Super Smash Bros Ultimate
Masahiro Sakurai doesn’t work at Nintendo. It’s easy to forget that, with Super Smash Bros having grown from a secretive side project to become one of the company’s flagship series. Yet there remains a degree of separation; Sakurai is an outsider looking in. Bear that in mind and you can understand why, despite starring so many Nintendo favourites, Smash has never quite felt the same as those other big firstparty games. It has always been an anomaly: faster, weirder, more chaotic, less elegant than its labelmates. Nintendo has historically talked about design by subtraction, creativity prospering through self-imposed limitation. Sakurai, by contrast, has always favoured the kitchen-sink approach. If in doubt, just add more, and then keep adding more besides – and boy, does Ultimate take that approach to extremes. It is a monument to excess. In terms of sheer volume – of characters, features, modes, options, and more – this is surely the biggest game Nintendo has ever published. And never has Sakurai’s MO made as much sense as it does here.
It’s exemplified by the new Spirits mode. Here, it seemed, was a throwaway singleplayer mode, designed to give Ultimate something more than a few new fighters and stages to distance it from the four-year-old Smash Bros U. Not so. Spirits is as generous as it is surprising, inviting you to unlock the full, groaning roster of characters by exploring and steadily demisting a vast, intricate map stuffed with pipes, portals and puzzles – and not just dozens but hundreds of individual fights.
A lavish CG cinematic sets up the story of an evil puppet master, who has enslaved these spirits within marionettes: basically, red-eyed versions of the various fighters. It’s almost as if the cast here are cosplaying as the many characters who didn’t make the cut. Sakurai and Sora have put some serious thought in how best to represent each of the picks. Take Rhythm Tengoku’s Chorus Kids, here played by three Jigglypuffs who constantly sing throughout the battle. A pink Bayonetta equipped with a banana gun makes for the perfect Candy Kong. Then there’s Solid Snake as Hotel Dusk’s Kyle Hyde, in a battle set against the skyscrapers of Fourside at night, with the stage sporadically fogging up. Every fight has clever or comic touches like this, prompting a nod or chuckle of nerdy recognition among those who really know their Nintendo. There’s a bit of cheeky selfawareness on Sakurai’s part, too, with a few spirits seemingly referencing some of the myriad rumours and leaks in the build-up to every Direct. Just wait until you see who’s playing Rayman. Spoilers? Hardly. Not when there are several-hundred similar surprises in store.
Once beaten, these spirits can be equipped for later battles, essentially acting as difficulty modifiers. Primary spirits boost your attack and defensive power, and each comes with empty slots into which you can place support spirits, which convey a bewildering range of effects. If a stage hazard threatens to reverse your controls, there are spirits that will negate that; ditto for poisoned areas, while others resist fire and ice. You might want to increase your dash speed or start with a ranged weapon against an elusive rival. And if all else fails, and you’ve got three slots free, you can just equip yourself with an Ore Club and blow your opponent away. Though some spirit types are stronger against others, combined power trumps all. It’s something to consider before each challenge; likewise the fact that you’ll earn better rewards if you choose to handicap yourself than if there’s a large power disparity in your favour.
You’ll even find hints of Pokémon and Persona in there, with some spirits capable of evolving to more powerful forms when they reach maximum level, albeit resetting to level one in the process. Others can only be made by fusing the cores from two or more unwanted spirits. Again, there’s an underlying logic: to get Star Fox’s General Pepper, you’ll need the cores of Metal Gear’s Roy Campbell and a Labrador Retriever from Nintendogs. And if they still aren’t giving you the attributes you need, you can retrain them at dojos scattered across the map.
The level of granularity is absurd, since it’s your fighting skills that fundamentally determine the outcome. Yet it would be wrong to say the effects aren’t noticeable: especially on the harder fights, the right spirits can mean the difference between a humbling defeat and a squeaky triumph. If you’re less invested in the process, or simply finding it too time-consuming, an auto-select lets you cycle between recommended loadouts. Either way, eventually you’ll have enough spirits to cope with pretty much anything thrown your way, including the various stage hazards. Though, as ever with Smash, there’s no accounting for the luck of the item drops.
