Super Smash Bros. Ultimate full review

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the biggest iteration of Nintendo's mega-crossover fighting franchise yet, featuring every single character and stage the series has ever included, along with a few new ones, and some wide-ranging tweaks to how the game plays.

Occasionally overwhelming, usually chaotic, but always tremendous fun, Smash Bros. Ultimate lives up to its name in just about every respect. This is the definitive version of Smash, enough so that after sinking countless hours into it we're left with only one question: where on Earth does this series go next?

A Switch exclusive, Smash Bros. Ultimate came out on 7 December 2018, and if you’re in the UK you can order it from Amazon, Game, or the Nintendo store, while in the US you probably want Amazon, Best Buy, or GameStop.

Prior to its reveal, most of the discussion and debate around Smash Bros. for Switch would be whether we should expect a brand new game built for the console from the ground up, or a simpler port of the most recent Wii U and 3DS versions of the game.

The answer, in predictable Nintendo fashion, is a bit of both. It’s clear that Ultimate hasn’t been built entirely from scratch, and has instead taken the Wii U game’s engine as a starting point.

It’s not totally unchanged though, with a few graphical boosts to make the most of the Switch hardware. Textures are more detailed, especially on character models, while take a close look at most of the stages and you’ll spot a lot more going on in the background than before.

But equally, this isn’t simply a straight-up Wii U port - or if it is, it’s also a port of the 3DS, Wii, Gamecube, and N64 versions. Ultimate really does live up to its name in that sense, including every single fighter and stage ever featured in the series - with various alternate costumes and stage versions - to satisfy Smash fans of every generation.

That means for the first time you get three Links at once (adult, young, and toon), that Ice Climbers and Snake make a return after sitting out the last version of the game, and that you get the full array of Star Fox characters: Fox, Falco, and Wolf.

Still, it wouldn’t be Smash without at least a couple of new faces. The big additions this time around are the Inklings from Splatoon and the towering Ridley from Metroid, along with the likes of Animal Crossing's ever-helpful Isabelle, Donkey Kong's occasional nemesis King K. Rool, and Castlevania's vampire hunter Simon Belmont.

You'd be forgiven for losing the new characters in the giant roster though, which is so sprawling that no-one could ever hope to master every fighter. Luckily Nintendo drip feeds you characters: from a starter roster of eight you'll slowly unlock everyone else as you play, with a new character popping up to challenge you (you'll have to win a fight to earn them) roughly every ten minutes or so as you flit around the various game modes.

Smash veterans may resent not having access to all of their favourites from the get-go, but for new players (or rusty returners) the gentle on-boarding is a vital way to ease you into the roster, letting you get to grips with the various characters before it ever becomes totally overwhelming. It helps that all the stages are there from the start at least, which should help take the edge off the grind of unlocking your favourite fighter.

It helps that there's a similarly gradual process to unlocking playable fighters in the new single-player campaign, World of Light. Starting with just Kirby you'll have to fight your way through various challenges to unlock new characters - though unlocking them here doesn't give you access to them in the rest of the game, and vice versa.

World of Light is driven by the new Spirit system, which lets Nintendo bring in even more characters - including some true deep cuts - as RPG-style stickers. You can pick one Primary Spirit and to three Support Spirits, each providing various buffs and abilities for upcoming fights. 

It feels unnecessarily complex at first, but a few fights in you'll get to grips with how Spirits work, and how to take advantage of them to spin fights in your favour. If you're fighting on a stage with lava floor, then a Support Spirit that makes you immune could help even the odds, while stacking one that buffs sword attacks on top of a sword-wielding character like Link or Marth could buff your damage across the board.

In addition to unlocking Spirits through World of Light, you can also win them in one-off challenges on the regularly rotating Spirit Board, or summon news ones - though you'll have to dismiss a few other first to earn the cores you need to summon new ones.

It's exactly the right sort of complexity, adding new wrinkles and complications that sit on top of the brilliant base mechanics rather than interfering with them, and it's worlds better than the dodgy platforming and side-scrolling that's dogged Smash Bros. single-player in the past.

Elsewhere all the usual game modes are present: single-player and multi-player Smash (with various custom rulesets), a 'Classic Mode' that throws each character up against a series of six fights and a boss, multiple training modes and games, and, of course, online multiplayer.

You'll need to sign up for the Switch online service to take advantage, but this is a compelling argument for it. You can play either solo or co-op with a friend on the same Switch, and the system will do its best to match you not only with players of a similar level, but also those with similar rule preferences.

There are options for quickplay and extended arenas and tournaments, along with a mechanic that sees you gather the 'Smash Tags' of players you've beaten, giving you an extended record of your triumphs to reminisce over - or show off.

Core gameplay is classic Smash - enough to feel familiar to casual fans, and refined to those who understand the intricacies of the various systems, with most of the changes working to make the game feel faster and more fluid, with fewer interruptions to play.

For example, the showstopping Final Smashes have quicker animations and activation times to stop them disrupting games, charging attacks can be charged in mid-air, and movement and attack speeds have been upped slightly across the board.

Other changes feel designed for the serious esports community Nintendo is clearly hoping to attract. New directional dodges in mid-air make it easier to land during dodges, while excessive dodging on the spot is being discouraged by shortening the intangibility window. You even pick your stage before your fighter now, so you can optimise your character to match the setting.

These are changes that the average player likely won’t even notice, but drive the subtle shifts in gameplay that crippled esports adoption of the Wii’s Brawl, while winning over the same community on the Wii U.

All of which isn't to say that Smash Bros. Ultimate is exclusively targeting the esports scene, and Nintendo has once again shown that it knows how to please (almost) everyone). Want the chaos of an 8-man brawl with giant characters and maxed out items? It's there. Want a stripped down one-on-one with a minimal ruleset? You can do that too, and now you get even more characters with complex movesets to obsess over.

For the first time even the singleplayer feels like a compelling proposition thanks to World of Light, which masters the delicate balance of the core gameplay and the extensive new features, while throwing in enough fan service to impress even long-in-the-tooth Nintendo fans.

Verdict

'Ultimate' is undoubtedly the word. Just about everything that every Smash game has ever offered is here once again, with more characters, stages, modes, and hidden references than anyone will have the time to fully process.

If Smash Bros. Ultimate has a fault, it's the same as its strength: there's just so much here that it's impossible for anyone to take in, and in the early hours especially it's an overwhelming experience, with little work done to guide new players in. Maybe even Smash needs a little more editorial oversight than this, but at least you can't ever accuse Nintendo of shortchanging its fans.