Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

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Well between the overtime, and festivities, Christmas, and New Year’s were quite busy. I had a great time with family, and I hope everyone out there had a wonderful, Merry Christmas out there as well. I didn’t get much in the way of entertainment gifts, though I did get a case of Pocky, and a really nice solid state drive. The sole game I received is the one I’ve been playing feverishly in my free time unlocking characters. That would be today’s game. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has come out to critical acclaim. Is it worthy of the praise? In a lot of ways it certainly is.

PROS: Every character, stage from the previous game, and then some!

CONS: Trophy hunting is gone. Online performance can be spotty.

PIRANHA PLANT: Is a free character for those who register by 1/31/19.

For the five people who don’t know what Super Smash Bros. is, it’s a long running series that combines fighting game conventions, and party game conventions into a unique fighting game with its own rules. Most fighting games are one on one affairs where the goal is to knock out your opponent by kicking his or her teeth in. Some of them have intricate combos (a series of moves that can’t be blocked) that require dexterity, and ring awareness to input properly. Most of them have flashy special moves, and they feature some equally flashy ways to finish off an opponent for bragging rights.

But over the years many games in the genre became so complex that it intimidated newcomers from trying them out. At the same time, in the days of the Nintendo 64, most fighting games were going to the PlayStation due to the cheaper storage space of a CD-ROM. Many of the high-caliber fighters didn’t make it over to Nintendo’s console. But Masahiro Sakurai had secretly set up a new project over at  HAL. It would evolve from four generic placeholder characters in an arena to Nintendo characters in a variety of arenas. Smash Bros. replaces the “Send them to the hospital or morgue to win.” rule set with a Sumo wrestling “Knock them out of the ring, and keep them out of the ring.” rule set. You pick a character, multiple opponents pick a character, and then you can duke it out based on either time (knock more people out than anyone else) or stock (be the last one standing with any lives) rules.

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But what makes the series compelling for every type of player, are the move sets. Every character uses the same basic inputs. There’s an attack button, a special moves button, a jump button, a block button, and a grab button. If you press up, down, or left or right, with either an attack or special button press you’ll do a different attack. There are also Smash attacks which are another three, more powerful moves you can do if you press attack with a direction at the exact same time. From the second game onward, you can use a right, thumb stick to do the Smash attacks instead. Every character has the exact same inputs, so you don’t have to spend hours learning how to press down, down-forward, forward, punch to do something amazing.

But while the simplicity appeals to newcomers, the series does have a fair amount of depth in its combat. There are still combos, two-in-ones, and other advanced techniques to learn. You can learn how to roll dodge, and parry. While the inputs are shared across the board, the characters’ moves are mostly unique. And from the third game onward, the series even implements super finishers for the characters.

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To make things more interesting the series lets players use randomly dropped items, which can be anything from bats, to laser guns, to assist trophies that summon run ins from characters who are not selectable fighters. They fight on behalf of the player who threw them. And to top it off, the games have all let players turn the items off entirely, select the few they want, or leave them on. The second game Super Smash Bros. Melee, is where the series really took off in popularity, and proved the series could be a viable competitive fighting game. Dedicated players have spent years mastering the game’s mechanics, and continue playing it today. Their efforts even got the series enough attention to end up in high-profile tournaments like EVO.

Over the years Nintendo’s brawler has added different tweaks, and features to the formula. Melee added an Adventure mode. Brawl expanded the roster further, and expanded the Adventure mode. Wii U/3DS improved the roster, cut the Adventure short, and improved the mechanics. All while giving each version unique stages to incentivize buying both versions.

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So what does Ultimate bring to the table? What new features, and refinements can you expect over previous editions? Well for starters, you’ll eventually get to use every character who has ever appeared in a Super Smash Bros. title. I say eventually, because as in previous games you have to unlock them by playing. However, this time around unlocking them is much easier. You can go through any of the game’s modes to add them to your roster. Playing standard matches by yourself or with friends has them showing up every few rounds or so. You can also go through the returning Classic mode, or the all new Spirits modes.

