Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Is a Massive Monument to Itself
The greatest thing about the Super Smash Bros. series is its dedication to impact. Every time a punch, kick, slash, or blast lands, it has a high likelihood of sending the victim flying—like a good superhero movie, or an anime. Every strike resonates with invisible power; smoke plumes follow these cartoon characters as they careen around their environments, almost ready to explode.
For the casual player, Super Smash Bros. has always excelled as a balance of satisfaction and chaos: the joy of Nintendo's best and most interesting characters pummeling each other, fighting against the disorder of items and bodies being constantly flung from one side of the screen to the other. It's like ballet, only with your little brother's action figures, and instead of dancing they're being thrown at your television set. OK, maybe it's not like ballet at all. But it is, in its best moments, graceful.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the fifth iteration of the same basic idea. What happens when you put Nintendo's most popular mascots together in a 2D fighting game emphasizing big, dramatic, goofy play? Series director Masahiro Sakurai wanted to find out, and in 1999 the original Super Smash Bros. was born. What Ultimate adds to that basic premise for the casual player is scale. Ultimate is a sprawling, moving monument—to Nintendo, to videogames at large, to itself.
Seventy-four playable characters. Dozens of stages, spanning nearly every large franchise in videogame history, whether closely coupled with Nintendo or not. Mega Man; Metal Gear; Final Fantasy; hell, even Sega icon and Mario archrival Sonic the Hedgehog is here. Surrounding them are hundreds of remixed music tracks, quiet Easter Eggs, and collectible "Spirits" based on characters from every one of these franchises. In being inclusive of gaming history, Ultimate is also inclusive of Smash history: Every character from every version of the game is here, along with every stage and every song. It's archivism as game design, an art history exhibit painted as a series of brawls.
It's also, in the same vein, a bit of a slog. Ultimate introduces itself as a guided tour through its encyclopedic history; at the beginning, only eight playable characters are unlocked, and they're the first eight available in the original 1999 game. From there, characters have to be unlocked through extended play. At regular intervals, you'll be forced to duel with a new character, unlocking them if you succeed and waiting for a rematch (accessible buried in a menu) if you don't. There are ways to speed up this process, and for a canny, determined player it can take a couple of hours or so. For a player who isn't so savvy or so patient, it can take a lot longer.
This problem gets at the frustration I'm feeling with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate—a game I have, by design, only scratched the surface of, and will likely only ever scratch the surface of. In so many ways, it's impeccable, and like its predecessors,is one of the purest engines of joy in the videogame world. The combat is polished to a fine sheen, and while there are certainly nuances of its design to be picked apart by hardcore players, for the average player engaging with friends it's familiar, responsive, and exciting. Battles pop and soar and crackle, and the wide roster offers an amazing level of variability. It is, in short, fun.
But it also feels barely able to contain itself, torn between its urges as an object of play and its urges as a curatorial project. Its single-player game modes are entirely in the thrall of Ultimate as a museum piece, and that makes them sluggish, overly meticulous, long dizzying stretches of content that provide recollection without substantial payoff. The primary single-player mode, World of Light, is packed with more collectible Spirits than I can reasonably count, and while each one serves as a nice nod to some game in Smash's repertoire, their sheer number and variety cause the mode to balloon out in all directions, dragging down the pace and process.
And slow just doesn't really suit Super Smash Bros. At times, Ultimate feels like a guided tour through a playground—all the fun rides surrounded by red velvet tape. You can get to them, certainly, but only if you take the approved path. The wild joy of the scenery is dampened by the controls placed around it, by the game's slavish devotion to history as both a driver of player progression and an expressive goal for the game to achieve.
This dual interest does, perhaps, make Super Smash Bros. Ultimate impressive. And it absolutely doesn't stop the play from being compelling. But it also creates a dissonance that doesn't entirely work for the series. Videogame history is great—truly, it is. But sometimes, I'm just here for the punching.