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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review: Masahiro’s Masterstroke
Is this Nintendo Switch exclusive Sakurai's Final Smash?
Masahiro Sakurai is a man utterly devoted the gargantuan monster he has created, for better and for worse. As if he signed a blood pact with the Nintendo Gods themselves, Sakurai has worked himself to the bone creating every Super Smash Bros. game and Ultimate is no exception.
It's the same old story for Sakurai. Every time there's a new Smash game, he burns the candle at both ends and declares that this could, in fact, be his last. The difference is, Ultimate feels final. Each game is an iteration on the last with improvements that might seem minor to the casual eye but with Ultimate, Sakurai has sought to include every single character that's ever appeared in Smash (as well a healthy does of newcomers) while bringing back some old features and seasoning the final product with some of that Sora Ltd. magic and a huge roster of modes and features to satisfy every kind of Smash player.
If Ultimate really is Sakurai's smash swansong, it's the perfect game to end on.
Is single player packing a punch?
Say what you will about Super Smash Bros. Brawl's single-player Subspace Emissary mode. Sure, it didn't have the most gripping storyline and all-in-all it was just a shell for a series of single-player matchups but at least it gave solo players something to progress through.
When Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS released, I spent more time in multiplayer than previous instalments but that was purely for the lack of a solid single-player experience. And with all characters unlocked from the jump, there really wasn't any incentive to grind through matches when playing solo. This had the overall effect of making me a worse Smash player. I wasn't committing any hours outside of multiplayer and when I would jump in for a quick online brawl, I'd get my arse handed to me.
With Ultimate, the team has reintroduced a single-player mode and locked the majority of the character roster when the game begins. Ultimate's World of Light doesn't give us much more than Subspace Emissary in terms of story (you fight your way through an overhead map as sole-survivor Kirby) but it does introduce the unique spirit system.
There are over 1,200 spirits to collect in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. They can be unlocked via the Spirit Board, a mode that gives you timed unlocks for certain spirits, or via the Adventure mode. The Adventure mode (World of Light) matches you up with a series of spirits in-between playable character fights. Each spirit match-up has been lovingly handcrafted to reflect the theme of the character spirit you're fighting. For example, going toe-to-toe with the spirit of Animal Crossing's sea-faring turtle, Kapp'n. Kapp'n is a green turtle who pilots a boat in the Animal Crossing series, thus you're pitted against a Koopaling (another turtle from the Nintendo universe) in a water-surrounded level with high winds and low buoyancy effects in play. You're tasked with fighting the wind to stay on land (falling in the water results in an almost instant KO) while fending off attacks from a Koopaling. It's tough mudder and the odds are stacked against you but if you venture off the beaten track in World of Light you can nab yourself a Snorlax spirit (which offers you strong wind resist) or the Plessie spirit (which allows you to stay afloat indefinitely) to even the odds for the Kapp'n match.
That's just one example of World of Light's sprawling series of unique spirit battles. I'd kind of hoped Nintendo would go one step further with the Pokémon spirit battles by restricting pokéball item drops to the specific Pokémon spirit you're battling (e.g. the Eevee spirit battle would drop Eevee pokéballs exclusively) but maybe that's asking too much.
World of Light runs solo players through a gauntlet of unique and, at times, crushing spirit battles but it does outstay its welcome a tad. The map is huge and while unlocking playable characters via the campaign is supremely rewarding, the mode becomes less appealing when you realise you can unlock playable characters via just about any mode in Smash. Even a few quick rounds in Mob Smash, an endurance mode where the game throws every character it has at you, will result in a new challenger battle. It's easily the fastest way to grow out your character roster.
Ultimate's Classic Mode is by far the most addictive. Like previous entries before it, Classic Mode offers a predetermined set of opponents for each character, one bonus stage and a final boss fight. For the first time ever, boss fights are more tailored to individual characters (rather than just throwing Crazy Hand and Master Hand at each character). For example, playing as either Simon or Richter Belmont from the Castlevania series will finish with a stoush against none other than Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula) himself.
Sakurai has also brought back the difficulty gambling feature from prior Smash games (and Kid Icarus: Uprising). Starting a new Classic Mode run allows you to set your difficulty to 5.0. Breezing through a fight quickly or without taking damage allows you to bump up the difficulty by .5 each round and taking a fall will cost you either difficulty points or a ticket (which can be accrued by completing a Classic Mode run). Finishing Classic Mode with a 9 or above score has kept me coming back again and again and given me the time and training required to master characters I wouldn't normally play.