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Ultimate’s most drastic change is indeed the inclusion of Spirits. These replace the trophies from the last few games. While the trophies were a nice way to celebrate Nintendo’s history, and wealth of characters, ultimately it had little impact on how the games played. Spirits add an almost Role-Playing Game element to the action. They can be picked up primarily either by playing through the Spirit Adventure mode, or the Spirit Board. Although you’ll find in other modes you can gain them as well. Spirits can enhance your fighters by adding other properties into the mix. They can buff your attack power, defensive power, grab power (for holds or throws), or be neutral, helping stats equally. This is also where the RPG elements come into play, because over the course of the game you can level them up. You can add secondary Spirits to many of them, as they’ll have additional slots. Doing this effectively adds even more stats. Beyond that you can also feed them snacks you earn in every mode, which will boost stats further. When you get some Spirits to level 99, you can even find ways to prestige them (Think like the resets in Call Of Duty. Not exactly an RPG, but an element that could work in one) by starting them over at level 1, while retaining experience. Henceforth making them more potent.

You can even choose to allow the use of Spirits in standard matches with your friends, which admittedly throws off the balance, but can result in fun experimentation. Going into the Spirit Board will let you enter fights where you can potentially win a new Spirit to use should you win a given match. This works similarly to the matches you’ll enter in the Spirit Adventure mode, which more or less replaces the previous games’ takes on a Story mode.

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This time around instead of having sets of stages, or a huge Metroidvania styled map the game keeps things simplified with Spirit matches. However these are peppered throughout a massive map, and it does utilize the Spirit system in other ways. For instance, the map has a resemblance to a table top game board. It’s covered in fog, that clears partially when completing certain events. It also has JRPG like shops, and training centers on it that can be found, where you can spend prize money on new Spirits, or to buff existing ones. And of course, this is the mode that tells the storyline, so you can expect to see the majority of it here. When you start off, you’ll find the world of Smash Bros. under assault from an army of Master Hands. A mysterious force pretty much kills every one of our favorite combatants, with only Kirby surviving unscathed. The antagonist imprisons our combatants, and creates countless evil clones of them. From here you’ll go about the board, fighting battles, getting Spirits, and equipping them. Over the course of the adventure you’ll level them, swap them, in between battles. Each battle you’ll get an overview of your opponent, and what Spirit they are using, as well as any special rules that have been employed.

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Not only will you have to win battles against evil clones, you’ll also have to win battles with the original characters. If you do this, you’ll break the spell on them, and they’ll join your party. They’ll also become unlocked for you to use in multiplayer. Because of that, many players may want to play through this mode, as you’re essentially going to unlock everyone over the course of the campaign. However, there are 74 characters here. The first 8 of whom are already playable in multiplayer. But, for those who don’t, they can also be unlocked by playing other modes. If you’re really desperate there is even an exploit circulating around YouTube. But even then you’re going to be grinding a while.

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You can also lose these battles to unlock characters, and if you do they’ll go back to the end of the line. So your next unlockable opponent will be different. The game does have a seemingly random rematch option though. Getting back to the Spirit Adventure, you can expect to spend days, or even weeks to see everything. Even after unlocking all of the characters in the game, I still have a long way to go in terms of completing this mode. There are many battles, shops, training centers, and chests for you to uncover. There are even centers where you can put one of your leveled Spirits back to their original stock settings! At face value one might ask why they would want to bother doing this. But again, like an RPG, sometimes you might find you’ve increased all of the wrong stats. Maybe it was a Spirit geared toward defense, but you found you hastily buffed up a bunch of attack properties because you weren’t sure what you were doing when you first started playing. It certainly beats starting the entire game over when you’ve spent the last 10 hours building up your Spirits, unlocking characters for multiplayer, and finding snacks to feed your Spirits.

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Not only can you buff up Spirits, but you can raise the stats of your actual fighters by using a skill tree. You can access it in the pause menu during the adventure, and you can use the Skill Spheres you pick up in battle to level up abilities. You can make yourself escape throws easier, or make your specials do more damage. There are a bunch of them, and doing this will help you a lot. Especially with some of the boss fights that have returned from previous games, as well as all new ones.

It’s a very lengthy campaign indeed. On top of freeing all of the characters, collecting Spirits, and levelling them up. Beyond the epic boss fights, and using Spirits to access previously closed areas on the map. In addition to all of the ways you can use Spirits in the campaign beyond merely powering them up, or fighting evil clones with them, there are three difficulty levels. There are also three endings! So yeah, you can expect to revisit this adventure many, many times.

