Can you then be Righteous, unless you be just in rendering to Things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours, and you were made to prize them according to their value: which is your office and duty…
-Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations
I just want to say in advance: I told you so.
I am of course referring to that time I accurately predicted that a certain Direct would reveal a new Smash Bros. game for the Switch. I’m discounting the other times my predictions were inaccurate, naturally. Here we are all these months later from that immediately iconic image of an effulgent emblem reflecting on the convex sheen of an eyeball, and now Smash Bros. Ultimate is out, has been out, for better or worse.
I added “for better or worse” because the game’s popularity has reached a tier where the game itself is polarizing. That happens with hype (or overhype and subsequent anti-hype); this wasn’t the first time nor will it be the last time this has happened, certainly, and the noise merely serves to underscore a point which is transparent: no one game is for everyone.
Do you have to play a game in order to have an opinion on it? Do you need to play a game in its entirety in order to craft a review on it? It’s entirely fair to share one’s impressions of a game one has had even a taste of, and it’s also fair to say a game isn’t for oneself, but it’s the gray areas around that which mystify me, such as having a very resolute opinion based solely on trailers (though previous games in the series serving as informants is acceptable). All I know is I played it, a lot, and I will share my thoughts.
Is this truly the Ultimate rendition of Smash Bros.? How shall we render to this Thing its due esteem?
One thing is undeniable and that’s the scope of Smash Bros. Ultimate. Combing an initial roster the size of 63 characters, the Piranha Plant plus 5 DLC fighters (Joker from Persona, The Hero from Dragon Quest, Banjo-Kazooie), touting dozens of stages (remember the customized ones!?), featuring hours and hours and hours of music, boasting more than 1,200 collectible “spirits” referencing a baffling number of other titles, one adventure mode the size of some standalone games all on its ownsome, and many more modes of play… this is undeniably the biggest Smash game ever. Every playable character who has ever appeared in a previous Smash title reappears here. This alone makes Ultimate huge, and a game which feels like the natural capstone of its series. This was my chief concern when the game was announced because I really just wanted to play as Mega Man. I wanted everyone to be here!
But can a Smash game be too big? I worry on occasion about what (heaven forbid) a sequel to Ultimate would even look like. How would someone top it without creating something definitively gratuitous… while not alienating others at the same time? This brings us to the main point to make: Smash Ultimate’s size is a double-edged sword, y’see.
There exist two popular parallel criticisms of Smash Ultimate and I’d like to direct our attentions to each of them in turn, taking them seriously without dismissing them simply on the basis of their common ubiquity: the first being that the game is bloated (too much content) and the second being that the game is gaunt (not enough content). I’m lumping into the first category all of the statements like “why are there so many characters?”, “why even have [character] in this game at all?”, “the adventure mode is boring and repetitive”, “I can’t even decide who to play as”, and “so now they’re just gonna put anyone in this thing?”.
In the second category, there are statements resembling “why isn’t so-and-so in this game when they could’ve easily added them?”, “where’s Subspace Emissary?”, “where are the collectible trophies?”, “the mechanics aren’t as good as [previous Smash game]”, “Smash Ultimate isn’t tourney appropriate”, “I’m boycotting it because my favorite XYZ isn’t here”. I’ve personally heard variations on each of these statements, ESPECIALLY when they pertain to the inclusion or exclusion of characters (for which Piranha Plant seems like a huge, hilarious middle finger).
Sakurai has painted himself into a corner. Smash Ultimate is too big to please. Labeled “ultimate”, it’s like an imaginary lollipop containing the ultimate flavor experience, only you might be the person who, when licking to the center, is disappointed that there wasn’t a Kiwi-Banana-Chocolate flavored layer, or the person who simply found digesting it too overwhelming, or pandering. There’s not enough and simultaneously too much, again, especially when it comes to the roster.
While it seems ludicrous to cry out for more from a game that already includes most of the Nintendo canon of characters, Sonic the Hedgehog, Solid Snake, Cloud Strife, Pac-Man, Ryu and Ken, Mega Man, and Banjo-Kazooie, Sakurai allowed so many things entrance that the temptation is all but irresistible for a fan to wonder where their ultimate favorite character is and why they weren’t included. Was it maliciousness? Malevolence? Or the sheer impossibility of having everyone’s favorite character? And if there is a sequel, the larger that it is, the more compounded this problem will be, and the stronger the Waluigi memes will get!
I’m sorry, but bemoaning the absence of Guko is ridiculous.
Cynical, ain’t it? Well, here’s the solution.
