In case you haven’t heard, the new Smash Bros. is out. Yes, really.
There are plenty of opinions on it already. Melee diehards say it still lacks the technical gameplay that creates high skill ceilings. Other, more casual players, think this game is truly the end all be all of Smash, which is a pretty understandable way to think given the title and marketing used. I don’t believe Ultimate is a bad game, as some competitive players would have you believe. But I also don’t think it’s a perfect godsend.
First and foremost, you have the most obvious aspect of the game: the roster. Sporting every character to ever grace the series, Ultimate brings in a whopping 74 playable characters — 80 after DLC is all said and done. Fan favorites like King K. Rool (Donkey Kong), Simon Belmont (Castlevania), and Ridley (Metroid) feel like Masahiro Sakurai, the game’s director, truly was listening to fans when crafting the game. Other inclusions, including echo (near-clone) fighters Chrom (Fire Emblem) and Dark Samus (Metroid) feel unnecessary but not unwelcome. After all, the more fighters, the better, and echo fighters provide a nice way for the development team to easily add a few additional desirable fighters. Characters previously cut from the franchise also make a return, such as Pichu (Pokemon), Snake (Metal Gear) and Ice Climbers (Ice Climbers). When the game declares, “Everyone is Here,” well, truly everyone is indeed here, and that’s incredible. So many companies had to come together and form agreements for this to happen. It’s really a miracle, as Sakurai himself has said. With such an expansive cast, there’s a playstyle for everyone. Like heavy, hard-hitting characters? Bowser (Super Mario) and Ganondorf (The Legend of Zelda) have you covered. Nimble and versatile? How about Zero Suit Samus (Metroid) or Wii Fit Trainer (Wii Fit)? If you like swords, there’s an abundance of sword-wielding characters. And if axes or magic are your thing instead, you’ve still got a handful of options. There are dozens of playstyles to try out. Everyone can find something they enjoy.
While many characters have been given tender love and care in their transition to the Nintendo Switch, some do feel largely overlooked. Lucina (Fire Emblem) still lacks her obvious masked outfit, while Peach and Bowser (Super Mario) could have donned their wedding attire like Mario. Not to mention Daisy’s (Super Mario) tennis outfit, given that her most notable appearance are in sports games. There’s also the issue of some characters’ ultimate moves, called final smashes. Jigglypuff (Pokemon) perplexingly keeps its final smash of ballooning up to an epic size for the third time, despite the move having little to do with the character’s actual capabilities. And Alph (Pikmin) is still an alternate costume for Olimar (Pikmin) instead of an echo fighter. It just feels like certain characters were more or less ignored when being brought over. And while it has little impact on gameplay, these little touches feel like they could have been fairly simple to implement, minus maybe Alph.
Even beyond its roster, Ultimate includes content from far more series. Music, spirits (I’ll get to those in a minute), and stages from other series are included in the game. Everything from Shovel Knight to Fatal Frame is represented. Over 800 music tracks exist in the game, which is an impressive feat itself. While some series did seem to get a little less love in the music department (Xenoblade only got a couple of new tracks despite its ballooning success, Final Fantasy had some issues with obtaining rights from what I’ve heard, and Fire Emblem sports four versions of the same song over other potential inclusions from its Fates game), the music is still fantastic — original, remixes, and classic. Not to mention it SOUNDS incredible. I’m no technical expert, so I can’t really say if it’s sound mixing, sound editing, or what. But the music — and really all the sound effects — just comes through crisp and clean.
The game’s signature game mode is called Spirits. In it, Ghaleem devastates the universe by essentially just snapping its metaphorical fingers like Thanos. Only Kirby (Kirby) survives, and he must set out to reawaken the fighters who were brought under Ghaleem’s control. And that includes clones of the fighters manipulated by wandering spirits — the lost souls of the non-playable characters caught in Ghaleem’s onslaught. When fighting a spirit, you essentially fight an enhanced version of a playable character. For example, the octopus Octoling (Splatoon) spirit will take over the most similar fighter — in this case, the squid Inkling (Splatoon), and the Inkling will fight you under special conditions. These conditions can range from stage hazards to special items to gameplay conditions. Once you beat that clone, you gain the spirit and can equip it yourself to gain various effects during battle. Really, it’s a pretty cool way to include a ton of characters who just couldn’t make it onto the actual roster, even if it does feel like a mobile game at its heart. Still, this mode can ultimately become tedious and repetitive, as you have to fight these battles over and over and over to make progress in Spirits mode. And while a lot of them really are fun, without any true narrative guiding your progress, it can feel monotonous after a while. Like a rinse and repeat sort of deal. It doesn’t help that spirits feel useless after you beat the adventure mode. Sure, you can equip them in local battles for some cheesy gameplay, but all in all it feels like they take up such a bulk of the game when really they’re not that important to the game’s longevity, which will mostly include party free-for-alls and competitive 1v1s — and I really don’t see spirits too often being included in either.