My one, small criticism of Classic Mode is that it only brings back a watered down version of the Race to the Finish bonus game. Past games included Target Smash, Board the Platform and Snag the Trophies. And while it's not technically a Classic Mode bonus game, the beloved Home-Run Contest. Ultimate's Race to the Finish offers a great challenge but the lack of variety makes Classic Mode's interlude a bit repetitive. It becomes more of a chore after subsequent playthroughs.
How's the online multiplayer hold up?
Nintendo just can't seem to get online multiplayer right. And now that they're charging players for the privilege ($5.95 per month or $29.95 for the year) it's more inexcusable than ever. Back in the day, when Xbox started charging for online play, they did so with confidence in their online infrastructure and created what is still revered as one the best examples of how to handle online console play.
Nintendo is now doing the same but it's still not 100% up to scratch. Most nights are a bit of a gamble as to whether I'm going to make it past matchmaking and when I do there's a high chance my online match will lag to the point where Ultimate's online is near unplayable. It's like a Smash game played out as a flipbook animation.
Nintendo made a lot of improvements to Ultimate's online matchmaking (compared to previous titles), like prioritising regional proximity above all else, and skill-based matchmaking with the Global Smash Power system, but none of it's really seemed to pay off as well as we'd hoped. I'm still facing many of the same old issues. Here's hoping the added investment of Nintendo's paid online subscription continues to help improve online play down the line.
What do the new fighters bring to the ring?
In addition to including every single fighter that's ever appeared in Super Smash Bros. (that's right, Ice Climbers and Solid Snake are back, baby), Ultimate introduces a whole new roster of playable characters as well as some modern tweaks to old favourites. Inkling, King K. Rool, Simon/Richter Belmont, Ridley and Incineroar all offer completely new ways to play.
Splatoon's Inklings are speedy squid-like creatures that have a rechargeable ink gauge. Their special attacks, Splat Bomb, Splattershot, Super Jump and Splat Roller, will deal less damage with the ink tank depleted or simply won't work at all. Unlike Robin, whose attacks charge passively over time, Inklings need to find a moment in the midst of battle to charge their special attacks or wait until they're KO'd to revive with a full tank.
Elsewhere on the roster, Donkey Kong Country's King K. Rool feels totally overpowered with a cannon that doubles as a projectile and Kirby-esque vacuum and a devastating body slam as a down smash (all of my records across Classic and Mob Smash are currently held by King K. Rool). Pokémon newcomer and WCW blow-in Incineroar utilises grabs and counters. His most devastating attack is the Alolan Whip, which grabs an opponent and bounces them off the ropes. If you time your attack correctly, you can perform a lariat that launches your opponent in the direction Incineroar is facing. For weaker enemies in Mob Smash and Classic, it's basically an instant knockout. In multiplayer, it's almost just as effective.
Nintendo has also promised new fighters down the line via DLC. The first of which will be Piranha Plant (which will be available for purchase in January, or free to those who purchased the game before Piranha Plant becomes available).
Update: During the December Nintendo Direct, Persona 5's Joker was announced as an upcoming DLC fighter.
Besides the all-new character lineup, there are a few classic characters that have been modernised to reflect their latest solo outing iterations. For certain characters like Mario, those changes are mostly aesthetic; Super Mario Odyssey's Cappy makes an appearance when Mario uses his Super Jump Punch. Others, like The Legend of Zelda's Link, have undergone more major changes. Aesthetically, Link has been updated with a fresh Breath of the Wild look but Link's old bomb special (which was a simple, timed explosion), has been replaced with the Remote Bomb from the latest Zelda game. Link's down special is now activated with down special and detonated with the same action. It seems like a simple change but it's added a whole new level of strategy to Link's down special.
Does Ultimate have legs?
At the time of writing, the only upcoming DLC fighter we know of is the classic Mario villain Piranha Plant (Update: And now Persona 5's Joker). However, there is a Fighters Pass available on the eShop that promises at least 5 DLC fighters, stages, and soundtracks. Each DLC pack will release separately, delivering 1 new fighter, 1 new stage and additional music tracks each.
So Nintendo still has a fair deal of content in the tank when it comes to the fighters and stages and players should get their fill for at least a year to come. With that said, how Nintendo plans to improve its online infrastructure is still a little bit of a mystery. If the funds raised via Nintendo Switch Online memberships are funneled into creating a more stable, accessible online experience, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate could go down in history as one of the greatest fighting games in history.
There's also the unanswerable question of where the series goes after this. As the absolutely definitive version of Super Smash Bros. 20 years in the making, any following release would either have to be just as comprehensive or start completely afresh. We'd be totally satisfied if Ultimate is the game we see ported two or three times over onto future Nintendo consoles with minor updates or new character DLC packs to keep it fresh. We just hope Sakurai can finally take some much-needed R&R with Ultimate out in the wild.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the publisher.
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