I propose that Smash Ultimate should be considered as any other game is considered, judged on its own features and not on those which it lacks and couldn’t possibly fulfill. You mightn’t judge a tactical game for being too slow or walking simulator for not including enough gunfights. Ultimate is already the largest official crossover fighting game there is, I think (I went and checked, Marvel vs Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes had playable characters). Whether you can appreciate it for what it is or not will be up to you, of course, but I think that’s what it’ll have to come down to for a game this ambitious.
This then begs the question as to what Smash Ultimate’s actual merits are. I don’t think that laying out a myriad of modes and characters is on its own a statement of value so much as it is an observation. The observation is that this game has got a ton of stuff in it, but is it coherent, is it manageable, is it accessible, is it engaging, and can it be fun? Otherwise, it’s just trying to sift through a catalog that’s four feet thick.
The critical claim that I have the absolute most empathy and understanding for is “I know it’s not for me”. Coming to understand your personal affections and tastes for the entertainment you consume is not just admirable, it’s crucial for the survival on your bank account! You’ll be blowing less money on subjects you don’t actually enjoy once you understand, and can therefore avoid, the objective qualities and traits exist within them you aren’t able to enjoy. This admitted, fighting games don’t appeal to everyone. I’m personally not usually very good at them as my reflexes and memory aren’t fitted for fast combinations of buttons. Within that sphere of fighting games lies the Smash Bros. series, which itself doesn’t and indeed cannot appeal to everyone.
Those to whom it does appeal should, I think, find plenty to adore in this bookend of a game, though it is not without its pitfalls.
“That dude from Pitfall! confirmed!!!” …Along with literally anybody else.
There’s a lot to gawk at in Smash Ultimate and of course this would logically be the prettiest Smash game yet, as it’s on the latest hardware.
Firstly, I think it’s really cool to see Ultimate revisit settings from way back on the N64. That was a really long time ago, come to think of it. These stages, as well as others from the previous Smash games, look better than ever, of course, as do the special effects: explosions, fire, lasers, and so on, not to mention the unique fairy tale look of adventure mode and the interesting layout for the main menu. Then there are the characters themselves.
I still have an inkling that the Mario from Odyssey looked more detailed and had more TLC than the Mario here, for at least one frame of reference, but most every character looks better than they ever have before (minus Snake’s face, not sure what happened there). The playable character models are so infused with personality, it’s ridiculous considering how many of them there are. I might not like all of the changes made to the character models (such as Bowser standing much more upright and using a double kick instead of a headbutt for his forward smash) but I can’t argue that the characters are vibrant, colorful, and visually appealing in their diversity.
With grading visuals, I try to think of utility and not just aesthetics and beauty. After all, a game’s graphics are a feature of the total experience and they therefore have to serve that experience. They must be useful. We spend a lot of time talking about visual beauty as if that was the only consideration to make in art, but the utility of visuals creates its own kind of beauty. Given how bright and colorful Smash Ultimate is, there are a few things which contribute frequently to my losing sight of my character on screen. This is one of the many reasons why I stick with the same color for each character I play. I’ll lose track of them otherwise!
Areas which are really tough for me to see on are stages like that Kirby Fountain stage. Bear in mind that this is coming from a thirty-something who has read a lot of books by lantern-light and has stared at too many computer screens for too long, but I’m not the only one with below average eyesight. The auras of color around each character don’t particularly seem to help in any way, and sometimes it’s even annoying to spot since it can grate against a character’s overall color scheme. The name-plates that display over your characters head make the situation even worse; when playing online co-op with a local friend, the game displays your Switch account’s username for both characters, yours and your buddy’s, which makes it even more visually confusing.
Beyond that, I could point out the occasional lack of inspiration in the lackluster title screen, the opening cinematic, and a few of the Ultimate specific stages, though a game of this scope is bound to have its more generic corners, I think. Whether inevitability of that sort is forgivable or not is something I’m still unsure about. Still, overall, this is still an unprecedented fighting game mixing so many kinds of visuals from so many different games. It is unprecedented certainly among crossover fighters like Brawlout or PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale! There are dozens and dozens of combinations of visual styles all on screen at once.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a soundtrack that comes with a game. This thing has more music in it than feature length films, than normal soundtracks, than concept albums, etc. It is the equivalent of the rock epic in video game terms.
The sheer number of tracks is baffling. I played the game for a while before exploring its internal music player, but when I did, my jaw hit the floor. You can only subconsciously appreciate the scope of this soundtrack when playing the game as it’s tough to notice how frequently a different piece of music plays on a stage. You’re focused on the match instead! However, you may be surprised to hear just how many versions of the original Mario “Overworld theme” are present.