It is quite ludicrously large. After a full morning we’d uncovered a tiny fraction of the map on Normal difficulty. By the end of a solid two days’ play, we’d visited every corner, the fog having lifted entirely – and without wishing to give the game away, that’s by no means the end. It’s almost too much, in the best possible way. If Smash has seemed like a game to dip into every now and again – and for all its size, Spirits can easily be enjoyed in short bursts – here’s a mode that puts it alongside the biggest games on other consoles, giving it a long-term hook for solo players it hasn’t really had before. A few may miss those extravagantly daft cutscenes, but in every other sense it trumps Brawl’s Subspace Emissary.
More importantly, it compensates for the lack of a training mode in the 3DS and Wii U versions, too. By forcing you into so many diverse scenarios against the full range of characters, it invites you to adapt to different combat situations and techniques. Stamina matches against opponents with super armour will
In terms of sheer volume this is surely the biggest game Nintendo has ever published
teach you how to get in and out without taking hits; after several battles against the clock you’ll know exactly how to deal with opponents that guard or run away a lot. And by limiting you to the characters you’ve unlocked, it gives you the opportunity to get to know ones that might not be your favourites. The effort to attain new ones tempts you to use them straight away – and even if, after a while, you return to a comfortable fallback, it gives you greater knowledge of this huge roster. Elsewhere, there’s a mode that pulls a similar trick, putting you in for a series of battles but banning characters you’ve already used.
You could argue that Ultimate makes you work a little too hard to get your hands on the newcomers. Animal
Crossing’s Isabelle might well be the pick of the fresh faces, and not just for the wonderful moment where she and three clones are cast as Ouendan’s cheerleaders. She’s got a multi-purpose fishing rod, which can reel opponents in (the bait can be cast and left for a little while if no one’s near) before she flings them away, and which doubles as a recovery move, latching onto edges as a last resort. Castlevania’s Simon Belmont has the stilted, deliberate walk of his 2D counterpart, but with a chain with decent range and a cross that can be thrown sideways or lobbed forwards in an arc, he’s well worth mastering. Of the big boys – all archetypically slow but powerful – fire Pokémon Incineroar is a solid grappler, while King K.Rool can stomp opponents into the ground, leaving them temporarily incapacitated, and ripe for smashing. Splatoon’s Inklings are a tricksy option, splattering others to steadily deplete their health, but requiring space to top up their supply; still, their squid jump is a handy way out of a jam.
There are yet more spirits available through timelimited events, though their challenge matches their rarity, and you’ve only got one shot to earn them. In truth, there are ways and means to get a second chance, but that sense of playful risk is a near-constant in Ultimate. It’s there, too, in Classic mode, where each character gets a campaign comprising six battles, a bonus game and a climactic boss encounter. Here, you’re presented with a giant scrolling mural of all the characters. The more you up the ante, the more you’ll see of it, and the better the rewards you’ll earn. Yet if Sora is keen for players to challenge themselves to improve, it’s more than happy to accommodate newcomers: alongside the usual handicaps, there’s now an ‘underdog boost’ that increases attack power for struggling fighters. To list and explain all the modes and options would probably take us the entirety of the Play section. Suffice it to say, if you can’t find a way to enjoy Ultimate then you’re probably not looking hard enough – and when even the menus are snappy and enjoyable to navigate, why wouldn’t you?
Ultimate doesn’t solve all Smash’s problems. Yes, Bayonetta’s been nerfed, but it’s still extremely tempting to spam Pikachu’s comically effective down-special, and those Gust Bellows are still deeply, deeply annoying unless you’re the one wielding them. But it’s harder than ever to resist embracing the chaos, because with so many ingredients it’s bound to surprise you more often than not. As its title suggests, this is a sequel that pulls out all the stops, as you sense that Sakurai is going all-out to indulge his inner nerd for maybe the final time. It’s a rapturous celebration, not just of Nintendo, but videogames as a whole. Now for pity’s sake, let the poor man have a rest.
Land a powerful smash and the camera sometimes zooms in to the point of impact. The screen darkens, the sound dampens and the action freezes. Reminiscent of FireEmblem’s critical hits, they make for an exciting flourish