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Beyond the campaign is the Classic mode. In this iteration the game does do things a little bit differently. Rather than simply give you the arcade style ladder you’re probably used to, it takes that ladder, and tweaks matches around the chosen character. All 74 characters get a personalized ladder, and even conditions. For instance Mega Man’s ladder follows the path of vintage Mega Man games. Even when you beat what you think is the end, it will surprise you. Or take Ryu’s ladder where all of the knock out rules have been changed to stamina rules. It makes going through this mode with every character fun, as you don’t know what to expect next.

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This time around, the intensity meter from the previous game makes its appearance in Classic mode instead. When you start out you can choose how difficult you want things to be based upon how many coins you can put toward it. There are also tickets you can spend to help push it up, but you only have so many. Though these can be earned seemingly randomly as well. The higher you go the more of the painting you’ll see, and the better your rewards for clearing the mode. Though the meter will go down if you lose, and continue. So if you want the credentials of being the best, you’ll have to win every match by a wide margin.

Obviously the meat, and potatoes of any fighter is the multiplayer. This iteration of Smash is no different. Beyond the baseline mechanics there have been a number of changes under the hood. The general speed has been refined, and the roster of 74 characters does feel surprisingly balanced for the most part. There are some characters who have clear advantages, but many of these come at the cost of a slow speed, or a high knock off percentage. There are still ways crafty players can get around these powerhouses. They also have the option to use Spirits in addition to the items. Which changes the dynamics greatly, as a lot of the Spirits share properties with the characters they’re based upon. This can make for a lot of interesting match ups for those who wish to experiment with them. Of course purists can ignore them altogether. Returning from the Wii U version of Smash, are the Omega versions of stages. These basically retain the look of the various arenas, but convert their layout to the bog standard layout of Final Destination. It makes every arena into a tournament arena, which gives some of the players who want to focus on the competitive end some variety.

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One feature I think any player will like is the ability to replace the Smash Ball item with a super meter. Instead of having to take your eyes off of opponents to break a ball, and maybe do your super without getting fragged, now you can do them traditionally. The meter will fill up when you’re damaging or taking damage, and when filled, you can press your Super finish. It’s great because if you’re a competitive player you can focus on the action, and if you’re a novice, you can still get the chance to see the spectacle of a flashy move more often. Ultimate also retains support for the Gamecube controller adapter, and controllers. So once again you can have up to 8 players for local, offline Smash Bros. matches, which are as fun as they are chaotic. Novices, and Pros alike will like that they now put up a wire frame grid during matches when you’re off-screen. This makes it a little bit easier to find your bearings. And the training mode can display the knock back, and Directional Influence stats if you wish.

Another returning feature is the photography feature, and I don’t mean simply pressing the screenshot button. Although you can do that. But the full-fledged photography feature set from previous entries is here. Pause the game during any match, and you’ll be able to fiddle with the camera settings. You can change the angle, and position. You can cycle between the characters to focus the camera on a specific one. You can zoom in, or out. You can even put on borders, or stamp the game’s logo on it. Then if you hit the screenshot button on your controller you can essentially  make a nice wallpaper to upload to your Facebook or Twitter feed. It may not sound like much, but it is a lot of fun to experiment with.

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Online fighting as you’ve probably heard, is a mixed bag. More often than not matches will perform well with one stipulation. That you play with people relatively close to you. Matches with local friends are usually fine. Matches with random strangers, could be fine, or they could be unplayable. Previous Smash games were often the same way. While I have had a better experience with this iteration so far, it still isn’t where it needs to be. Which is a shame because honestly the online play has some cool features in it. Setting up lobbies represents a wrestling arena, where you can clearly seat fighters, and spectators. You can jump into public lobbies too, and search by match types, and other stipulations. You can also go for quick play, where the game will toss you against random opponents. You can set preferred rules for this, so that if you only like to play stock, or love a certain item you can usually be paired with people of similar taste.  If you leave preferred rules off, you’ll be placed against any available players under any possible set of conditions. Again, if you’re pitted against players too far away, you can expect stuttering, warping, or general lag. You can mitigate this slightly by using a Cat5e cable, and a USB adapter with the Dock, as a wired connection is a bit faster than the WiFi connection. But this still doesn’t help much as you’re likely going to see issues more when paired against opponents who live far away.

