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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

Some parts of the latest Smash Brothers hold it back from greatness.

by William Schwartz

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for Nintendo Switch is equal parts greatness and lacking.  It triumphs in Nintendo’s strengths and revels in their weaknesses.  It has more engaging content than any Smash game before it, while also being at odds with itself in the best way to deliver said content to the player.  In true Nintendo fashion, they do it their way and it works about as often as it doesn’t.

At its core, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a party game.  A game that you can sit on the couch and play with friends with easy to pick up fighting gameplay that also requires some platforming acumen.  Ultimate is a nostalgic trip down memory lane with an insane roster of characters on a bevy of classic stages, with some of the best visuals and sounds that we’ve seen from any game on a Nintendo platform.  It’s supposed to be the Ultimate Smash experience after all, everyone is here.  And Nintendo does mean everyone.

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The roster of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is massive.  There are over 70 characters with more planned for DLC.  The customization options are endless in terms of which levels you want to play on, with iconic locales from the biggest Nintendo and non-Nintendo franchises in gaming.  The music is also customizable, allowing you to listen to some classic tunes as well.  Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is accessible with a great level of depth.  Whether you’re just in it for the fun of a royal rumble of Nintendo characters or you’re looking to learn the nuances of the deeper characters, there’s something for everyone here.  This is exactly where Smash succeeds.  In this core fighting/platforming gameplay, many have tried to imitate this game, but none have really succeeded. The combination of pick up and play ability, colorful characters that many hold near and dear, and charming visuals and tight controls are second to none.

A huge list of characters, stages, music, and modes to choose from

While Nintendo does offer incredible options in Smash Bros. Ultimate, it reels in this fun by placing limitations on the player every step of the way.  The worst offender is in the character unlock system that they’ve chosen to use.  While 70+ characters sure sounds like a lot, it’s not what you’ll be staring at when you start up the game.  Instead of giving players the ability to play with who they want, they’ve put the majority of the cast behind multiple types of unlocks and don’t really explain how to get them.  The system in place uses a combination of game modes to introduce new characters to the player, and it could take 10’s of hours to unlock them all.  If you were hoping to pick up Ultimate and do what you want, you won’t be able to.  Instead you’ll likely be heading to online guides and forums to figure out just how long it’s going to take to unlock your favorite character.

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It’s clear that Nintendo wanted to force people into the new single player World of Light mode, which introduces them to not only the single player and story side of the game, but to the new Spirits aspect of it as well.  It’s just that, for many people, Smash Bros. isn’t a single player game.  It’s a game that you want to play to enjoy the aforementioned goodness listed above.  Instead, your choices are to try to beat the system by resetting your game over and over, playing through countless, meaningless matches against the CPU or other humans, or grinding through the lengthy World of Light mode which is a single player affair.  Some choice would’ve been nice here other than bad or worse.  Unlocking all characters for certain game modes, like games have been doing for decades, would’ve been nice.  It’s unclear why Nintendo made this choice, but if you’re not up for spending 15-20 hours unlocking characters to get a complete roster or doing ridiculous workarounds to see what’s in the game, I could certainly see the case of people being somewhat put off by the unlock system… I know I was.

The character unlock system seems poorly implemented

World of Light and the new Spirits system is actually pretty good.  It’s a shame that it’s tied directly to unlocking characters.  As far as story modes in fighting games, this is about as good as it gets.  Nintendo bypasses the monotony of story modes in fighting games by shaking things up with a new feature called Spirits.  These add modifiers to your character and to your opponents.  You’ll encounter numerous spirits across the World of Light mode and you’ll fight in battles that can vary wildly in styles and combinations of characters you’ll face.  Couple that with the crazy amount of stages in the game and there’s a good bit of variety here.  There are some problems with World of Light though.  The game mode features branching paths that are roadblocked by finding spirits that can remove things in the overworld that halt your progress.  There’s no real one path to completing the mode and the difficulty of matches can range from mind-numbingly easy and spike up to unbeatable in a moment’s notice.  The reward and thing that keeps you pushing forward are the character unlocks though.  These are the locked Smash characters that you must unlock by beating them in a one versus one match and awakening them from the spell they are under, at which point they will join your roster.

