The greatest crossover event in history is finally here. No, we're not talking about Avengers: Endgame; it's Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The fifth entry in the fighting game series is easily the biggest one yet, touting 74 playable fighters and over 100 (or 300 if you count variants) stages. In addition to the traditional "Smash" mode, Ultimate features a sprawling Adventure mode called "The World of Light," Classic Mode, and numerous other ways battle as your favorite Nintendo characters. With such a massive game, there were ever more massive expectations. With a firm handshake from Master Hand himself, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate met those expectations, and joins its predecessors as one of the best the genre has to offer.
The Nintendo 64 release of Smash Bros, now dubbed Smash 64, was released in 1999. In the nearly two decades since, players have seen a lot of changes and newcomers. In Super Smash Bros. Melee, the roster more than doubled from 12 fighters to 26. It became the best-selling Gamecube game and is the reason that to this day, many prefer using Gamecube controllers in Smash Bros. Masahiro Sakurai, the series' director at one point thought that Melee would be his final game. But he returned for Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii and Super Smash Bros. Wii U/3DS. He and his team continued to add characters and stages from beloved games, to the point where fans wondered how he could top himself next.
Well, they have their answer. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is truly better than the series has ever been. After some high notes (Melee) and lower notes (Brawl), Sakurai combined fan input and his own passion to make an iteration of Smash so filled to the brim with content and love that it's impossible to know where to start.
So let's start at Smash. It's the game's main mode and the most persistent and most-played part of this Smash Bros. saga. The way it works hasn't changed much here, only been fine-tuned. Sakurai and team have done an amazing job in the short span of time since the Wii U and 3DS' Super Smash Bros. iteration (often referred to as Smash 4). The graphics are beautiful, crisp, and clear. Impacts of every punch and kick feel hard-hitting but not too cartoonish. Characters pop off of the screen and even against the bright backgrounds of the stages they never managed to get lost. It's a triumph of engineering that this game can be played at all with so much happening in a single match. Four (or more) characters running around, grabbing items on an often-times moving stage. But it's easier to follow than ever, not just because of enhanced graphics and a terrific resolution on handheld.
Smash Ultimate is not a port of the Smash 4 as so many fans initially feared; that much is true after playing a single match. It's immediately noticeable in the way that hits register. It feels more like Street Fighter than any other previous Smash game. It's still a Nintendo game of course, but everything feels a bit heavier and quicker (if not bloodier and more "realistic"). When fighting 1v1 for instance, attacks all do a bit more damage than they do in a Free For All with four players. This speeds up the game quite well; it falls in between the insanely fast Melee and the tempered and approachable Smash 4. In addition to the damage buffs, 1v1 also adds a dynamic camera that zooms in when finishing blows are dealt. It really adds to the cinematic quality of watching a friend pummel another friend. Even if you're the one being pummeled, it's hard not to appreciate how good it looks. There's also a stock countdown display and a map that can be toggled on or off when a character reaches the border of the level.
Though the game's roster features 74 characters, players only start with 8, the same 8 starters from Smash 64 (the original Super Smash Bros.). One gripe with the game is that is takes a long time to unlock all of the remaining 66 characters. Though there are some ways around it, the game forces players to fight each one, which can only happen after a certain amount of hours played. This could get frustrating fast for those who want to unlock their favorite hero and have to wait 10 hours. Once all the heroes are unlocked, the game comes alive.
The new fighters fit right into the formula, as if they've been here forever. The Inklings from Splatoon have a wonderful flow to their movement, they're fast and sneaky; taken right out of their shooter and adapted for a fighter. King K. Rool (Donkey Kong) and Simon Belmont (Castelvania) are also newcomer standouts, their movesets perfect homages to their games and backstories. Returning fighters have all been given reworks, some major, some hardly noticeable. Link from The Legend of Zelda resembles his Breath of the Wild iteration, and has new and improved bombs to boot. For players preferring the old-school way he was played, there's always Young Link as well.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate introduces the idea of Echo Fighters, copies of certain characters that are mostly the same but with a few tweaks. There's Daisy, who is a lot like Peach with a few minor changes and Chrom who is mostly like Roy but also has some of Ike's moves; sort of a Fire Emblem mash-up. It's confusing why some characters are labeled Echo Fighters and others are not. Dr. Mario is his own fighter and so is Pichu, but Richter is an Echo. The decision seems arbitrary, but in the end is mostly semantic; all the characters are a blast to play.