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Still, if you can deal with a spotty match every few rounds or so, the online play is fun. I even like the feature they’ve added where you can play offline modes while you have the game look for opponents for you. Oddly enough though, other Nintendo franchises have given the option to choose between regional or global opponents. Mario Kart has consistently done this. And while a racing title is probably less taxing than a game like Super Smash Bros. due to the latter’s constant changing of inputs, it seems like it could be a helpful option. It’s also strange that Splatoon 2, very rarely performs poorly online. Still, when the game does perform the way it ought to, matches are an absolute blast. Of course like all fighting games, get used to being decimated. A lot of players are dedicated to mastering their favorite characters, and play continually to improve. But you can’t become anywhere near as good as they are without losing, learning where you made mistakes, and taking that with you into the next match. And there’s something to be said for not taking yourself too seriously too. There’s nothing riding on these matches. So don’t worry about getting bodied.

I should also mention that this game supports the Amiibo figurines from the last one, and that it will even allow you to import the data from the previous game on them into this one. Of course once you do, you can’t go back, and use it on the old game. If you want to use it with the old game, you’ll have to reformat the figurine, and start over on it. From there they work pretty much as they did in Smash 4. The difference is now you can give them Spirits which work similar to the stats in the previous game. You can train your figure to be an attacker, a defensive player, or somewhere in between. Not all of the strategies from the old game work quite the same in the contemporary one though. So expect some of your Wii U figurines to be inconsistent sometimes. Still, eventually they will get to a point where they’re almost impossible for you to beat. The real fun though is levelling up an Amiibo to be beast-like, and then pit it against a friend’s beast-like Amiibo for supremacy.

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If all of that isn’t enough for you, the challenges come back from previous entries. There are thousands of Spirits to unlock, as well as songs, and other things in the game. Some of which can only be found by completing tasks. One task may be to clear Classic Mode with a specific character in under a certain time. Another might be to accomplish something in the Spirit Adventure mode. You can also get some of this stuff in the game’s shop feature. Suffice it to say, those of you who have to see every possible bit of content in the games you buy, will once again be unlocking things for months on end. Ultimate also brings back the horde modes from previous games. Fight a bunch of waves until you clear the required number. Or go for the endless mode, and see how long you can last. A number of unlockable items are also tied to these. They wanted to be sure you would try everything.

And the game looks, and sounds beautiful through it all. All of the player models, and animations are phenomenal. All of the assist trophies, and items look top-notch. The little details throughout each stage, over every map are simply gorgeous. Everybody involved in the graphics, and sound have done a terrific job here. Even Mr. Game & Watch, one of the simpler characters has been overhauled. Every move he makes references one of his LCD titles more than ever. That’s just one example out of 74 characters. The cinematic videos from the campaign, and introduction are also fantastic. Even if they don’t always make themselves clear in the story, they do grab your attention. The massive amount of top-notch audio is breathtaking. Songs from countless other games show up, alongside some original orchestral scores, electronic remixes, and more. It’s a fantastic soundtrack. While the idea of using the music player mode as a giant Walkman might sound silly, an auxiliary cable in the car makes for a great commute soundtrack.

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Overall, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a must own game for almost anybody with a Switch. Some might complain a mode from an older game may have been omitted. Like the Trophies, and their related modes for example. But their replacements are well thought out, and fit the game nicely. In some cases, better. The Spirits may seem convoluted to some, but they make the Adventure worth checking out, and getting invested in. The Smash Tour isn’t here, but there probably weren’t a lot of people clamoring for it. The stage builder is gone, which is one thing I would have liked to have seen return. Be that as it may, the large roster, 8-player matches, multitude of ways to customize matches, are worth getting the game for alone. It’s also wonderful that those of us who invested hundreds of dollars into Nintendo’s figurines, and Gamecube controllers for the Wii U iteration can repurpose those things for this new one.

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For those who love this series, you’ve probably picked this up already. For those who are lapsed, or haven’t played one of these games before though, you should really check it out. This is a series that has always celebrated the history of Nintendo, and video games. There’s something here for everyone. Fighting game enthusiasts will find some advanced techniques to master. People who want to play something different with guests will likely enjoy the chaotic fun of Luigi shooting laser guns. Or the look of surprise on a friend’s face when they see their first stage hazard. Fans of Retro will love the 40 years or more of classic nods, and references in it. Even people who tend to like slower paced cerebral genres over arcade twitch game play may find they really enjoy the RPG elements of Spirit Adventuring. Plus the easier inputs can make it feel less daunting to any newcomer to the series. Of course if you’ve never enjoyed one of these games to any degree, this one won’t change your mind. But for most with a Switch, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate joins Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, and Splatoon 2, as a sure first-party bet.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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