Speaking of the game’s primary importance — how is the actual fighting? Like the music, it just feels clean. Hits feel like they land as they should, and movement is fluid — both step ups from the previous entry in the franchise. There have been some technical changes, and while I consider myself competitive, I’m not terribly familiar with technical gameplay terms. But I do notice some of the more basic ones — easier short hopping techniques, lag time after air dodges, and increased blast speed after being hit. I’m not totally sure how I feel about these yet, especially since the air dodge lag is cruelly punishing for someone coming over from the Wii U entry where air dodging was rampant. Still, the game feels great. It does feel like there is some sort of input lag during online matches, as movement feels like it’s not as fluid (I’ll test some things in the training screen before a match loads and then not be able to land them again during the match), but it could just be my imagination.
Which does bring me to the elephant in the room: online. Internet functionality in Smash Bros. has always carried with it a bit of a negative reputation. Before, one player’s poor connection would cause horrendous lag for all players. And while on the whole I’ve seen a slight improvement in this area, I’ve still encountered this issue online in Ultimate. It’s unclear why, in 2018, Nintendo can’t seem to smooth out online gameplay issues. Would dedicated servers help? Probably, but I’m not certain. Still, now that Nintendo is forcing people to pay to play online like other gaming companies, the issue of online lag has gone from an annoyance to just plain scummy. It’s fixable, and I’m willing to give Nintendo a chance to alleviate the problem. Time will tell if the company delivers.
But beyond the connection issues lies a baffling series of choices in design. Previously, players could choose to “Play for Fun” or “Play for Glory.” The former option matched people up against more casual-minded players who didn’t mind playing with items and stage hazards turned on. The latter kept competitive players in mind in simple matches with nothing but skill (and internet connectivity) determining the outcome. In Ultimate, players can set their preferred rules in a catch-all matchmaking mode and hopefully get matched up against others with similar preferred rules. I say “hopefully” because quite often that’s not what happens. You can set your rules to stock battle with no items and end up in a free-for-all timed battle with bombs all over the place. Beyond that, if you do find someone with your set of rules (and a good connection), you’re no longer able to rematch that person AND select a new character to play as. You’re stuck playing whatever fighter you initially selected before being matched up against your opponent, and in order to change you have to back out of the room and risk getting thrown into a chaotic party room with loading speed slower than a tortoise. It makes zero sense, especially when plenty of people wish to test out counterpicks and alternate strategies. If you do happen to do well enough in your matches, you can unlock Elite Smash by raising your GSP (Global Smash Power) for a character high enough. Elite Smash is a mode specifically for players who have reached a certain threshold and can be considered, well, elite. It’s supposed to be a more intense, competitive scene, but really, there’s still no guarantee the people you’ll get matched against will have rulesets conducive to whatever gameplay you’re seeking. Higher chance of it? Sure. But no guarantee. GSP shows how well you stack up with a certain character against other players by indicating how many people you’re better than. It still seems like an archaic display method, especially when many players would rather see themselves listed as “1st best” instead of “Better than 1,478,234.” But that’s largely unimportant. What is important is that even if you make it into Elite Smash, if you lose a battle or two, it’s easy to have your GSP reduced, resulting in you getting knocked out of Elite Smash altogether. With poor connections and unreliable matchmaking, it’s fairly easy to lose your GSP to something outside of your control, which makes it all the more frustrating. Not to mention you have to reach Elite Smash with EACH character you wish to battle with in that mode.
The sole step in the right direction is the inclusion of Battle Arenas. Individuals can set up a lobby with certain rules in place, and other players can search and join lobbies that have the rules they like. If a lobby isn’t limited to just two people, there can be wait times between matches while you wait for players to rotate out with those waiting for their turn. But at this point, a wait time of a couple minutes is, for many, preferable to getting thrown into matches with bizarre rules in Quickplay. Battle Arenas are also great for friends, as now more than four friends can get together in a single lobby and take turns duking it out. The only issue is that if you want to change the rules for the arena, you have to implode the entire lobby, which doesn’t really make sense given you could change rules in Smash 4 online friend matches. Still, while I do enjoy Battle Arenas, players wishing for a less chaotic experience shouldn’t have to resort to them to find a series of quick matches.
All in all, Ultimate accomplishes what it set out to do. It’s a Greatest Hits for the franchise. And while some modes are noticeably lacking (Home Run Contest, Smash Tour, Smash Run, Events [though really the Adventure Mode is basically Events]), the end result still has a lot to offer. I don’t think anyone really wanted Smash Tour back. But it is a bit sad that there’s no alternative party mode to play with friends locally. The game has its faults — most notably it’s online options. Still, this is a game that will last for years and surely create infinite cherished moments among friends. And that alone is enough to give it praise.