Five Months later: A Smash Ultimate review

At the time of writing this, Super Smash Bros Ultimate has been out for just under five months, ample time to have been able to play the game thoroughly, inside and out.

This is a game which had been hyped up a lot before its launch. Competitively, it was supposed to be the most balanced roster yet with excellent, structurally healthy and mentally stimulating changes to the combat engine. For casual players, it was supposed to offer more sustainability, with new modes and revisions to the core game of old.

So, how well has Smash Ultimate delivered so far? Let’s have a look.

Smash Ultimate as a competitive video game:

Wolf is one of the best characters in the game, competitively.

Competitively, the game is predictably a totally new experience. The game is overall a lot faster than Smash 4, due to new mechanics surrounding shielding, dodging and an overall reduction to “react-n-punish” gameplay. Therefore, Smash Ultimate has reverted to a three stock-eight minute standard for individual matches, different from Smash 4’s two stock-six minute model.

First, let’s start off with the good. This game is very balanced. The overwhelming majority of currently 75 characters are viable, and can fare decently in the overall metagame. Really, only Kirby and Little Mac are useless garbage. 73/75 isn’t bad, especially considering that figure has historically been a lot lower. Even lower-tiered characters like King Dedede and Samus have fared decently thus far, and don’t have any particular matchups many would consider ‘unwinnable.’ Overall, in Smash 4, many of the ‘good’ characters were good because they had a single gimmick which was frequently abused and leveraged over other characters whose gimmick wasn’t as good. In Smash Ultimate, that is generally gone; singular gimmicks of most characters in the game have been removed or nerfed big time, but a character’s overall tangibles- their movement, other less-used moves, etc, have been improved. In other words, a character’s entire moveset is likely to have some use, which naturally affords a player more options to deal with a specific situation. All of this means that you can be fluent in which character you’d like to play. While there are clearly ‘the best’ characters, they aren’t so polarizing or oppressive that they can’t be beaten by a good player with someone using a character outside of that trope. This is healthy, keeps the metagame dynamic for player and viewer alike, and will lead to long term sustainability for the game.

Young Link has been attracting plenty of negative attention, and is likely one of the game’s most controversial characters.

But, let’s address the not-so-good now. When Nintendo decided to make characters better all-around as opposed to having a single, really good thing, this has ended up meshing fairly poorly with other structural changes made with the game, such as increased shield stun and reduced effectiveness of dodging. What this has created is a game which rewards reckless aggression- by simply running up to the other player and trying to hit them with something as many times as possible, you can end up being rewarded if your attacks were simply strong, had decent range, or were being used on a slightly slower character, like King Dedede. In other words, attacks are ‘too safe.’ This is a prevalent trait of how Young Link has ascended to greatness- Young Link has some of the best projectiles and fastest attacks in the game, making him extremely difficult to punish even when the player makes blatant mistakes. This can be viewed as something which favors somewhat brainless button-mashing, which is explicitly what Nintendo wanted to remove when they heavily nerfed the game’s dodge mechanics.

Of course, shielding getting nerfed big time has had a different effect on defensive gameplay than what Nintendo seems to have wanted. Defensive gameplay is better than ever nowadays, to the point where single projectiles, such as Wolf’s laser or Ness’ infamous PK Fire, can create havoc. In Smash 4, powershielding or, trying to run through a barrage of projectiles, shielding through them and continually closing the gap between you and your opponent to get up close, was a viable method to deal with excessive projectile use. In Smash Ultimate, perfect shields essentially no longer exist- they have been replaced with ‘parrying.’ In order to parry, the player must release the shield button at the same time an attack is striking their shield. This means the player can’t run towards the opponent and shield through their projectiles as efficiently as in Smash 4. Slower characters such as Ganondorf are heavily disadvantaged by this.

Despite being extremely strong, Ganondorf’s low mobility and massive frame means he will struggle against projectile heavy characters.

This means that the game is ultimately not as fast as one might expect. Sure, it’s faster than Smash 4, where shielding was admittedly too good. But now, shielding is quite bad, and it naturally advantages characters who rely heavily on projectiles or lengthy hitboxes, such as swords.

At the moment, the game is in a satisfactory position, competitively. The vast majority of the roster is viable and usable, which will ultimately be what lets the metagame remain dynamic and fresh for years to come. Issues with the game competitively ultimately don’t do too much to detract from the experience, and the game is an upgrade from Smash 4 solely off of that fact.

Now, let’s talk about the game from a casual standpoint. Beginning with the game’s “Spirits” mode:

The good:

“Spirits” is an attempt on Nintendo’s part to replicate today’s “grind” heavy culture. There are 1302 spirits in the game, and the game encourages players to unlock all of them. While a significant portion of them can be unlocked via the game’s World of Light campaign story mode, many spirits can only be unlocked through other means, such as the Spirit Board, via summoning, or completing other tasks outside of the mode itself.

