If there's a video game that deserves to put the word "ultimate" in its title, it's Super Smash Bros. Its very premise is epic: characters from different Nintendo franchises are all brought together for a fighting game that's equal parts crazy fun and competitive technique. Many years and consoles later, other gaming companies still can't do what Nintendoes. Sony, perhaps the only other platform with a comparatively diverse catalog of beloved characters, tried but couldn't get the gameplay right. Traditional fighters like Street Fighter are arguably more hardcore, but lack the bizarre appeal of matchups like 'Donkey Kong vs. Pikachu.'
Somehow, despite all the ways it shouldn't work, the Smash Bros. series has consistently managed to combine deep game design, blatant fan service, and pure fun into one game. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is probably the closest we'll ever get to a complete package.
The most apparent thing about Ultimate is the size of it all. I really can't think of a single thing creator Masahiro Sakurai forgot. Every character from previous games, even Pichu, has returned and brought several newcomers. Past stages, from blocky N64 Hyrule to frustrating Hanenbow, return, with few exceptions (no one wanted PokéFloats back, apparently). There's a fairly robust single-player campaign that's brimming with Nintendo easter eggs. You can save custom rulesets for multiplayer, a tournament organizer's dream. The game is even a darn music player, with hundreds of songs spanning decades of video game history. And, on top of all of this returning and asked-for content, Ultimate still manages to surprise. Piranha Plant is a DLC fighter, for Petey Piranha's sake.
The core experience is the same as it's ever been. You take up arms (or paws, or swords) and try to outmaneuver your opponents and rack up damage. Once your foe accumulates enough punishment, you can send them flying offscreen. Over the years, some tweaks have been made to the formula to pull it in different directions. Brawl infamously made the action slower to appeal to the Wii's more casual audience. Smash for Wii U added flat omega stages to please the more competitive crowd. Ultimate adds things for both, but mostly chooses to address the desires of hardcore players.
This game is full of quality-of-life changes meant to streamline future tournaments. Rule sets, such as "no items" and "3 stock," can be saved so that they don't have to be fiddled with each time the game is turned on. Stage selection now happens before character selection so that matches can be more strategically planned. Every one of the 103 stages is available from the start, and can be put into omega mode or battlefield mode to ensure a fair uniformity. Essentially, Ultimate makes it much easier to set up a series of consistent matches.
Even so, Sakurai didn't forget to have some fun. New items appear to wreak havoc in casual play, such as a fake smash ball that explodes when you break it. There's also stage morph, a total gimmick where the battlefield shifts into an entirely different stage mid-match. These changes don't revolutionize the game, but they do add another sprinkle of chaos to already crazy party matches.
There's plenty to do once the party ends. When playing solo, you've got two big options. First is the standard set of games like classic mode and multi-man smash. Classic mode is a particular highlight this time around because it presents unique challenges for specific fighters. For instance, Kirby's classic mode culminates in a boss battle against the terrifying Marx, an actual boss from his games.
The bigger single-player experience by far is the new Spirits mode. Part story mode, part collect-a-thon, Spirits add yet another way for beloved Nintendo characters to make an appearance in Smash. There are over 1,000 of these spirits to collect, by fighting them of course, meaning that the references cut very deep. Yes there's Bullet Bill and Dragonite. But there's also Mach Rider and the hockey players from NES Ice Hockey.
It's this vast amount of references that really sells Spirits mode. The World of Light, where the story takes place, is an amalgamation of various Nintendo lands. There's a lava castle, outer space, and even a digital maze reminiscent of Pac-Man. This world is teeming with spirit-possessed fighters, all with their own clever battles. Getting Detective Pikachu's spirit, for example, means fighting four Pikachus at once. Only one of them is the "real" Pikachu you have to KO. You have to use your sleuthing skills to deduce which one that is.
World of Light is an addictive experience.
Since you never know what bizarre battle condition or reference the next spirit will bring, I fell into the eternal trap of "just one more spirit." Even after you exit the World of Light, there's the Spirit Board. This is a collection of spirits you can challenge at will. But they rotate every 5-15 minutes, so I always found myself checking the board just before I put the game down.
For all Ultimate gets right, there is one glaring problem. Nintendo still can't provide a good online Smash experience. Ultimate can get laggy at times, but the true crime is the matchmaking system. Our own Daniel Alvarez covered it in depth here, but the gist is that there is no proper way to 1v1 random opponents for rank. All the game does is provide you the option of searching for "preferred rules." Even then, it seems to ignore your preference in favor of shoving you into a four-player free-for-all as quickly as it can.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is so massive it should buckle under its own weight. We often hear such complaints about the big open-world game of the year. Either there's so many things to collect that it gets overwhelming, or the story takes so much focus that there's not enough collectibles to justify the attempted scale. Ultimate defies the odds by reaching that sweet spot in the middle where there's tons of content and it's all meaningful. Every mode is satisfying in its own way. If Nintendo would only get its online matchmaking together, this could be a perfect game.
A copy of the game was purchased by The Gamer for this review. It's available now for Nintendo Switch.
4.75 out of 5 stars.