Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review: Gameplay Impression, Features, Esports Impact

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistDecember 10, 2018

Nintendo

The "ultimate" in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate seems to imply it's the last rodeo for the historic franchise, or at least the grandest offering possible.   

It's fitting, really, as SSBU is a marvel of a video game and moldable in its ability to be whatever a player wants it to be. Like those that came before it, SSBU can be a casual party game, a competitive global esport, a singleplayer timesink, a collect-a-thon and a museum of all things Nintendo

It builds on the foundation in every respect and does it better than any game before it, hence the word "ultimate." 

Sporting an almost overwhelming amount of content, one of gaming's finest feats—in an accessibility sense and much, much more—is a complete offering worth appreciating.  

          

Graphics and Gameplay

SSBU is a gorgeous, colorful game, not that anyone expected less. 

The full processing power of the Switch is on display here and blows past iterations of the game out of the water. It is amazing to see the game in motion, with something like an Animal Crossing village coming to life in the background of a stage that has moving parts. 

Individual fighters is where the game really shines, as the game seamlessly blends a bevy of different styles at once. A realistic-looking Samus or Snake squaring off with a villager from Animal Crossing while an Inkling from Splatoon splatters the stage in paint, among other variables, all comes together beautifully. 

This applies in handheld mode as well, though things do get harder to track in this format the more the camera zooms out to keep all the fighters in the frame.

Keeping track of the action can be a problem, and while disappointing, it was easy to see coming—if Nintendo couldn't think of a remedy, there probably isn't one. 

And don't dare overlook the 800-track soundtrack that would make K.K. Slider blush. We're talking about original orchestra pieces and scores that span generations of games and styles, all available in a smooth jukebox offering off the main menu. 

In the presentation department, a few quality-of-life enhancements provide a boost to the experience and should make players wonder why they haven't been done before. Something like a slo-mo and zoom on a game-winning hit is brilliant for any setting, casual or competitive, and a mini-map that shows the location of off-screen characters trying to get back to the stage is superb.

Gameplay falls into the "expected" part of the chart as well—which also isn't a bad development. 

SSBU is still a platform fighter that's both customizable and accessible. 

The accessibility of Smash remains and continues to go unmatched. There aren't health bars here, just a percentage that jumps based on damage received. The higher the percentage, the bigger the chance of a stage-departing KO. And while high percentages are scary, Smash still manages to retain the "just one hit" mentality of a match-swinging play—with amazing new visual assists to enhance these moments.

Major changes seem few and far between. The gameplay overall feels faster than before, though a more measured approach is a requirement for climbing competitive ladders because of a weighty momentum system limiting change of direction. Elsewhere, damage in solo fights is upped, and attacking out of a sprint is back on the menu.

For the most part, each character feels unique. Some are copies of others in a sense, but individual movesets create distinct-feeling fighters. The weighty feel of bigger characters and the glass-cannon speed of smaller contestants remains, and it feels more important than before thanks to an uptick in speed. 

Stages give off unique vibes as well, or at least as much as players want them to. Players can choose three different types of format for a stage, including one that is simply flat for a competitive slant, meaning no rotating Metroid stages or trying to dance atop an F-Zero race, to name a few. 

For Nintendo, the hurdle with Smash is always finding a way to strike the right balance between accessibility and competitive upside. Some iterations have been better than others in this regard, but player movement, weight in air (more balloon-esque this time out) and endless options have this playing like the highlight of the series. 

         

World of Light, Features and the Rest

With World of Light, Nintendo attempts to one-up itself in the singleplayer department and largely succeeds. 

The mode boils down to taking a fighter and progressing through a world map littered with bouts kept interesting through various stipulations. Different paths might require a certain spirit or become blocked off in a trial-and-error sort of manner. But the map itself is stunningly captivating, and it smartly offers fitting characters in proper surroundings, so expect to see Captain Falcon on the race track. 

Some of these fights are clever or hilarious, while others are simply annoying because it is four CPU characters against the player.

But the good outweighs the bad, and it is clear the effort was put in to honor some of the biggest moments from these games and essentially act as a guided virtual tour of Nintendo history. 

Spirits are essentially stickers from the past games, in a sense. The scope is staggering. Casual Nintendo fans to the hardest of the hardcore will find joy in simply unlocking these things, and the art style and sheer time that went into them is amazing. Some may clamor for the trophy system of day's past, but the love letter written to fans via detail and the way the spirits weave into gameplay itself makes it an upgrade.

This has a JRPG feel to it, with spirits essentially acting as Pokemon of sorts and providing boosts or immunities or even admission to certain encounters. Mixing and matching the team in an effort to gain an advantage is a great time.

This isn't as deep as Pokemon by any means, but there are three primary spirit types that have advantages and weaknesses, and the player has an expansive skill tree that adds stat bonuses to certain areas, which is a nice depth touch. 

And while this might boil down to luck of the draw, World of Light does lose some of its challenge rather quickly based on the unlocks a player gets. There are around 1,300 spirits, but locking down a few core pieces to build around for almost any sort of encounter doesn't take too long. 

Overall, World of Light can start to feel like a slog. But that could be the initial desire to use it as a means to unlock every character (there are faster ways) and experience everything it has to offer. It's an impressive mode regardless and a gigantic step up from single-player modes in past Smash offerings. Whether it becomes a war of attrition for a player will largely hinge on whether they enjoy the grind and collecting. 

Classic mode is in here as well and personalized in the who and where portion of encounters, with some end bosses even slotting into this description. Link goes on to fight the end bosses from his games, for example. 

As far as the roster goes, it spans the entirety of Smash history and then some. Great new additions like Inkling, Ridley and Animal Crossing's Isabelle add much-needed variety.