The franchise’s first campaign mode in over ten years!

World of Light’s premise is simple; go around the map, winning fights, collecting spirits, and trying to destroy Galeem and/or Dharkon (player dependent decision) to save the world from their clutches. Each individual spirit fight’s difficulty is classified by “star ratings”: Novice fights are ranked one star, Advanced are assessed two, Ace spirits are three stars, and the rare Legendary spirit is a four star spirit. The difficulty of each fight scales appropriately, as do the rewards for winning, and the quality of spirit unlocked.

One of the best Legendary spirits in the game, and an absolute godsend for Sword users!

The good news is that this mode is immersive and deep enough where it will keep casual players hooked for a decently long time. It also pays homage to the many franchises recognized in the Nintendo spectrum, including some third party entrants from Solid Snake, Persona 4, Persona 5 and a few Indie games such as Shovel Knight and Shantae. Generally, assuming someone has a life outside of Smash, it should take a few months at the least to unlock everything and beat the campaign. At that point, you can fight your friends’ spirits and create endless amounts of Spirit matchups.

Some of the hardest spirit fights in the game!

Addressing the core Smash mode draws our attention towards two massive updates, independent of Spirits, which are fun tools for the casual to play with: Stage morphing and multiple stocks for Stamina mode. The former is a way to shift between two stages in the middle of a fight, in essence allowing players to choose two stages for a single game. The latter is self explanatory; for the first time ever, Nintendo has allowed for Stamina games to include multi-stock games. These tools can offer some cheap fun, but they ultimately don’t overthrow the entire dynamic of casual gameplay, per se. Stage morphing gives the game a bit more useful depth, but like anything else in the game, it gets repetitive quite quickly. Multi stock stamina games also affords more flexibility for a different experience, but still doesn’t really stand out as a way of keeping players in. They are both welcome additions, however, and stage morphing in particular is a welcome experimentation on Nintendo’s part to give the game and franchise more life.

The Bad:

The bad news about the Spirits mode is that the grind is a tad repetitive and in some cases, cumbersome. Sure, each spirit battle is different and all, but you can only get so ‘different’ with the combat engine and overall game layout of Smash. Ultimately, you pick a fight with a spirit. There are various conditions in the battle, the spirit may have teammates, might have an item, generally stuff which better personalizes the fight to the spirit at hand. You go in, beat the spirit, and that’s that. Now, try doing that over a thousand times, and you can see that getting all 1302 spirits can be a little bit tedious. The World of Light campaign is predictably nothing like the Subspace Emissary fan favorite campaign from back in Brawl. In essence, it could be viewed as a gratified Events mode. Of course, it only takes a few months for the average player to get all the spirits and beat the campaign. After that, what happens to the casual player, who isn’t interested in going competitive? That’s right, you’re going to see this portion of the fanbase move on to some other game pretty quickly. It’s the same cycle we’ve seen in Smashes in the past. While Nintendo re-introduced the Stage Builder to the game recently, it wasn’t enough in Smash 4 to keep people reeled in, and sadly it won’t be enough to do so here.

Sadly, Stage morphing doesn’t work with the Stage Builder. Regretfully, the Stage Builder is still pretty bland, and actually managed to lose options and creative freedom coming over from Smash 4. Smash 4’s Stage Builder itself was largely watered down coming over from Brawl, making Ultimate’s Stage Builder even more of a disappointment. Perhaps an even bigger disappointment stems from how Nintendo has banned and censored Stages depicted around LGBTQIA+ flags or empowering stages from being published online, something which has created a PR nightmare for them to deal with. Though they have been consistent in removing any stages which “send political messages”, their decision to place identity empowerment stages on the same level as sexually implicit stages, racially charged stages and hate filled stages has been regrettable. Even if this doesn’t really detract from the overall mode itself, it certainly hasn’t benefitted it.

Ultimately, the casual experience is definitely better than what it was in Smash 4 (a pretty low bar, to be fair) but it still doesn’t even come close to touching Brawl’s greatness in that regard. A deep, immersive, interactive story mode made Brawl a staple in the franchise’s history, and it’s something which could’ve immortalized Smash Ultimate as well. World of Light, while decent, simply doesn’t stack up. And the Stage Builder is kind of a joke too.

Final grade: A-

This game is good, for sure. It’s a step up from Smash 4 in just about every way. It has some pretty clear and nagging issues, some of which were some rather poor design decisions. But it’s definitely good enough to become a staple in Nintendo history, as well as a buzzing modern day product. In that respect, it carries the torch over from Smash 4 respectably and adequately. I’d recommend the game for anyone, casual or hardcore competitive player alike.

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