Since its release, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has been the only game I played on my Switch. I sank many hours into it and many more will follow, but the “ultimate” subtitle carries with it a lot of weight. Is this to be the final entry in the famed cross-over fighting series? Will there be an Ultimate 2? And if not, is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate worthy of being the final game in a series cherished by millions of gamers.
Beyond Light and Darkness
I am going to have to be a bit of a buzzkill here and express how immensely saddened I was by the new World of Light mode included. Melee gave us a wonderful adventure mode that had us fight its roster of characters while enjoying 2D platforming stages that pay homage to the series included in Smash. Brawl would take this and write an enormous story around it, creating a cheesy but epic journey through all the Nintendo worlds. Ultimate teased something similar ahead of its release, but the actual Adventure mode is entirely lackluster.
Starting with a beautiful cutscene that sees every fighter wiped out at the hands of a new foe, we start off as Kirby who managed to escape. We are placed on a massive board with roads that lead to combat encounters and sub-worlds with their own maps. It’s a massive amount of content that just keeps expanding each time you think you’re just about to finish it up, but I don’t measure my enjoyment of the game by how long it is. I spent like 20 hours in this mode and it was just grinding through fights, with only a handful of short cutscenes in-between to form something resembling a storyline.
The battles you do are part of Ultimate’s absolutely baffling “Spirit” system, which is kind of an evolution of Brawl‘s stickers that I assumed had gone abandoned. Each battle on the map (or Spirit Board) will have you battle a familiar character from the roster reworked to be a reference to another character entirely. So you might, for example, be up against Dr. Wily who is represented by a Dr. Mario backed up by a bunch of retooled Megamen to act like Robot Masters.
When you win, you can then use these spirits yourself and gain extra powers/resistances alongside a flat boost to your attack and defense. It’s not as asinine as the stickers were, but the fun in battling characters that didn’t make it into the game proper runs out quickly when you realize Smash Ultimate has hundreds of them lined up for you. Some are so pathetic that fights last shorter than the loading screens while others are insufferably difficult, if not nearly impossible without a Spirit that completely cancels out the gimmick. The worst was Pauline, which is a battle on a tight timer where you have to defeat a Peach on 75 M who only runs away, while an overpowered Mario and DK chase you down.
Of course, the actual combat mechanics are much refined and once I finished up the World of Light and started playing against my friends and family, Ultimate proved itself the perfect game for the Switch. I have had people come over with their own Switches to effortlessly set up multiplayer games and have at each other. Each character has a good feel to it, creative moves that fit their role in their own games, and an effort has been made to diversify clones like the various Links.
This comes on top of new inclusions and future DLC. Every fighter from every previous game is here and ready to rumble once again. New inclusions like Ridley, King K. Rool, and the Streetfighter lads certainly make for welcome additions, even if most people are going to be complaining about which ones are overpowered. Smash Ultimate is also easygoing about character unlocks, which can either be done via Classic, the adventure mode, or via random battles, ensuring that everybody is able to get the full roster so long as they play something.
With that said, the game is, once again, lacking in content. For actual multiplayer, it has customizable rules and a flexible tournament mode, which are both up to standard. For singleplayer there is the World of Light and a new Classic Mode, which sees players go through a series of battles specific to each character. This amounts to little more than deciding the order of a few fights, with a mini-game to round off the penultimate stage, followed by one of the boss fights from the World of Light as a finale.
It’s serviceable and the bosses are fun to fight again, plus it uses a system where you reveal more of a mural the higher you set the difficulty and the better you perform. However, it is short and the mini-game is the same for every character. The game also entirely lacks staples like the Homerun Contest and Hit the Target, though it does bring its own variation of the horde-style mode where you must fend off a mob of enemies. The result is that I pretty much never play Ultimate unless I get visitors and, if it wasn’t for my determination to clear the World of Light, that would have amounted to little more than a few hours of gameplay time by now.
For its multiplayer content, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is very much a must-have on the Switch, but if you don’t want to pay for online and aren’t sure if anybody with a Switch can visit for some games, then I’d seriously consider how much mileage you think you’ll get out of the World of Light.
Gameplay score: 6/10
I won’t waste too much time going into the game’s visuals because those are unsurprisingly fine. It’s not much of a step up from the Wii U version, but it once again delivers a colorful and exciting game. All the characters look great and the animations for all the attacks are diverse, though it can get chaotic on busier stages with multiple fighters. I’ve been playing these games for years and can hold up fine, but some newer players and people watching me play remarked that they couldn’t make sense of it.
The real awesome part is the game’s massive soundtrack, which compiles hundreds of tracks across Nintendo history, as well as music from a vast amount of other franchises. Castlevania, Street Fighter, Metal Gear, there are so many songs in here, both straight ports from the game’s themselves, as well as remixes. I gotta admit, fighting to the beat of a remixed Galaga theme or playing on the Castlevania stage with Dance of Gold playing is amazing stuff.
Ultimate also pushes the games further with its incredible boss-fights and new stages, which have more going on than ever before. I am also really fond of the intricately designed mural for the Classic mode and the massive map designed for the World of Light campaign.
Presentation score: 9.5/10
Not even a participation trophy
A staple of the Smash series since their introduction in Melee, the trophies have always been a fun collectible. These 3D renders of characters and places were earned through play and investing coins in mini-games, but Ultimate does away with them in favor of the Spirit system. Taking the trophies and giving them a gameplay benefit is well and nice, but the Spirits make for poor replacements. Their biggest flaw is that they don’t have the bits of lore the trophies had, which reduces them to just an image. I discovered many games through the trophy system in the past and now that more series are included than ever before, their absence strikes me as especially shameful.
The lack of trophies also means there is no trophy mini-game. Instead, players can buy them in the shop, clear the World of Light, or battle semi-random assortments of the spirits on the Spirit Board. It’s repetitive and, even after winning, players have to do a little timing mini-game to actually get the spirit. There are items available to make this easier, but winning a tough battle against a legendary spirit, only to then miss the shot and not have any items to get a retry, will quickly drain your enthusiasm for collecting these spirits.
Extras score: 3/10
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a game of compromises. It’s “Ultimate” in the sense that it has all the characters, but if Nintendo ever releases a new game, it will merely be Super Smash Bros. for Switch. The spirit system is bothersome and no replacement for the trophies, the World of Light campaign is ambitious, but its bloated nature will mean few people will ever want to replay it. The original, Melee, and Brawl were all games adding in more features and creative ideas. Even the 3DS and Wii U games have their place in history with their unique modes.
Ultimate, despite its name, is the most stripped down version of Smash we have seen in years, and its attempts to make up the difference with sheer content fall flat. Unless future DLC adds huge chunks of content to the game, it will just exist to scratch that (local) multiplayer itch until the next one comes out.