Super Smash Bros Ultimate first look: Everyone really is here

16 or 17 years ago, my parents bought me a GameCube and a copy of Super Smash Bros. Melee for Christmas. In a happy coincidence, Christmas landed at the very beginning of my school's winter break that year, so I spent two solid weeks doing nothing but playing through Melee, unlocking new fighters, taking on challenges, and expanding my trophy collection. The days of winter breaks and being a carefree teenager are pretty far behind me at this point, but that doesn't stop me from wishing I had two entirely free weeks to sink into Super Smash Bros. Ultimate anyway.

There's a lot to take in when it comes to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and though I've played it for six or seven hours so far, I've hardly even scratched the surface of all the content that's there. My playtime so far has unlocked 10-15 fighters and covered a small fraction of all the available battlefields. I've barely started working my way through World of Light, I've tried (and failed) to beat Classic mode a few times, and I've merely dabbled in creating custom rulesets for versus matches. I haven't even looked at any of the game's online modes yet, because I know that I'm going to get owned if I dare venture in there at this early stage.

Basically, I have a long way to go if I want to see everything Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has to offer. Still, just as it was immediately clear that Melee was something special, I can already tell that Ultimate is a game I'll spend a lot of time with in the coming months.

Ultimate isn't so much a new Smash game as it is some kind of grand Smash compilation. There are a few new fighters and maps, sure, but the main draw is that it features every fighter that has ever appeared in a Smash Bros. game. The vast majority of arenas are returning favorites from previous games as well, so while there is some new, this is essentially a really good looking walk down memory lane.

That isn't a bad thing – there have been many excellent fighters and arenas throughout the years, so to see so many of them packed into one game is wonderful. It's also a good way to put a lot of the (mostly great) content found in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U – or Smash 4 – in front of more people without simply doing a straight port of that game. When considering Nintendo's first-party release schedule for the Switch, I think a lot of people were expecting a Smash 4 port early on and then a new Smash Bros. title later on down the road. What we got instead is Ultimate, which is sort of the best of both worlds.

As you'd expect, Ultimate is at its best when you've got people playing alongside you. There are few experiences in all of gaming as fun and exciting as playing four-player free for all matches in Smash Bros., and that absolutely holds true here. Though you only start with the original roster of 8 characters that first appeared in Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64, you quickly begin unlocking new characters to play.

At first, my friends and I found that we'd get to fight a new character after every two-and-a-half minute match we played. The winner of that match would need to win a one-on-one battle with the new challenger before they'd be added to the roster, which made unlocking new fighters an exciting thing for everyone playing.

I'm still not entirely clear on the unlock methods for new characters, and indeed, it felt like the rate of new character appearances started to slow down as the night wore on. Since my friends and I were bouncing between game modes, however, that slowed appearance rate may just be in my mind. Perhaps if we had kept on playing only versus mode, we would have kept encountering new fighters at the same rate for our entire session.

In any case, expanding your roster isn't all that difficult in Ultimate. The order in which characters appear seems to be random, so if you're after a particular fighter, you might be chasing them for a while. I'd like it if there were some characters that have specific unlock requirements like in previous games, but judging from the number of people who are racing to completely fill out the roster, there don't seem to be any.

At this point, I haven't played World of Light (the game's single-player story mode) enough to really form an opinion on it, but I do feel like the Spirit system is something I'll enjoy digging into. That could very well change by the time I'm ready to write a full review of the game, but collecting new Spirits and powering them up seems like it could be a lot of fun. I'm particularly looking forward to a time where my understanding of the Spirit system is a little more fleshed out and my friends and I can take them into a versus mode – I'm hoping that may give competitive battles against friends more of a tactical depth.

Again, I might realize I'm entirely wrong by the time everything is said and done, but so far, the Spirit system feels like a decent replacement for the trophies in Super Smash Bros Melee. Collecting trophies was one of my favorite things to do in that game, so if collecting Spirits turns out to be a suitable stand-in, I'll be happy.

One thing I'm nervous about is playing online. The online experience in Smash 4 could often be a laggy mess for a lot of people, and Nintendo isn't exactly known for giving online modes the attention they deserve. Nintendo seems to treat online modes – and even its online services – as an afterthought, and I'm worried that'll hold true in Ultimate. I plan on playing a lot of Smash Bros. online to form a comprehensive opinion on it for my review, but I'm not going into it with anything resembling confidence.

Aside from the worry that Nintendo is going to drop the ball with online play for the umpteenth time, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate really feels like it could be strongest entries in the series, even at this early stage. There's a lot more playtime I need to work my way through before I can say that for sure, but my early impressions of the game are fantastic.

In my review, which is coming up soon, I plan to take a deeper look at the World of Light mode and its accompanying Spirit system. I'll also be covering modes like Smashdown, Custom Smash, and Squad Strike, which I haven't done much with yet. Finally, I'll be covering the game's online component in-depth, as that's probably the biggest question mark for everyone heading into Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

For now, I can say that Ultimate is a beautiful game that controls well and offers a great experience when you're playing with friends. The core gameplay of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is remarkably solid, but then again, that's what we've been expecting all along. Now it's time to see if the rest of Ultimate can meet the high bar set by previous games in the Smash Bros. series, which is no small task.