Super Smash Bros Ultimate review: Greatness within reach

Eric Abent - Dec 20, 2018, 1:44 pm CDT
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Super Smash Bros Ultimate review: Greatness within reach
Editors' Rating: 9/10
Pros
  • Everyone is here and it's awesome
  • Ultimate looks fantastic
  • Local multiplayer is a blast
Cons
  • Online modes leave a lot to be desired and need work

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is here and it’s unquestionably the biggest Switch game of the year. While every Smash Bros. release is a major event, there’s a certain excitement for this one, as all fighters that have ever appeared in a Smash Bros. game are returning for Ultimate. Pair that roster, which now includes more than 70 characters, with a map pool that climbs over 100, and we’ve got quite the massive game on our hands. Even though it sounds like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a balancing team’s worst nightmare, it’s definitely exciting for us veterans who have been playing since the first game. It begs the question, though: Can you have too much of a good thing?

I can tell you right now that, at least as far Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is concerned, the answer to that question is “obviously not.” I have no clue what kind of implications a roster this size has for the competitive metagame, but regardless, it is wonderful to see all of these Smash Bros. characters in one place. In fact, I get a feeling playing this game that I don’t think I’ve felt since Super Smash Bros. Melee.

Yes, Melee, that eternal high water mark of the Super Smash Bros. series. Melee’s resurgence and enduring popularity as a competitive game is truly astounding, and though I’m not exactly someone who has their finger on the pulse of the Smash competitive scene, I can certainly claim hundreds – if not thousands – of hours of Melee play for myself over the years.

In the time since then, no other Smash game has managed to hold my attention as long or as strong as Melee did. I’ve owned all of them – Brawl, SSB 3DS, and SSB Wii U – and though I enjoyed the time I spent with them, they were very casual experiences for me. I could tell within an hour of booting up Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for the first time that this game would be different.

That old spark that made Melee such an addicting and enjoyable experience for me has returned for me with Ultimate. There are a variety of reasons for this – the full roster makes this feel like a game you can really sink your teeth into, a feeling that’s only compounded by how much you can do in this game.

On top of that, the Switch is once again proving its value as a platform with this game. Super Smash Bros. is the perfect game to have on a portable console. True, we already had that with Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, but there’s really no denying the beauty of this game on more powerful hardware. Smash Ultimate looks absolutely gorgeous, and I think the dream of portable Smash Bros. has been fully realized with this iteration.

There is, of course, a feeling a familiarity to be found in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, even beyond the cast of returning characters. Classic Mode, for instance, which has featured in every Super Smash Bros. game in some form, returns once more for Ultimate. This time around, each fighter has a unique series of battles to play through, culminating with a battle against one of a variety of bosses. Classic mode remains a good way to get acquainted with a new character, but I don’t expect anyone to spend the majority of their time with it.

The game’s main local multiplayer mode, Smash, is of course returning in Ultimate as well. As always, it’s here that you can go toe-to-toe with friends in local multiplayer, which is hands down the best way to play this game. Though there is a healthy competitive scene around Super Smash Bros., there are few things better than gathering three friends in the same place and playing some Super Smash Bros. The expanded roster makes that an even better experience in my opinion, because everyone will have access to their favorite fighters.

Just as expected, you have plenty of customization options when it comes to your local Smash matches, whether you want to turn some or all items off, allow fighters to use Spirits (we’ll get to those in a moment), or turn on advanced options like friendly fire in team matches. There are a lot of different customization options to go through, and you can save each individual ruleset you come up with to use later. Want to have a 99 stock battle where Pokeballs drop frequently and the launch rate is cranked up to double its normal amount? You can do that and you can save that ruleset so you can easily play it as much as you want.

If you want particularly zany matches, you can go into the Custom Smash mode, which lets you set parameters such as fighter size, speed, weight, and even the camera angle. Then there’s also things like tournaments, Squad Strike, and Smashdown. In Squad Strike, you and a second player each pick a team of three or five fighters and face off one-on-one, while Smashdown has you fighting your way through the Smash roster, with characters becoming locked after they’ve been used. All of these different modes give Smash Bros. Ultimate a feeling of deep replayability – it’s hard to imagine ever becoming bored with Smash mode, especially if you’re frequently playing with friends.

There’s even some sense of familiarity in the game’s new modes too. New to Ultimate is the single-player story mode called World of Light, which replaces the Subspace Emissary from Brawl and Adventure Mode from Melee. You start World of Light with only Kirby on your roster – the sole survivor of an attack from an enemy named Galeem. Throughout World of Light, you’ll free other fighters on the Smash roster from Galeem’s clutches, so as you might imagine, there’s a lot to World of Light.

The core mechanic in World of Light comes in the form of Spirits. Much of your progression in World of Light centers around defeating and subsequently unlocking Spirits that you can then equip your fighters with. Primary Spirits boost your fighter’s stats and may (or may not) have a certain number of slots that can be used to equip secondary Spirits, which usually grant fighters special abilities (like immunity to sticky arenas or fire resistance, for instance). There are a ton of Spirits in the game, and since each is one of four types that have their own strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be swapping them out for others frequently.

