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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch) artwork

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch) review


"Super Smash Bros. Ultimate offers a compelling trip down memory lane that Nintendo and retro fans shouldn't miss."


Twenty years ago this April, when Super Smash Bros. hit the Nintendo 64, I found a way to buy it even though I was just a poor college student. I'd wanted Mario and his friends and enemies to knock the stuffing out of one another for years, so I was generally happy with my purchase even though I felt it could have been better. Two decades later, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has arrived as the fifth proper entry in the occasionally updated franchise (the sixth, if you want to treat the Wii U and 3DS installments as completely separate entities). The game cost me a bit less money than its great, great granddad did, offers a whole lot more content and somehow leaves me feeling that as great as it often is, it could have been even a bit better. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The original Super Smash Bros. was easy to describe with a simple phrase: mascot-based fighter. Players chose a brawler from a roster of familiar Nintendo characters such as Mario, Link, Kirby and Pikachu, then battled for supremacy in small arenas drifting through space. They also could knock around a giant white glove, or race through simple obstacle courses and break targets. The game was at its best when friends came over and it was "everybody against everybody." That became one of my favorite phrases.

The passage of time has complicated matters, though. Although the core concept remains in place, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has come a long way and that's evident in some big ways. The biggest change of all is the roster, which includes more than 70 characters at launch and will eventually expand beyond that with paid DLC. With a lot of fighting game franchises that have lasted this long, there comes the fear that some favorite characters won't make the cut. However, that concern is unnecessary here because everyone is back. Yes, everyone. If you've played as a character in a previous title within the series, he or she is ready for an encore. That's an impressive accomplishment on the developers' part, since the lineup includes a variety of characters from diverse companies such as Capcom, SEGA, Square Enix and Konami. Just think of all the balancing that must have been required to get everything right, while presenting the characters as players remembered them.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch) image

Somewhere out there is the critic who can go on for hundreds or thousands of words, detailing every minor or major tweak to every character this time versus all the other times. I am not that person, however. I played a lot of Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64, and a fair bit of Super Smash Bros. Melee on GameCube. I also dabbled in the other versions. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate represents the first time I've devoted a lot of hours to an entry in the series for quite a while, however.

My first experience with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate came when my friend brought over his Nintendo Switch. He had unlocked every fighter in the lineup, and we played his copy of the game so we could choose anyone that suited us. They're almost all locked away at the start, after all, and my own copy of the game was still safely ensconced in its shrink wrap. Unfortunately, I didn't have as much fun with that initial session as I might have for the very simple reason that I was losing a lot of matches by falling off narrow platforms and into the abyss. I didn't do much fighting at all, just a lot of dying, because I wasn't familiar with the characters or even how they fight or what strategies might get me anywhere.

Just in case you're unaware, Super Smash Bros. games play a bit differently than your typical fighter does. You don't see life meters, most of the time. Instead, there are numerical percentages that typically start climbing from 0% as a fighter takes damage. The higher that number gets, the more likely it is that someone will kick or punch the fighter (whether with a standard, special, or "smash" move) so hard they launch from the arena and vanish into the starry sky. Depending on the mode, this may have to happen a few times, until finally the timer expires or some other condition is met and a winner is announced. The game lets the host make all sorts of tweaks to the timer's duration, the stock of special items included and more, but I was too out of practice to understand half of what was going on and I was a little on the tired and cranky side, too.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch) image

After my friend left for the evening, I didn't think about my own copy of the game again until I remembered that early purchasers can register it ahead of a certain deadline to get a free character when it becomes available later in 2019. I didn't want to miss that freebie, even if I didn't have time to play myself. So I put the game in my system and registered my copy, then followed my wife's suggestion to spend a little time unlocking a few characters on my own file. How long could it take?

I soon discovered that the single-player campaign in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which you must navigate to unlock every character that isn't Kirby, is highly addictive and time consuming. I spent numerous very late nights and 25 or 30 hours of my time to finally add every available character to my roster, and what that experience showed me there is a very compelling reward being offered to those who play the latest Smash game: nostalgia overload.

