New video game lives up to player anticipation

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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate represents the series at least restraint. If the first Smash Bros. Game is a short poem, Ultimate is the longest story in the English language, which, fittingly, was mythically a Smash Bros. fanfiction for a period of time. The fighting party game has become an infinite well of content in its most recent iteration.

The game now carries more than 100 stages in its multiverse, more than 1,000 specifically designed battles in its single-player, a story mode that returns for the first time in a decade and a roster made of more than 70 characters, including six newcomers and every single character previously included in series history.

If you ever wondered how Mario might fare against Pac-Man, Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, Pikachu, Final Fantasy’s Cloud Strife, Castlevania’s Simon Belmont or Metal Gear Solid’s Solid Snake in a fight, or how all eight of them might fare in one world-colliding bar brawl, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate makes your oddly specific action-figure dreams come true.

In Ultimate, though, small changes add up to be worth as much as the big roster shifts. Each stage not only has its own single-platform style Omega Form, they now also come with a traditionally tri-platform style Battlefield Form.

Characters show on the loading screen before a battle in a nearly overly theatrical showdown, designed to showcase the game’s incredibly detailed models. Matches in Ultimate also almost always end in a dramatic, finalizing, satisfying zoom-in. There are so many little tweaks to the game, it almost feels like Ultimate needed to prove that it was a different game to its predecessor, 2014’s Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS/Wii U after the multitude of times Ultimate was called a port before its release.

Thankfully, the gameplay in Ultimate feels just different enough that it does not need any proof. The crux of the conceit of Smash is simple, characters are launched when they take damage. The more damage they take, the further they are launched, when they fall off the screen they have been beaten.

Despite being a fighting game at its core, Smash has never required challenging combos for players to pull off moves, unless Street Fighter’s Ryu or his new clone, Ken, are on the battlefield. Simply press a direction at the same time a button is pressed, and players are on the tech levels of most pros. Add items into the mix, leveling the playing field via randomness if so desired, and Smash becomes one of the most accessible and original fighting games in the genre.

Ultimate’s combat is also the most satisfying the game’s ever been during its 20-year lifespan. When characters are hit, both the attacker and the attacked freeze in meaty ways and hits have more impact now than in any game previous. It is also the fastest and most competitive the game’s combat has been since Melee, 17 years ago.

It is hard to ignore the competitive pull reflected in additions like the return of Melee’s directional dodges in midair, the ability to perform any attack out of a dash and an in-game macro that makes shorter jumps easier. Changes designed for competitive play is something that is largely new to Smash, and it feels like a long-deserved nod towards the game’s undying competitive community.

At high levels, Smash Bros. is the improv comedy of fighting games. There are so many values that change every microsecond that no combos are ever guaranteed. Players do not have grand plans in their heads as much as they have increasingly calculated split-second decisions and harebrained hopes that their opponent will do what they want to. Plus, the percentage of people who make a living playing Smash is probably pretty similar to the percentage of people who make a living doing improv comedy.

While it is impossible for a game with so many characters and possible states to be completely balanced, Ultimate tries harder than all of its predecessors in another competitive nod. Just about every character in the game, sorry Pac-Man, Corrin and Bowser Jr., has something they can do that feels absolutely broken when compared to the rest of the cast. It does not help the character crisis this game presents that each and every new character feels spectacularly new, interesting and fun. In Smash tradition, Ultimate is a game that feels like it plays differently than most of its predecessors.

It is still not quite enough, though. No matter how fast Ultimate moves, how much worse it makes its defensive options, and how many novel newcomers join the fight, it cannot quite escape the gravity of feeling like Smash for 3DS/Wii U Plus.

Characters in Ultimate handle very similarly to Smash for 3DS/Wii U, despite the world shifting dramatically around them. Sure, they may run faster or act faster when they land from a jump, but they still feel the same as they did back then, thanks to the engine that moves them feeling nearly identical. After playing Smash for Wii U, returning to 2008’s Brawl felt completely impossible, due to the massive difference in engine between the two games.

In a few months, I do not know if I will be able to say the same things about Ultimate. In a series defined by differences in fighting style and speed between iterations, the fact that Ultimate even passingly feels like a reflection is a disappointment. Ultimate is the first game in the series’ 20 year history to use the same announcer as its predecessor. This time around, he feels like a ghost, the past haunting the present in an eerily similar way to the gameplay.

The announcer’s voice is not the only ghostly figure present in this Smash iteration. Ultimate’s single-player mode and replacement of its trophy collectibles, Spirits, cements it as a catalog of iconic game characters. Spirits mode effectively turns Smash Bros. into a mobile-style gatcha game, sending the player on a quest to collect as many souls of canonically dead game characters as is physically possible. There are more than 1,200 Spirits to find, and each comes with its own unique battle, which tend to be rather inventive. Once a player has collected a Spirit, they can use the bonuses it provides them to aid them in battle, whether against other Spirit-holding characters or against their friends. It is a novel concept, a smart way to work in just about every character who could not function as a fighter into something more interesting than a singular 3D model.

