early twenty years after the first Super Smash Bros, the core appeal of Nintendo’s raucous fighter remains the same: being able to give Pikachu a good shoeing. Or using Donkey Kong to ground Fox McCloud by headbutting him into the dirt. Or allowing Princess Peach her ultimate revenge, belting Bowser into the stratosphere using a baseball bat.
But in contrast to the ability for Nintendo characters to impart cartoonish violence on one another, Super Smash Bros. is also a celebration. A party to which anyone or anything that has graced a Nintendo console is invited, and the entertainment is a few bouts of gloriously over-the-top pugilism.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is no different, of course. And in fact, as the name suggests, is the most concentrated interpretation of the form. There is an almost bewildering amount of wonderful stuff and nonsense, making the Nintendo Switch’s big Christmas game riotously good fun for anyone that cares to get involved.
You do have to choose your battles, however. Despite the reverence for Nintendo history, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is one of the more unlikely games the Japanese developer creates. The accessible but deceptively deep brawling isn’t necessarily for everyone, while its kitchen-sink approach could be overwhelming for those that don’t already have a commitment.
There are a ton of options for casual players to have a blast, of course, but Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a game that is unashamedly for the fans. At its heart it remains the same; up to eight fighters duke it out on themed-stages, thumping each other until they have suffered enough damage to be launched out of the stage (or drained of their set health in more specific settings).
As a fighting game, Super Smash Bros. brilliantly captures the essence of each of its extraordinary 74 characters. The monstrous heft of Bowser as he stomps across the stage breathing fire. The zip of Sonic the Hedgehog. Pac-Man throwing out a dot, chasing it down to chomp on anyone that gets in his way. Sword-fighters from Fire Emblem. Even Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter are well served, retaining much of their recognisable martial arts move-set and sitting happily alongside bulbous pink pals in Kirby and Jigglypuff. Ever wanted to Dragon Punch Luigi? Fill your boots.
Of course, pulling off special moves is a whole lot easier in Smash than Street Fighter, with actions assigned to a press of the B button and the four directions. No chance of botching complex inputs here, but Smash’s combat depth as always come in spatial awareness, timing and anticipation. Learning the reach and impact of both your moves and your opponents. Most people will be able to jump in and have a blast due to the simplicity of the controls and general bonkers attitude, but getting good at Smash Bros. takes just as much learning for its attacks and counter-attacks as any other high-level fighter.
I imagine it’s easy to be snobbish about a game that revels in its own peculiarity as a competitive venture. But Smash Bros. is a firm fixture on the fighting game esports circuit. And with a few mechanical tweaks, it feels like Nintendo are acknowledging its more technical side to improve the core fighting and let newcomers in on more advanced techniques.
Along with a lot of consideration to the balance of some fighters, combatants now have a weight when running head on to each other, able to push back rather than ghost through each other. The short-hop attack, an advanced technique for expert fighters, can now be activated by pressing jump and attack together. And air dashes, sending a character spinning out of trouble mid-jump, are now activated at the press of the button. There is also a proper training stage too, allowing you to practice and work out the power and launch distance of individual moves.
Quite apart from being an appeal to high-level play, these tweaks (along with a host of smaller UI and quality of life changes) make Ultimate feel better to play, whether its a one-on-one skirmish between two players or a bananas eight-player free-for-all with the item frequency turned up. Simply put, the action is the best it has ever been.
That applies to the content on offer that wraps around the action. The appeal of fully-customisable multiplayer brawls is obvious (and technically impressive too, the Switch easily handling eight player brawls at their most hectic). But there is an extraordinary wealth of content for the single-player too.
Its main adventure, World of Light, is an absolutely massive RPG-themed sprawl. The malevolent ‘Galeem’ has captured and corrupted almost the entire population of the Smash Bros. multiverse, with the exception of expert death-dodger Kirby. You begin as the puffy pink pugilist, wandering a vast map to take on the corrupted fighters, adding them to your character select screen as you best them.
But between liberating Bayonetta and Captain Olimar, you also fight against ‘Spirits’. These are characters from across the video game universe that aren’t necessarily represented in the fighter roster. Nintendo do their bonkers best to represent each. Rabbid Mario isn’t a selectable character, but is represented as a spirit by Mario in a American outfit and bunny ears. The fiery beast Twinbellows from Kid Icarus is a giant Yoshi with a curry-filled belly, constantly belching flame. No corner of Nintendo’s history is too niche for exploration, with the variety kept up by the inventiveness of how each spirit is represented.
Once beaten, a spirit can be added to your loadout, giving you various buffs and nerfs to counter some of the effects and powers of the spirits you face. They can be evolved with experience and ‘snacks’ collected on your journey, while a sprawling skill-tree offers you permanent boosts as you go on. The map, too, needs to be unpacked, with certain spirits opening up previously inaccessible routes.
It is kind of weird and often maddingly overwhelming, but offers a generous and riotously fun focus for the solo player. Adventure joins Classic Mode, which has one fighter taking on their own selection of opponents and boss battle. Each of the 74 combatants has their own progression, with Pikachu working his way through Pokemon opponents like Lucario and newbie Incineroar. And, of course, there are the one-shot challenges. Battling off 100 combatants in a fight for survival, or belting a punchbag as far as it will go.
Solo players have never had it better, basically. And Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as a package is remarkably generous even before the online servers are turned on. In fact, for the more casual player, it might simply be too much. It may seem odd to complain about a game providing too much content, but occasionally it can feel like Super Smash Bros Ultimate can trip over its own excess.
Unlocking characters, for instance, can be a familiarly laborious process. Fighters awakened in World of Light join the main roster, which starts at the original eight, and you will also be challenged by new fighters to unlock periodically as you play throughout the game as a whole.
With such an extensive roster and substantial solo mode, working your way to a full selection of characters is going to take a significant amount of time. Characters do appear at a regular clip, but you can expect to put in a lot of playtime before you can even access some of the new characters like King K Rool or Ridley. It might be enough to put off players looking at Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as a pick-up-and-play party game, even if the action it provides can facilitate just that.
For dedicated fans, though, such a challenge will doubtless prove appealing. Super Smash Bros Ultimate, for all its accessibility and riotous multiplayer fun, may be one of the few mainstream Nintendo games that isn’t necessarily for everyone. But that’s okay. Because in pursuing its more technical elements and providing its most substantial solo adventure yet, it’s hard to see Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as anything other than a series’ best.