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Game Review

by Branden Johnson,

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Nintendo Switch

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

The level of excitement in the Smash Bros. fan community has probably never been higher. For all intents and purposes, this is the game. The one that has everything we could possibly want (okay, except for Waluigi). From the moment the Switch was announced, we knew a Smash Bros. title was incoming. We knew it would be big. We just had no idea how big it could be.

Even following the series from the beginning, watching each new entry balloon in size compared to the previous, I wasn't prepared for just how much stuff is in this game. Every character, every stage, every song, every move and item and tweakable setting you could possibly want is represented. It's massive. It's more than massive, it's intimidating. That was my perspective after watching the pre-release trailers, anyway. The new single-player mode, World of Light, seemed particularly complicated, and I worried it would drag down what should have been a smooth, simple experience. However, my fears were unwarranted. After actually playing the game, I've found it to be an intuitive masterpiece, a love letter to fans and the purest expression of the Super Smash Bros. formula.

Every character from Smash history is here. If you played them in a previous game, even if they dropped off the roster at some point, they're here again. Though the selection starts off small (like, Nintendo 64-version small), you'll have myriad opportunities to unlock new characters. The game is generous with them, offering them up after completing many activities. The most fun way might be finding and defeating each of them in the game's Adventure mode, World of Light, which is truly something.

Essentially the game's version of the Super Smash Bros. Brawl's Subspace Emissary, World of Light begins with the obliteration of the planet and every Smash character you've ever known or loved -- except Kirby -- by Galeem. (Maybe Kirby's sole-survivor status is a knowing nod to the fact that he was so terribly overpowered in the original Smash Bros.) You'll have to explore a beautifully drawn world map and battle tons of foes to save the spirits of your fallen comrades. More than that, you'll be saving the spirits of characters and notable items from each of their games.

Bouts in World of Light come in a couple of main varieties: Spirit battles and character battles. Spirits are guarded by copies of your Smash comrades, and defeating your foe will release the spirit and add it to your party. Partnering with a spirit is similar to equipping various gear in an RPG. They provide different effects, and they increase in strength as you battle with them equipped. Most major spirits can also be paired with one to three support spirits for additional bonuses. These include things like adding an extra mid-air jump to your moveset or increasing your resistance to explosion effects. You'll also gain skill points that you can use to improve your fighters, giving them stronger specials or reduced damage from certain stage hazards and the like. In addition to choosing the best spirit for each battle based on its unique restrictions -- more on that in a minute -- you have to keep in mind the rock-paper-scissors setup of each spirit's type. Equipping a spirit of a type that is stronger than your foe's will give you an advantage.

Each battle has a unique set of rules, usually based around the game which the spirit you're trying to rescue is from. For example, in one fun sequence of fights, you'll travel around a world map taking on characters who have imprisoned the spirits of various Street Fighter 2 World Warriors. These battles decrease your jump height and eschew the typical percent-based damage system for a standard stamina-based encounter, to more closely match the way battles in Street Fighter games feel. Some enemies might get increased attack power or speed, and sometimes the stage itself will become your enemy, with high winds to contend with. And sometimes the floor is lava. The sheer variety keeps the World of Light from getting dull. Not only that, but the ease with which you'll manage your ever-growing collection of spirits proves I was misguided in my fear that it would be overly complicated. The game takes its time and teaches you everything you need to know. While I sort of miss the goofy cutscenes that were the major selling point of the Subspace Emissary, I'll definitely take the more varied gameplay and challenges of World of Light any day.

Competitive multiplayer is alive and well here, as expected. Local matches are quick to start and have so many options you might not know what to do with yourself. To be honest, though, the fine-tuning can be left to the pros -- it's simple enough to start a standard Stock or Timed battle. But if you're into fine-tuning, this game has you covered. From turning stage hazards on or off to increasing or decreasing launch rate to turning on some additional help for newer players, you'll be able to build your ideal Smash experience. For the truly zany, there's even Custom Smash, which lets you change things as varied as character size, weight, and body types. Try fighting with a mess of Mega Metal Marios for an interesting twist on regular Smash play. There's of course a tourney mode where up to 32 people crammed in one living room can compete to see who deserves the Smash Ultimate crown, and a squad mode where you and a friend can build a group to take each other down, one fighter at a time.

Then, of course, there's online multiplayer. Matches are easy to set up and fairly quick to start. From the fights I participated in, lag isn't too terrible, though you might notice things feeling a bit slower and heavier, depending upon your internet speed (and the speed of your opponents', of course). You can set up a handful of different taunts or communication options to use online, but unfortunately, actual voice chat is still relegated to Nintendo's subpar smartphone app. On my iPhone XS Max, it crashed no fewer than three times in one thirty-minute gaming session, so clearly this is not an ideal solution for online multiplayer. That's not the fault of Smash Bros., though; just something to keep in mind.

I don't know if this game will supplant Super Smash Bros. Melee as a preference for professional gamers, but I can say, as an amateur enthusiast, that, by far, Ultimate feels the best to play. There's a tightness to the gameplay that no previous entry has quite nailed. I'm finding characters I avoided in past games to be not only playable for me now, but downright fun. The ease of use, and the way in which the Adventure mode gradually introduces new characters to your repertoire, is helping me expand my horizons and try out some new fighters. And given the sheer number of characters on offer, that was probably a good move by the developers.

I've been lukewarm on the Smash series since Brawl. I dutifully bought and played each new version, but some of the old magic seemed to be gone. It's back. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the best version of this iconic game yet. It's huge without feeling bloated, complicated without being confusing, challenging without seeming unfair. The amount of characters, music, references to other games, is remarkable. The love and attention to detail on display here has not been matched by any other fighting game series. The name Ultimate might seem like hyperbole, but in this case, it's apt. Whether you're a longtime fan eagerly awaiting this new entry, or a newcomer wondering what the fuss is all about, this is the game for you.

Overall : A
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : A
Presentation : A

+ By far the best execution of the already-fantastic Smash Bros formula
Still no good solution for online multiplayer group chat on Switch

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