There’s also the matter of so many different styles of composition and styles of composer represented here. Koji Kondo, Nobuo Uematsu, Yoko Shimomura, Yoshina Aoki, Tomoya Ohtani… some of the very best of the best have renditions and riffs of their music here. You can leap to the boss theme from Final Fantasy VII to the Ocean theme from Wind Waker to Metal Man from Mega Man 2 to “Yell Dead Cell” from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty?! You’ll be hard pressed to find another soundtrack with as much diversity of melody, not to mention references to video game history.
Too bad “Lifelight” is a little weak compared to past themes (mileage may vary).
I won’t pull a Nintendo Direct on you and belabor every gameplay point to death here. Simply, Smash Bros. games are different from the typical fighting game: instead of reducing an opponent’s health bar to zero (unless you’re playing with H.P. mode), you’re tasked with raising an opponent’s percentage and the higher that percentage, the further the opponent will knock backward when hit, effectively reducing their gravity, of sorts?
All characters have regular attacks and then smash attacks, as well as ultimate attacks, which knock opponents back in various ways. All the minutia of fighting games can be brought under a microscope here, and indeed the fandom and professional players do so: hit boxes, frames per second, speed of individual moves, knockback strength, character size and weight, movesets, edge guarding and recovery capabilities, it’s all a part of the science.
And that’s basically a Smash Bros. game. Ultimate doesn’t reinvent that wheel. So what does it add to the hubcap?
Well, there’s the absolutely gigantic roster but as far as actual additions, Nintendo pulled out all the stops on their gimmicky features.
There are the spirits, the spirit board, and summoning. Spirits represent characters from scores of video games and franchises of the past, including some beloved retro icons and really obscure Japanese characters. It was a nice way to get more characters and references into the game without making them playable characters or trophies, but what do spirits do?
They scratch the itch of being collectible (this game’s version of in-game trophies) but they do more than fill a digital shelf. They can be brought into battle in new and interesting ways. Spirits are divided by rarity and categorized as Primary and Support categories, plus there are Attack, Shield, Grab, and Neutral types. From these, you can build up a miniature “party” and attach it to your fighter; Primary spirits can come with zero to three slots which allow you to equip Support spirits for modifiers and special abilities; Attack, Shield, and Grab sort of work like rock, paper, scissors so you need to keep inherent strengths and weaknesses in mind.
This is a system that doesn’t come into much use in playing against other players, but it’s essential for the spirit board (where you fight spirits to collect them) and adventure mode (the story campaign). When I first heard the announcements for spirits, I thought they were superfluous and needlessly complex. Leave it to Nintendo to over-explain. I eventually discovered that collecting, training, leveling up, and combining spirits is a fun game within the game. I spent a LOT of time on the spirit board, which can also be a good source for in-game currency that’s used to purchase items or cosmetics or more spirits.
There are something like 1,200+ spirits and they’re adding more all the time. It’s a constantly growing cache of collectibles/equipment/historical references!
Adventure mode aka World of Light, as mentioned, is the story mode. There’s not a lot of actual narrative, but you do get to explore a massive overworld (and underworld) map filled with references to the worlds of the game’s playable cast, packed with shops and dojos and treasures, and stuffed to the brim with themed spirit battles; your foe or foes are playable fighters modified and tweaked in order to represent the spirits you earn from beating them. This is where they got real clever, but it was also disappointing to see characters like Geno appear as mere spirits. Still, you got thematic fights like “The Boss” represented by Zero Suit Samus in a field of poison, or “Dr. Wily” and his metal Mega Men for his robot masters. “Ness’s Father” as an invisible Snake is the funniest thing in the game.
World of Light may be light on the actual storytelling, but it does provide a very meaty single-player experience and the spirit battles can test your Smash Bros. skills in unique ways, plus there are massive boss fights to enjoy.
One really nice addition to the game, and this is the last thing I’ll mention, comes in the form of shortened final smashes. These ultimate attacks stop the action dead in its tracks with the odd cutscene full of deadly explosions or full-on transformations that can drag a battle down. Instead, final smashes happen much more quickly, ensuring you can get back to the match. This is exceptionally good if you’ve got a room full of rowdy friends.
Don’t worry, there’s still an arcade mode (among several others), too!
Online Play: 7/10
A big shout out to the Black Humor Mage because who knew that a Mii Fighter duo could be so much fun? We actually made a pretty good team as our custom Red Mage and Black Mage, and we cracked up at how pissed people online must’ve been to get beat by two Miis!