The list of "new" isn't the longest, but when we're talking about 70-plus characters spanning Nintendo and other iconic gaming properties, it is hard to complain. Isabelle, for example, is similar to Villager in a lot of ways but distinctive enough to feel fresh, and it is surely a character players will want to main. 

When the new members of the cast innovate, it is must-see material. Inkling asks players to keep track of ink levels. Splashing enemies with it causes more damage and inked parts of the stage slow enemies, creating a brilliant minigame of sorts for a character with depth that is sure to be a new fan favorite. 

How long it can take to unlock a character is refreshing, too. The methods vary, and there's something to be said for not initially booting up the game and being overwhelmed with the sheer number of options.

Starting with a small base roster (the OG Nintendo 64 crew) encourages experimentation and in many cases could lead to discovering new favorites or simply skill improvement. This might be a bummer for someone who wants to throw a Smash party right away, but it is nice to see unlockables mean something in a game again. 

Like characters, there aren't a lot of new stages. But something like Moray Towers out of Splatoon is a standout, even if it feels familiar to existing stages. Adding the fresh to the timeless classics only rounds out a superb, if not sometimes overwhelming list of 103 stage options. 

Now for a "Snorlax in the room" moment. It's impressive in today's gaming environment that the character list wasn't spliced up and hocked as DLC. Granted, with the way Super Smash can shift console unit sales on its own, maybe this isn't too surprising around the holiday season—but we're at the point where it deserves praise nonetheless. 

Anyway, let's not forget other modes. King of Fighters-inspired tag-team battles can set teams of up to five against each other. Tournament is still here, while Super Sudden Death is a good way to bring a play session back to life. 

We'd be remiss not to mention the endless amount of options with toggles, too. Items, timers, stats, Omega competitive-slanted stages and more are all available as tweakable settings.

Controller inputs are just as customizable, ranging from Joy-Con to Pro and even the classic GameCube controller. Handheld sticks out as the only problem in this regard due to the tracking problems at times as well as the smoothness of the joysticks, which makes it hard to have really refined movement adjustments necessary in competitive play. 

And while it seems like a little thing, custom rulesets can be named and saved. Instead of tweaking to a preferred settings stage every time a friend comes over, hops online or a party starts, players can simply flick to a saved setting list and get the ball rolling. Or smashing. 

       

Esports Impact 

A few of the changes and an overall increase in speed should help SSBU regain some of the past glory the series experienced in the esports realm. 

It all boils down to potential with SSBU. Launch movement changing to a quicker slowdown shakes things up a bit. Perfect shield requiring a timing on release, and shields overall depleting faster, brings the game closer to Super Smash Bros. Melee's gameplay.

While running and air speeds have been bumped and air dodges are back, there is a penalty system for multiple rolls and sidesteps, requiring more skill and superb decision-making to excel. It's the same for wavedashing, which is back but requires finesse, as does dash-dancing, though the elongation of dashing makes it harder to use. 

SSBU on the competitive scene will always find itself compared to Melee, a one-hit-wonder of perfect elements for a pro scene. The good news is the early returns are promising, even if there don't appear to be any wild zero-to-death combo possibilities anymore. 

Skill will still be the only factor in the item-less pro scene. Other than the movement abilities, nuance between character types will still shine through. Juggling is still going to be a problem for heavy characters like Bowser because they have a harder time getting back down to the ground. The tradeoff is more devastating moves.

As for the roster itself, Bayonetta's reign of terror is over. The nice thing about so many characters being carryovers from past games is simple—from a competitive slant, these characters have years and years of balances applied from the developers now.

More balance patches will undoubtedly come down the line, but right now, the game is incredibly balanced for a 70-plus roster, though ranged attacks with Richter and Isabelle, for example, seem like early standouts.

At its core, this release requires top-tier players to commit more in their intent with movements. It also isn't as defensive as the last release, and hitstun and shield changes—plus the reimplementation of viable DI—means an attractive base for a competitive community to explore and expand upon.  

Simple upgrades to the game should have SSBU dominating most facets, too. Camera zoom moments are cool because if a player manages to stave off an actual KO using DI (direction influence) and/or techs, it makes the moment all the more impressive.

Some of the smaller additions we haven't touched on are worth a mention here. Little things like picking the stage before fighters is a quality-of-life and strategy detail that competitive-minded players should enjoy.

Display alterations like player resumes and flashing the stock count on the entire screen after a KO slot in here as well. So too does the tournament and Squad Strike, which allows the 3v3 and 5v5 tournaments with hidden lineups.

Atop all of this is an online offering that, while in need of ironing out a few issues, should help the community thrive. The features of the Switch as a whole should help, too. 

SSBU has much more staying power than the last few entries in the series. It is bound to find itself embraced by the competitive community for a variety of reasons, ranging from the more Melee-esque mechanics to the roster and the sheer popularity surge the game should experience with things like Twitch sending it globally. 

          

Conclusion

Classifying a game as perfect or with a perfect score these days is a fleeting pursuit.

Yet SSBU gets as close as games probably can these days. The simple-but-complex concept behind the base gameplay leaves something for all skill ranges to pick up in various environments. Barriers exist if, say, a player doesn't like something like World of Light, but they are compensated for via other ways to unlock what the mode provides. 

Topping it off is a gorgeous, flawless-running offering on an innovative system, making it usable on the go, at home or online with various input options and endless customization within the game itself. 

When one of the biggest complaints about a game might be the presence of too much quality content, it means the game is a resounding triumph. And good luck finding something omitted to fret over (fine, fine, a home-run challenge and stage creator would be cool, fingers crossed for DLC). 

It wouldn't be a surprise to find out soon SSBU has the highest attach rate of any game on the Switch. It accomplishes something most games simply can't with its all-encompassing strokes of genius built on the backbone of Nintendo's illustrious history—and then some. 

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