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What World of Light is trying to force you to do is interact with the new Spirits system.  This much is clear and a lot of work has been put into this aspect of the game.  These Spirits allows you to form a party to fight alongside your character.  Spirits can give you special abilities, make you immune to level hazards, or give you weapons or items to start a match, among other things.  Spirits can be summoned, unlocked through winning battles, and dismissed for in-game currency and cores that funnel back into getting more spirits.  It’s really a compelling system, one that you can sink hours and hours into if standard fighting isn’t your thing.  On the side, there’s a spirit bounty board that can also be accessed to fight more of them which can be mixed and matched with your World of Light spirit roster to help you progress.  All in all, the World of Light is a very welcome addition to Smash Bros.  However, all of Ultimate really feels disjointed because of it.

There are numerous ways to unlock characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate though.  You can unlock them in all game modes via the familiar Challenger’s Approach, but unlocking characters in modes like Classic or Versus won’t unlock them in World of Light.  You’re basically needing to double dip on the unlock if you want to unlock characters to play in standard modes and World of Light.  However, if you unlock a character in World of Light they will unlock in your other modes.  It all feels unnecessary and completely convoluted just to access the characters to play in a standard match of Smash Bros. Ultimate.  So much so that not all characters are going to even be unlocked by everyone in some cases.  We could definitely see a case where players could give up attempting to unlock such a massive number of fighters.

Nintendo Switch Online has been a big problem thus far

Smash Ultimate is best played as a local competitive game or a single player experience.  Though it has an online mode, the quality of the Nintendo Switch Online network and the actual options available to players is disappointing to put it as lightly as humanly possible.  Fighting games are measured and critiqued for their input lag, latency, and options, and Smash Ultimate scores about as low as you possibly can for a fighting game in 2018.  While this will likely go down as the growth spurt that Nintendo Switch Online needed after launching earlier this year, Nintendo clearly hasn’t sunk the resources into this to make something that is worthwhile and Smash Bros. Ultimate definitely lacks when it comes to giving players options.  It’s easy to say ‘Oh, Nintendo… they are always behind the times’ or that they’re just going to go about online in their own quirky way.  But, there’s been a standard set by the premium online networks that Nintendo just hasn’t reached yet and Nintendo Switch Online just isn’t worth the price of admission at this point, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, or not.  You will find no shortage of lag, game freezes, and slowdown in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and it’s the cardinal sin of an online fighting game.

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Beyond the technical stuff, Smash Online is sorely lacking what online games are really there for in the first place and that’s the ability to play with friends the way that you want to.  Smash sorely lacks here as just being able to play with them is a pain that shouldn’t be.  Super Smash Bros. Ultimate seemingly goes out of its way to make the online experience unenjoyable if just for the inability to do simple things like change your character or find rule sets or stages that you enjoy playing.  This probably could’ve been resolved with some sort of Online Beta, as most games do these days, but instead the customer seems to be the beta participant at this point.

That said, there are going to be different types of Smash Bros. purchasers.  If you’re purchasing this for online, it’s probably wise to wait and see if things get ironed out.  If you’re looking for solo play and are looking to sink hours into the World of Light, it’s highly enjoyable.  If local battling is more your flavor and you don’t mind the lengthy grind of unlocking all the characters, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is an incredible game that could have you absolutely gitty with joy to have Smash back in your life.  If you’re looking for the full package, it’s hard to tell where you’ll fall on this spectrum.  It all depends on what you’re willing to tolerate or overlook in exchange for the good parts.

The Verdict on Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is equal parts greatness and lacking.  There’s plenty to sink your teeth into on the single player side of things and playing with friends locally has never been better. The core fighting experience is as great as its ever been in a game that only Nintendo could do.  Unfortunately, a lot of what’s surrounding it can make Super Smash Bros. Ultimate frustrating.  From the character unlock system(s) to the horrible online experience there are glaring holes in what could be a great game.

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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

  • Available On: Nintendo Switch
  • Published By: Nintendo
  • Developed By: Sora Ltd, Bandai Namco
  • Genre: Fighting
  • US Release Date: December 7th, 2018
  • Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
  • Quote: "Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is equal parts greatness and lacking.  The sheer wealth of content and great gameplay is commended but there are big holes in what could be a great game."
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