World of Light is a lengthy adventure mode with a huge map. It’s going to take you a long time to work your way through it, and at times, it can feel like something of a slog. Matches against fighters using low-level Spirits are rarely compelling and usually pretty easy, but high-level Spirits tend to offer interesting twists in their match-ups. Some of those matches can be truly difficult as well, so be prepared to get trounced every once in a while.

There are more than 1,000 Spirits in Ultimate, and in a way, collecting them is like collecting trophies in Super Smash Bros. Melee. While I don’t think that World of Light is anything groundbreaking, I did enjoy playing it, if only to see which characters made the cut as Spirits. If you’re the type of person who likes collect-a-thons in games, you’ll probably really enjoy Ultimate’s Spirit system, though I can just as easily see some people ignoring it entirely.

Familiarity, however, is not always a good thing. Nintendo’s online systems are another familiar thing in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and if you’ve played other Nintendo games, you know that isn’t really encouraging.

For what it’s worth, my online experience with Smash Bros. Ultimate hasn’t been awful. Most of my matches have been relatively lag-free, but looking around online, it seems that I might be one of the lucky ones. Obviously, those who aren’t having any problems playing online don’t really have a reason to speak out about it, but still, when Smash’s online goes belly-up, things get bad.

The few times I’ve experienced lag, it’s been gamebreaking, with stuttering and freezing every few seconds. It’s impossible to play when that happens because sometimes the action freezes for several seconds at a time, and even if you manage to win playing like that, it doesn’t feel good. Lag is frustrating in any video game, but in one as fast paced as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it sucks all the fun out of it.

The process of finding a game is also a little strange. Most players will probably just jump into Quickplay, which attempts to find any multiplayer match with other players of similar skill. You can set a preferred ruleset for Quickplay, which is actually really nice, but it’s important to point out that you aren’t guaranteed to find a match that fits those parameters. Even if you’re searching for a 1v1 match with no items, there’s still a chance that you’ll be dropped into a free-for-all against three other players.

Granted, Nintendo did say that Quickplay will do a better job of sticking to preferred rules after the recently-released version 1.2.0 update, and ever since applying that, I do seem to be getting matches that align with my ruleset more often. It’s still jarring to be dropped into a match you didn’t want to play, though, and I’d argue that Nintendo at least needs to add a truly competitive 1v1 mode for people who want it.

If you manage to find someone who isn’t lagging all over the place and is using parameters you enjoy playing with, you can challenge them to a rematch once your game is over. The catch here is that you can’t change your character before a rematch, which is kind of ridiculous for game that’s main selling point is its larger-than-ever roster.

The problem of Quickplay is at least partially solved by Battle Arenas, the second online mode for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Battle Arenas are essentially either public or private lobbies where you can play multiple games in a row online. If you’re looking to play with friends online, you’ll be spending a lot of time with Battle Arenas, as they’re really your only option. Custom match parameters can be set for Battle Arenas too, so if Quickplay is letting you down, you can always search for a public arena that has the specific ruleset you’re looking for (or create one yourself).

There are still some complaints about Battle Arenas, though. Getting your friends into your lobby isn’t as easy as it could be, and for whatever reason, two people playing on the same console can’t play in Battle Arenas together. This is weird, because Quickplay allows two local players to queue up, so why don’t Battle Arenas? Only Nintendo knows this answer.

You walk away from Ultimate’s online mode thinking that things are way more complicated than they need to be. Nintendo is now charging us to play online too, so there’s no excuse for this level of lag or seemingly arbitrary restrictions. Maybe once upon a time we were able to say “well, at least Nintendo isn’t charging me like Sony and Microsoft do” whenever online play was a let down, but now that there’s a fee attached to Switch Online, Nintendo needs to start treating its online modes with more care and consideration.

Verdict

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a near-perfect entry in the series that’s held back by Nintendo’s dated approach to online play. It’s such a shame that Ultimate’s online modes are so hit-and-miss, because everything else about this game is excellent. Ultimate is one of the best local multiplayer games money can buy, and Nintendo should have put more effort into making sure that kind of experience carries over to its online modes.

The hope is that Smash Ultimate’s online modes evolve and get better as time goes on. Nintendo definitely needs to spend some time thinking about how make Smash online more of a seamless experience, because right now, its implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

Without these online problems, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is an easy 10 out of 10. If you’ve got a group of friends to play with, it’s a must-buy for the Switch. There’s plenty here for solo players as well, but as I’ve said multiple times in this review, Smash Bros. really shines when you’re playing with others on the couch. Just temper your expectations when it comes to playing online, because that’s the one blemish on a game that is otherwise incredible.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is available now on Nintendo Switch for $59.99.

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