Since its debut nearly two decades ago, Super Smash Bros. has become a fixture for Nintendo. As with Zelda and Super Mario, each new Nintendo platform brings with it a new Smash Bros. But the hectic fighting series is also different from the company’s other tentpole releases. Whereas Mario Kart is designed to be easy for anyone to pick up and play, Smash Bros. can be dizzyingly complex. And that complexity has only ratcheted up over the years with new characters, features, and modes. A new player might be able to pick it up and have fun, but there’s a good chance they’ll have no idea what’s actually happening in a match.
In that way, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for the Nintendo Switch could have been the most overwhelming game in the series to date. It was built to be comprehensive, featuring every single character from Smash Bros.’s history — a whopping 74 fighters, not including upcoming DLC — as well as a raft of new assist trophies, revamped movesets, and a robust, at times confusing, single-player mode. There’s a lot going on, but somehow it never feels like too much. Instead, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is exactly what the title implies: it’s the ultimate version of the game, offering just about everything a typical player could want from a new Smash game. After spending a week with it, I’m not sure why I’d ever want to play a different Smash Bros.
At its core, Ultimate is the same Smash experience as always. It’s a game where up to eight people fight across interactive battlefields, with the goal of inflicting so much damage that you can knock your opponents right off of the screen. Much of the appeal is the fact that the game’s characters span video game history, from the iconic to the obscure. One match can have Pikachu pummeling Final Fantasy’s Cloud, while in another, Mario and Luigi team up to knock out Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter. New additions include the colorful inklings from Splatoon, Simon Belmont from Castlevania, and villains like Donkey Kong’s King K. Rool and Metroid’s Ridley. The cast is huge and varied, and it’ll take you a long time to unlock everyone.
There’s a delicate balance at play. Smash is a series that’s played at a very high level by professionals. But it’s also a party game. Part of what has made the franchise so enduring is that the experience generally works for both of those disparate audiences. I can’t speak for high-level players, but as someone who has played Smash for years, I can say that Ultimate feels just right. It took no time at all to get acclimated. The controls are responsive and the action is fast, just as they should be. What makes Smash so unique, of course, is that added dash of mayhem. Weapons and other items that randomly drop and can change the tide of a battle, or levels that shift and transform as the battle rages on. All of this still exists in Ultimate, and it’s as good as ever.
One of the things that makes Ultimate feel different and new, though, is the platform its on. Like almost every game available on the Switch, Ultimate benefits from being both a portable and home console experience. It’s no great surprise that the game works on a portable; four years ago, Nintendo released a Smash Bros. game for the 3DS, which was surprisingly robust. But Ultimate takes things a step farther. This isn’t Smash squeezed onto a smaller device, it’s the full version of the game that you can take with you pretty much anywhere.
This is useful for a few reasons. For one, while I love the huge, comprehensive cast of characters, actually unlocking everybody takes forever. It’s one of the few really frustrating aspects of the game. But that annoyance is alleviated somewhat by the ability to play matches whenever and wherever you are, which speeds up the unlocking process. The portability also makes Ultimate a more social experience. It’s still a game best played with a few friends huddled around the television, but the portable nature of the Switch opens it up in new ways. Most notably, you can now play two-player battles with the base Switch and two Joy-Con controllers. It’s not ideal — a single Joy-Con is cramped and awkward to use on its own — but the sheer fact that it’s playable is amazing. Carrying a Switch around in your bag now means there’s always a possible impromptu Smash battle on the horizon.
The Switch also makes one of Ultimate’s major additions much better. The game’s single-player mode is something called “spirits,” which essentially turns the character battler into a straight-up role-playing game. The crux of the mode is that you’re constantly going into battles with new, and often strange, rules and opponents. You might be fighting a swarm of tiny Yoshi with a strict time limit, or trying to beat Fox while dealing with ever-present wind and earthquakes. The battles are all quite different, but what they share in common is that they’re all fairly bite-sized challenges. Most only take a minute or two to complete. This makes it a natural fit for the Switch, where you can knock out a challenge (or a few) whenever you get a spare moment. (I’ll have more on the excellent, RPG-like spirits mode in a future article.)
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate won’t change your mind about the series. If Nintendo’s particular brand of chaotic fighting doesn’t appeal to you, Ultimate doesn’t offer much new, unless you happen to be a die-hard Ridley fan. Instead, it takes what people already love about it, and offers more. More characters to explore, more ways to play, and even more story to dig into. It’s a greatest hits collection, one that makes me wonder just what director Masahiro Sakurai could possibly do to top this for the inevitable next Smash game.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate launches December 7th on the Nintendo Switch.