online multiplayer are Quick Play and Battle Arenas. Quick Play mostly works how it sounds, you find quick game through online matchmaking. How the game handles matchmaking however is suspect. Instead of having separate modes for different rule sets like 1v1, 2v2, free-for-all, etc., each player can set their own preferred rules before hopping into matchmaking, and the game will choose a rule set at random between you and anyone else you’ve matched with. This means you might not even get the number of players you want! Even if you want 1v1 battles you have a chance of getting thrown into free-for-all just because the game decided that’s what you should do. The game also takes your results across every single match into your overall ranking, called Global Smash Power, so your ranking can’t even be a remotely accurate assessment of your skill in your preferred mode of play. For those who don’t care for ranked play (and you shouldn’t), there’s the Battle Arenas. These are rooms that players can set up with specific rules for others to join in order to play and spectate. These are a better alternative to Quick Play, but there’s still a fundamental issue with Ultimate’s online: the lag. The poor netcode combined with the weird matchmaking turn the likelihood of finding a good, stable match with you desired rules into a complete crapshoot. This is NOT okay. This is probably Ultimate’s biggest flaw and I feel that it could really hurt the game’s longevity and replay value for a lot of players. One can only hope these problems will be fixed through developer updates.
Despite some absolutely horrible, glaring flaws, Smash Ultimate is without a doubt the best the series has to offer. The variety, accessibility, creativity, personality that this game has on show is more than enough to keep me coming back again and again. That’s also not to mention all of the planned DLC characters (which will be covered) that will release over the next year or so, and the new Spirit Board events that happen every so often. The Smash team has taken some really good steps forward with Smash Ultimate, and I believe that they will take criticisms to heart and improve on the game’s flaws. I recommend this game to anyone that has a Switch, and I could maybe even recommend buying a Switch for this game. It’s that good.
I wholeheartedly recommend Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Total playtime: 60 hours, 2 minutes.