Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Hands-on with nintendo’s biggest brawler ever
It has become increasingly difficult to shake the feeling that we’ve seen all of this before. No, wait. That isn’t quite right… you know what, we change our mind; it isn’t all that difficult because, well, we have seen all of this before. In fact, we’ve seen it time and time again. Super Smash Bros. is quickly approaching its 20th anniversary and, to celebrate, Nintendo is going all in for the series’ debut on Switch – the roster expanding in such a way that long-time Nintendo fans are likely to feel a little dizzy in the head – though it isn’t necessarily doing so in the way that we had once anticipated.
Where we’ve seen Nintendo strive for innovation in the past two years, allowing The Legend Of Zelda to fully lean into a modern open-world design model and Super Mario to wholeheartedly embrace its inherent weirdness, we were admittedly a little taken aback to find that the publisher’s crossover brawler feels so damned familiar. In an environment where Nintendo is striving for ingenious makeovers of its flagship franchises, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate just feels a little safe – designed to placate large swaths of the player base.
Given the fractured nature of the Smash Bros community, that statement is likely to draw a degree of ire from certain camps. There’s always been a suggestion that Smash Bros could be a major player in the competitive/esports scenes, were it not for the fact that its players continue to squabble over which version should be standardised for tournament play. So, let’s attempt to break all of this down before all hell breaks loose; Ultimate is effectively a deluxe version of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, albeit an iteration with enough tweaks under the hood to make it lean a little closer to Melee, with respect to game speed, advanced mechanics and general flow.
On a broader level, that means you should expect yet another competitive brawler that attempts to strike an unholy balance between complexity and accessibility, packed with so much fan service that your eyes will struggle to settle on any one detail in amongst the chaos that is the Smash Bros. traditional combat loop. The question of whether Nintendo would take the launch of new hardware as an opportunity to usher in some serious mechanical and system-end changes to Smash Bros. has been answered with a metaphorical shrug from co-developers Sora Ltd and Bandai Namco Studios. This particular studio collaboration, the one that brought us Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS – reuniting under the stewardship of long-time director Masahiro Sakurai – has instead decided to deliver the ultimate version of that old familiar formula.
That’s meant literally, rather than figuratively by the way. Regardless of where it is that your loyalty lies in the Smash Bros. community, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything to rally against here on a surface level. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate plays smoothly, looks gorgeous and, yes, it features every single character that has appeared in a Smash game to date, along with pretty much every stage worth caring about included from day one too.
That means we are seeing the return of fan-favourite third-party characters, such as Bayonetta, Cloud Strife, Ryu, Solid Snake and Sonic – a legal wrangling that sounds as if it has pushed Sakurai to the brink. With the promise of so many characters stretching the pantheon of Nintendo franchises we’re also seeing a ton of overlap, with multiple variants of certain characters wading into the fray.
There are, for example, three versions of Link available, drawing from Breath Of The Wild, A Link Between Worlds (Toon Link) and Ocarina Of Time (Young Link), while the rowdy bunch from Fire Emblem have seen their visuals updated to better reflect their most recent appearances on Wii U. We’re also seeing Nintendo introduce a handful of harmless palette swaps, with Daisy echoing the moveset of Peach with a few mild alterations introduced to change up play in subtle ways.
What we are looking at here is 65 playable characters. For us to receive a ridiculous roster such as this, perhaps it should be expected that certain elements of the game would have to stay the same. Nintendo is reusing as many animations and character models as it possibly can, with the art style itself almost identical to Smash Bros. on Wii U – save for some tweaks made to better support the updated textures and stage lighting thanks to the technology available in the Switch.
It’s out of character for Nintendo to deliver something like Ultimate. The company rarely pursues traditional sequels, but that seems to have been a necessity to support the development of such a large game. This isn’t a leap like we’ve traditionally seen between something like Melee and Brawl, but rather it’s more akin to the gradual lines of iteration we see so commonly from Capcom – the Smash Bros. equivalent of a Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo to Street Fighter 2, if you will.
That’s not to say that Sora isn’t pursuing any mechanical changes to play. The directional air dodge is making a return, although it has been revamped for Ultimate. It is in essence a blend of the systems seen in Melee and Brawl. Characters will once again be able to dodge to the left or right while in the air in an effort to gain a momentum boost (and temporary intangibility), though restrictions have been put in place to ensure that it can’t be overused – using any combination of a dodge, air dodge or roll in quick succession will drastically decrease the amount of invincibility frames gained. It means it’s a viable option to get out of harm’s way in a pinch, but continued survival is more dependent on spacing and avoiding attacks with your basic slate of movement mechanics.
We can also confirm, after getting our hands on an updated build, that the wavedashing technique – a popular competitive move in
Melee that allows players to effectively air dodge diagonally from the ground to gain momentum and quickly cover ground – is not possible in Ultimate. Wavelanding is still a possibility – air dodging down to a platform from the air to quickly slide across it – though the combination of considerable landing lag and the increased array of moves that can now be dash-cancelled call into
question its viability as a competitive technique. Still, it’s early days yet and we are only just beginning to grasp what changes are being made with respect to hitstuns, knockbacks, shielding and smash attacks. One point worth noting is that the Final Smash super moves have been greatly improved, having much less impact on the flow of play without losing their cinematic edge.
Our play session would also seem to indicate that random stage hazards play a bigger role than ever before – casual players like nothing more than a big mess of chaos, apparently – although Nintendo has indicated that the final game will indeed come with the ability to switch these off and on at will, hopefully meaning Ultimate has more stages in contention at a competitive level. It is, in fact, little tweaks such as this that would indicate Nintendo is ready to pour more support into Smash Bros. as a viable esport – taking the lessons it has learned from Splatoon 2 and applying them here at a development level. The UI has been subtly overhauled in order to more easily (and cleanly) convey information to observers, while the mechanical changes we’ve already gotten our head around seem designed to give competitive players plenty of room to experiment with what’s on offer here.
We said at the beginning that Ultimate feels and looks familiar – and it does – but that statement almost betrays one basic, irrefutable fact: that it’s an absolute pleasure to play. Jumping into a game with a handful of players is still a total delight, and it feels wonderful; the action is smooth and kinetic, a visually noisy game that still manages to retain clarity – it’s an impressive accomplishment, as ever.
Does it matter that Nintendo isn’t taking any major steps to overhaul the brand? Given how entertaining the core play is and how respectful Ultimate is to everything that has come before it, many will argue that it doesn’t matter at all. Ultimate could very well be the best party game on Switch, a competitive fighting game that will hold the attention of the hardcore without keeping the casual audiences that just want to see Fox Mccloud falcon punch Kirby in the face at bay. And really, what more could you ask for from a
Super Smash Bros. game?
“JUMPING INTO A GAME WITH A HANDFUL OF PLAYERS IS STILL A TOTAL DELIGHT. ULTIMATE FEELS WONDERFUL TO PLAY”
we hope you like Pokémon because there are an absolute ton of them in the game, with sora and bandai namco clearly anticipating a lot of Pokémon GO and Pokémon: Let’s Go fans to be enticed into playing.