The "World of Light" campaign begins with a cutscene depicting nearly all of the heroes in the shared world as they are overcome by a magical light that turns them into mindless drones controlled by a deity-like figure named Galeem. Kirby escapes that grim fate, though, so you take control of him (initially) as he wanders the map, facing off against the other characters and defeating them in combat so that they join the effort to overcome the villain. However, there are a lot more than just the 70 or 80 fights I anticipated, because the map is massive. Each node represents a battle, and some nodes are blocked off until you meet certain requirements that may demand you win 5 or 10 duels. Multiply that by 70 or 80 and you get a feel for just how lengthy a campaign you should expect, even if you rush through everything in a hurry.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch) image

You'll face off against many of your foes on numerous occasions, but they are inhabited by "spirits" that grant them unique capabilities reminiscent of buffs in an RPG. For instance, a character might have a spirit that improves attack power, or makes it giant or immune to an arena effect such as floors lined with electricity or a haze of poisonous fog. You can equip any spirits you have gained, as well, and you should build teams each consisting of a primary and as many as three support spirits that improve your fighter. These spirits can also be leveled up when you visit dojos and defeat the resident masters. In addition to items and experience, victories net you SP you can then spend unlocking nodes on a skill tree to make improvements to your chosen fighter.

Spirits are interesting, both because of the depth they bring to character customization and because they push a person merrily down memory lane. There are hundreds of spirits available in all, and they represent games older retro gamers are likely to remember well and often fondly. References are typically presented as static artwork taken from games spanning Nintendo's remarkable history within the medium, and mascots aren't limited just to the plumber and his pals. There are a lot of heroes and villains from Zelda and Fire Emblem and such, but you'll also see a bunch of side characters from various Castlevania, Mega Man, Street Fighter games and the like. There are even characters like Shantae, from the series of the same name. Many of the spirits come with familiar music that you can listen to in a dedicated media player at your leisure. The included spirit characters don't seem to have been inserted at random, either. There are some clever connections that add to the overall experience. Your journey will also take you fairly deep into some familiar game worlds. My favorite environment was Hyrule, which was so expansive I felt like with just a bit more content, it could have been a whole new game of its own. That was just a tiny part of the overall adventure, though. It's quite impressive.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch) image

Unfortunately, not everything about the experience is terrific, as I alluded to in this review's introduction. My chief criticism is that the encounters do eventually start to wear thin, in spite of the many spirits and resource juggling and all the other elements the game introduces. The fights are sometimes too gimmicky for their own good, and sometimes quite cheap. You'll be at a severe disadvantage unless you're constantly monitoring your collection of spirits and enhancing and mixing and matching. Even then, you could run into trouble in some of the cramped arenas, where it feels like you hardly get to move before the match is over and you are on the losing end. Did I mention that I hate the Bullet Bill item? Because I totally do. They can end in a hurry even the most promising matches, which is especially frustrating given that load times seem to last 10 or 12 seconds even when you're simply choosing to try the same battle again with no modifications. Fortunately, you can play on the "Easy" setting and that makes most of the more exasperating situations more manageable. For that reason, I recommend swallowing your pride and going with the easier foes right from the start. Or you could just downgrade when things get too frustrating, which I finally did about two thirds of the way through my own journey in the World of Light.

When I played Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64 during the weeks following its release, it kept me highly entertained but then I barely touched it again. In 2019, I've probably spent the majority of the time I will ever devote to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, aside from maybe the occasional game night with friends. But I also know that's true only because times have changed. If I wanted to, I could easily devote dozens more hours to mastering more of the many dozens of featured fighters, collecting whatever spirits I've missed, facing off against other players online, or completing timed challenge events and even "classic" modes for everyone in the roster. "Ultimate" really is the right word for a game this expansive, even if there's a part of me convinced it could have been even a little better...

4.5/5

honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (January 02, 2019)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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hastypixels posted January 02, 2019:

A lot of your thoughts and experiences with the Smash Bros franchise echo mine, and I admit to being curious about World of Light, being such a big fan of Subspace Emissary on Brawl. The promise of endless fun is a delight when you're a child, but I think it underscores one of the reasons we still review games.

So we can play them. :)
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honestgamer posted January 02, 2019:

Thanks for reading and commenting! I went a little more personal with this review than I usually like to, because I think it's important that readers know exactly where I was coming from with it, the better to understand how they might feel. It's a big game with a lot of moving pieces, so a more conventional approach didn't feel quite right. I'm glad you got through it all, because there was a lot to talk about and my review was also a little longer than normal.
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jerec posted January 03, 2019:

Single player mode of this game is so good, I haven't even been online yet. Mostly cause I'm not crazy about Nintendo's online service, but I guess I'll bite eventually. I kinda want to review this, but since I haven't touched online mode, and barely touched Smash mode, I think I'm not ready yet, despite having spent about 40 hours in the game already (most of them in World of Light)

I loved the various nods to classic games in World of Light. I'm addicted to collecting spirits.

I do like how there are 3 paths to character unlocking. I was able to get through it pretty quickly. Characters you unlock in World of Light, challengers approaching quite frequently just for playing any mode of the game, and then each run through a character's classic mode will end with a challenger.

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