While Spirits is expansive, it can also be really hard to connect with, especially for those unfamiliar with the gatcha genre. Instead of guided tutorials, Ultimate chooses to dump a couple of one-time only written tutorials that must be sought out by finding them in the jungle that is the user interface of a Smash game. Those tutorials never give the player any sort of handhold in Spirits’ frequently complicated gatcha systems. There is never a direct link established between the numerical power of Spirits and damage dealt by the player, so it is up to them to figure out that if the “Team Power” of a group of Spirits is about 2,000 points lower than their opponent’s. This is on a scale of approximately 13,500, so they have lost the battle before it has even begun.

Players can spend Spirit Points at stores, only unlocked through Ultimate’s story mode, so it is up to them to figure out the mode is deeper than what can be unlocked through the Spirit Board itself. The Collection menu is never pointed out to the player, so it is also up to them to figure out that they can level up and enhance their Spirits from there. But by the time the player has figured out everything about Spirits mode, the magic buried within its inventiveness is lost.

By attributing each Spirit with a number and effects that will generally make them strictly better or worse than another, the mode turns each character not into a loving recreation of them in Smash, but into a number with a face. By the time players have acquired their first Legendary-level Spirit, most of the acquirable Spirits below that level become completely useless. Spirits mode is a snowball that begins to roll on its own after a while, save for corner cases where the game randomly decides to halt your progress. Ultimately it  turns a loving recreation of characters into a wash of number-crunching that misses the connection to characters that makes many gatcha games work.

The soullessness of Spirits doubles for the game’s single-player Adventure Mode, World of Light. The mode touts a story, but it is not really there, after the opening cinematic, the mode’s storyline ceases existing until the very end of the game. After every Smash character, save Kirby, is evaporated in an otherworldly event, World of Light tasks the player with earning each one of them back. The actual gameplay of World of Light is largely made up of Spirit battles, each found in a different portion of a seemingly endless two dimensional world.

World of Light’s world design is surprisingly engaging. Because of the myriad of characters and other Spirit mode features to unlock, every small crack of the world contains something for players to mine. There is always something to explore, when combined with the generally quick pace of Spirit battles, the world asks little to no attention of the player, instead opting to string them along with a surprisingly satisfying candy trail.

But that trail is about as healthy as candy is for players, too. The mode suffers from the same problem the main Spirits mode does despite the fresh coat of paint. Once players snowball out of control, they are difficult to stop, and difficulty turns from novelty to frustration. If players have already unlocked all of the characters in the game and have snowballed in Spirits mode by themselves, the only reason to play through World of Light is to unlock a few meager side features, complete the thin storyline and change the menu music.

Smash Ultimate’s online is the least laggy it has ever been. That is not a high bar to clear, given its predecessor’s almost superheroic ability to freeze early and often online. It is notable, though, Ultimate’s online is the first smooth online experience possible in series’ history. Ultimate’s online mode eschews the For Fun/For Glory system from 3DS/Wii U and replaces it with a Preferred Ruleset system.

Players now get to choose the rules they want to play with, and Ultimate’s matchmaking algorithm attempts to match them with players who chose a similar ruleset. Each match is now matchmade using Global Smash Power, a number murkier than swamp water that supposedly reports the number of players one is better than in the rankings. Once the algorithm has found at least two players with a similar ruleset and Global Smash Power, the game begins. After a post-launch update, the system works as intended, but it is led to a lot of abuse in the competitive community. It is not uncommon, in my experience, for Ultimate’s matchmaking to force me into matches that do not have competitive rulesets when I choose a competitive ruleset.

There is nothing more frustrating than losing precious ranking points because an algorithm matched me with a player who decided to play with items on or in a Stamina match.

Ultimate’s online is also a lot less flexible in places where 3DS/Wii U’s was not. Players cannot switch characters in matchmaking. To change, they have to leave their match in progress, choose their new character and re-enter the queue, because each character in the game has its own separate matchmaking ranking.

It is impossible to stay in the same match with a new character. When players put in enough work and time to have a high enough Global Smash Power to join the coveted Elite Smash mode, they can only play with the singular character they unlocked the mode with, and bring up each other character’s separate matchmaking ranking to join the mode. In a game of more than 70 characters, matchmaking pushes players to play one. It is frustratingly inflexible.

Ultimate certainly is not the end-all, beat-all Smash game. The character interactions that bled all over Brawl’s Subspace Emissary were well worth the trudging gameplay, and Melee’s competitive community is immortal. But what is present reminded me why I loved spending so much time exploring every nook and cranny of every Smash game.

Super Smash Brothers Ultimate is a game bursting with possibility in its base gameplay, providing seemingly infinite possibility. With the coming inclusion of the eternal Mario enemy Piranha Plant, and the unpredictable inclusion of Joker from the Persona series of RPGs as fighters, it feels like anything is possible for the game in the coming year of support.

Smash Bros. has always been a series that has its players constantly looking to the future and wondering what is next, but the future for Ultimate feels like an infinite horizon. I am excited to see what or who surfaces from it next.


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