Ahem. Anyway. The online play is fun and competitive but it has more issues than, I think, any other part of the game. Lag and connectivity are not common but frequent enough to pop up every hour or so, in my experience. This was apparently a regular complaint from other players, too.
I more consistently experienced issues when trying to connect online with friends. Sometimes I randomly could not find the arenas they made for us to battle in, or they couldn’t find mine. There are also issues where co-op and online play fight for space: local friends can join you in fighting randoms but can’t get into arenas with you. At one point, a friend of mine brought their Switch over just so we could play together in an arena with my online friends. That’s a needless hassle, sort of like dealing with the whole friend codes thing in the first place.
Quick matches are where I got the most enjoyment out of online play. At least I didn’t have to tell randos “gg” after every single match to preserve our relationships. Ha! But seriously, quick matches were a great way to hone my skills.
While Smash Ultimate isn’t for everyone, one of the best qualities of its series is that anyone can play it. Playing it “well” is another story, but fighting games have historically focused on player skill to the extreme. I come from the perspective of someone who is not good at fighting games, despite my admiration for many of them, and someone who takes quite a while, if at all, to develop the necessary timing and wit and split-second strategy to learn how to play specific fighting games with any measurable aptitude. I’ve had my tuckus handed to me many a time in the arcades thanks to Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat’s various iterations, though I played a mean DarkStalkers, Marvel vs Capcom, Battle Arena Toshinden, and Primal Rage in my day. Still, it took me forever to get good at them.
With Smash, Nintendo seemed keen on distancing the series from the tourney fighter context of other games, innovating with its percentage-based damage system and smash attacks. It’s less like boxing in the West and more like sumo wrestling in the East where combatants try to push one another out of a ring rather than pummel each other until their stamina depletes. This makes sense given its origin in Japan, but despite the change from HP bars to percentages and launch distances, Smash maintains simple controls, rules that are easy to understand, and recognizable characters that help welcome people into its arms (never underestimate the power of the mascot!). I hold that it’s a highly accessible brand of fighting games because of reasons just like these.
This is no more apparent then when playing with a large group of people. I’ve played in big groups of friends with some who hadn’t picked up a controller since they were children, yet they can pull off some fancy smashes and the occasional win now and again thanks to the way things are set up, and that goes a long way toward their having a good time with the game. Additionally, items and stage hazards, while aggravating more often than not and not tournament appropriate for many, serve as a kind of equalizer within the game. Imagine having such things in classic Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat!
Yet here, they create a new level of strategy: having to think on your feet and being quick to get to the choice items before your opponent(s) can, weighing risk vs reward. The more random items can really level the playing field, giving new players an opportunity to catch up where they might never be able to in a 1-on-1 bout. Items and stage hazards, frustrating as they can sometimes be, serve a central focus in playing to one of Nintendo’s strengths, making Smash Ultimate more accessible for all, the equivalent of the Blue Koopa Shell for Mario Kart professionals but a boon for those just arriving on the scene.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is extremely addicting. Collecting spirits, spirit points, and coins are extremely addicting. Trying to get to the end of the World of Light was, for me, extremely addicting.
You start off the game with only the original N64 Smash Bros. roster of playable characters and then you must unlock the rest of them from there. Considering how many there are, it can be frustrating trying to get to your favorite pick, but characters unlock frequently and easily and guess what? It’s extremely addicting.
Smash Ultimate leans into what Smash does best in featuring so many characters, locals, references and so on. It’s the dream crossover. It didn’t need to reinvent the wheel and fortunately, it avoids the temptation of having to be too different from its predecessors to stand out. That said, I think of it as the definitive version of Smash and it is an impressive feat what they did to bring so much content from so many different sources together in one game. Always changing, there are new fighters and little tweaks here and there. Heck, Pichu will probably be bigger than Pikachu by the time they’re done with their updates.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Who are my mains? Glad you asked. I dedicated my life to learning Mega Man, one of my favorite video game characters of all time and, it turns out, a rather tricky and technical character to pull off in the game. I found that I could only get good as him if I didn’t switch to other characters between every match, so I ate, slept, and breathed the Blue Bomber. Other than him, I enjoy a good round as Bowser, Mr. Game & Watch, and, of course, Red Mage. The Mii Fighter is great for catching new opponents by surprise.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was voted by the community of contributors and readers here as TWRM Game of the Year 2018, and I think that’s justly so. Half party game, half adventure game, half RPG elements, half fighting game (that’s a lot of halves), Smash Ultimate has the capacity to entertain for endless hours, especially with the right people ready to lose to Red Mage.
Aggregated Score: 9.0
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Categories: Game Review