The stages are also terrific; returning and new. The addition of an element called "Stage Morph" allows players to change between levels in the middle of a match. It's very strange but helpful for getting to visit every single stage a bit quicker. It spices things up, and if friends can't decide on a favorite stage, the answer can now be "let's go to both of them!" There are also plenty of new customization options for fighting, with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate finally allowing players to save their rule sets, so they don't have to change it from Timed to Stock each time their hardcore gamer pals come over. Music can be changed on each stage (there are more than 800 tracks to choose from), and stage hazards such as bosses can now be turned off. These changes emphasize how much Nintendo looked at fan feedback to help make the game more easily customized and navigated.
In addition to the traditional Smash mode, there are several new versions. Returning from the Wii U, there is 5-8 player smash - a utterly brilliant mess. It's recommended just to stick to 4 players, but if you have that many friends over at once and no one wants to wait, give this all-out brawl a shot. There's also Special Smash, a mainstay of customization, where players can make every character giant or tiny, super slow or super fast. It offers a respite to the no-items competitions, but isn't nearly as exciting as the new modes: Squad Strike and Smashdown.
In Squad Strike, players choose 3 or 5 characters and battle their friend doing the same. Each character can be used as a stock (or life), making for a single round that is unpredictable. Players hide the order of their lives from their friends, so there's no counter-picking! This mode is endlessly entertaining and a great new way to try a bunch of characters and see how you stack up 1 on 1. Smashdown is the perfect mode for newcomers and vets with a lot of time on their hands. The mode forces players to choose a new hero each round, eliminating any hero that was chosen before. Friends can pick their rival's best character to guarantee they can't play them; there's a ton of fun strategy to be found.
Though it's hard to believe, the game has more content... a lot more. There's of course the returning Classic Mode, a single-player or co-op short campaign that features a few different versus battles against computers. These battles always feature items and generally some odd changes: the enemy might be metal, start with a baseball bat, etc. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate does a lot to improve the mode since years past. It's fast, featuring only 6 stages, a bonus stage, and a final boss. But it's never the same; each character has their own specific set of matches. Mario, for example, will face Giga Bowser as the final boss, but Roy faces Master Hand. These variations make the mode tremendously more replayable than in the past. The repetitive bonus level is the odd standout here; the same across all versions, it's best skipped entirely so players can get to the final boss.
For those with friends in other area codes, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate does offer an online mode. Though it's a significant improvement from Brawl and subsequently Wii U, the ability to play over the internet with friends is strangely still one of Nintendo's greatest failings. Players can create lobbies where they can battle their friends with a customized rule set. Unfortunately players have to make an entirely new lobby to change the rule set AND players can't queue up for the next game if they are spectating, only do one or the other. Quickplay against random players is even more frustrating. Players select their "Preferred Rules," for instance 1v1-No items, but it doesn't mean that Nintendo will match you with someone with those same rules. Queuing is a total gamble, and the occasional lag-spike doesn't help.
The biggest new addition to the game is perhaps its strangest: Spirits. There are over 700 of these figures, and each provides stat boosts and other changes to the player's character in matches. At default, they are set off, but they could cause some interesting mix-ups when used in a 4-player brawl. Their main use is for the Adventure mode: "World of Light." This RPG-influenced mode sees the player travel around a large map, defeating different characters and "freeing" as may Spirits as they can. It's confusing at times, features 20+ hours of content, and isn't for those looking for traditional Super Smash content.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate lives up to its name and has almost everything: all the fighters, all the music, all the stages. It has Spirits, if players decide to care about this new addition, but we'd trade it for a modern online multiplayer infrastructure. There has never been a better game to play with friends on the Switch. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate might just be among the best games to play with friends, period.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is available now on Nintendo Switch for $59.99. The Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Fighter Pass is available for an additional $24.99 or as a bundle with the digital copy of the game for $84.98.