From its humble Nintendo 64 beginnings, Super Smash Bros. has been a delightful neutral zone for players looking for top-tier competition as well as friends who just want to kick back and watch Princess Peach knock the stuffing out of Bowser. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the culmination of everything that’s come before, offering a massive roster of classic characters and stages and subtle additions that make the game feel fresh. Whether you haven’t played Smash since your dorm-room days or you breathlessly await each new entry, Ultimate is not to be missed.
One reason why the Smash Bros. series has been so successful is that it’s one of those games where the old “easy to learn, difficult to master” cliché applies. In that way, Ultimate maintains its reputation as being one of the best party games around. It’s a great equalizer, with characters that are recognizable and memorable, and above all else it’s fun to play. Ultimate adds some new faces to the proceedings, like Animal Crossing’s Isabelle, Metroid’s Ridley, and the Inklings from Splatoon. I like seeing some new blood (even if it’s never spilled), but none of the new ones fully clicked with me. Isabelle comes closest, feeling like a fresh variation on Villager, but I kept getting drawn back to my old mainstays including returning favorite Pichu.
Ultimate’s new World of Light solo mode wisely doesn’t try to shoehorn platforming elements or push too far beyond the core of what Smash does best. Instead, you navigate a large map and take on themed challenges. The gimmick – and it’s a pretty good one – is that you’re freeing the spirits of characters who have fallen to a mysterious force. The spirits represent a vast array of characters from the world of gaming, the majority of whom aren’t represented as playable heroes in the roster. For instance, one spot on the map might have you saving a goron chief from Ocarina of Time, aka a giant, tan-furred Donkey Kong. Or a battle against Snorlax might have newcomer King K. Rool taking on the role of the slumbering Pokémon. Basically, imagine the playable cast cosplaying a wide array of other gaming characters. I spent dozens of hours in the mode, and I was continuously surprised by how creative the developers got in finding doppelgangers for these matches.
Once liberated, the spirits are added to your roster and provide buffs for your hero. Exploring the World of Light can be a little tough at the start, but by methodically battling across the map I slowly accrued gear that made me feel like I was gaming the system in the best possible way. Battles aren’t quite as scary when you have spirits that counteract the burning effects of a stage’s lava hazards and also give you a powerful weapon or regenerating health at the start of the match. You can train your spirits in dojos and send them on expeditions, too, leveling them up for more power and adding yet another fun twist.
Your collection of spirits can also migrate over to classic Smash modes, which further transforms the game. You want to use two final smashes with every activation? How does an extra jump sound? I’ve always enjoyed the barely contained chaos that Smash brings, so these extra enhancements are welcome. If the spirits seem like too much, plenty of other under-the-hood tweaks can customize the experience. The most noteworthy addition is creating and saving your own custom rule sets, which are then surfaced on the main Smash menu. As someone who only plays matches with stock lives, this fixes a small but longstanding issue. Now I can dive into matches at the press of a button instead of having to fiddle around with menus. Another cool new option is the ability to earn final smashes by filling a meter instead of breaking the smash ball. It changes the tenor of matches, since players can focus on their opponents as opposed to the floating object.
Single player is better than ever, but solely playing against the CPU is a sad existence. Unsurprisingly, Ultimate’s multiplayer component shines. Local co-op is great, with up to eight players fighting at once (or even more, though not simultaneously, with the return of tournament play). If you don’t have the controllers for that kind of gathering or your Smash crew has scattered over the years, online is a viable alternative. The four-way matches fill up quickly, though it falters where it actually matters. The framerate and overall stability is inconsistent, which is frustrating in a game that depends so heavily on reaction time. I had more than a few otherwise-preventable deaths after the game hiccupped as I was on my way back to terra firma. Ultimately, however, Smash is best played with your friends piled into the same space, where you can shout, cheer, and taunt with impunity at every close match.
Once all the characters are unlocked, the character-select screen is a magnificent thing to behold, with every character from the previous games present. However, getting them to show up is another thing entirely. When you start, you’re given eight measly heroes to choose from. It’s a seemingly clever nod to the modest starting roster from the Nintendo 64 game that started it all. Once I was done chuckling at the familiar lineup, the realization that I was going to have to unlock more than 60 remaining characters set in. New faces pop in whether you’re playing regular matches with friends, classic battles against A.I., or in the World of Light mode, but it’s an unnecessarily tedious and antiquated process.
Ultimate is a tremendous package overall, including just about everything a Smash fan could want. Sure, there are a few omissions; the lack of a home-run challenge hurts, and I would have loved to see an updated take on the Poké Floats stage (or the ability to create my own). The biggest fault in this close-to-comprehensive collection is perhaps the flipside of one of its strengths: For all the new things it brings, it’s all very familiar. As fun as they are to play, the handful of new characters don’t have the same pop of novelty that past additions have delivered. It’s a solid lineup, just not one that’s especially surprising beyond its overall scale.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate isn’t dramatically reinventing the franchise, but that’s all right with me; it’s a refinement of what’s come before. Some of my favorite gaming moments have centered on Smash, and it’s great to have a solid new anchor for moments yet to come – even if it means getting knocked into oblivion by a snoozing Jigglypuff every once in a while.