REVIEW: Smash returns to Nintendo fans in Ultimate form

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  • Nintendo Switch / rated E10+ / $59.99 / released December 2018
  • FINAL: You NEED this game. 5 out of 5 stars

Whenever Nintendo releases a new “Super Smash Bros.” game, the sheer bulk of inclusions from dozens of different video game franchises always prompts fans to discuss how the company could possibly improve it for the next “Smash.” With the release of “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” for Nintendo Switch, the answer is, as ever, to just keep making it bigger.

Built on the bones of 2014’s “Super Smash Bros. For Wii U,” “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” first arrived in gamers’ feeds with the promise to include every character that had ever been in “Smash” before, including characters that the series had previously sidestepped like Pichu and Young Link. Plus – to avoid looking like just a late port of the Wii U version – “Ultimate” adds in an impressive set of all-new characters. The end result is over 70 fighters, 100 stages, hundreds of music tracks and the sense that Nintendo is really going to have to work hard to top this one.

The core of “Smash” remains the same as it ever was: pummel on opponents until you can launch them offscreen. Highest score, last survivor, teams, big stages, small stages, online, eight-player… there’s plenty of ways to finesse the basics into fresh and exciting bouts.

Despite the “Ultimate” moniker, this “Smash” skips over the dreadful bonus modes of older releases. (Let’s never talk about “Smash Run” ever again.) Instead, “Smash Ultimate” offers “World of Light,” an all-new lengthy adventure that gives you plenty of reasons to play the game all by yourself.

In “World of Light,” you start with a single character – the pink puffball Kirby – and you travel across a mashed-up map in search of everybody else. In practice, this means dozens and dozens of fights versus computer opponents.

This mode is where “Ultimate” dives deep into the all-new “Spirits” addition. Spirits are, uncharitably, clip art. But they come from hundreds of video games, including plenty that otherwise had yet to be seen inside a “Smash” game. There are multiple categories of spirits, but basically they act as little power boosters when applied to your current fighter. A particular spirit might increase your throw distance, or give you a useful bomb item right at the start of a match, or negate the harmful effects of a burning lava floor. In “World of Light,” you are constantly mixing-and-matching a small team of spirits to come up with the best possible advantage for the upcoming battle.

To add more spirits to your collection, you have to fight them. Of course, even with a 70-some deep roster, “Smash” can’t begin to cover the hundreds of obscure and specific characters represented by the spirits. “Ultimate” instead lets the actual fighters represent the spirit fighters by proxy. This is often wildly clever, and hardcore fans will adore the lengths that the game goes to in order to simulate hundreds of video game characters. Some of the spirit battles are obvious, but others are like a little rebus where the spirit is the answer.

For example, you get the Eevee Pokémon spirit after winning a battle against three Yoshis. Each Yoshi has the Mario’s Raccoon Tail item and the trio is colored red, blue and yellow to represent Eevee’s original three evolutions. To unlock Rambi the Rhino, a spirit character from the “Donkey Kong Country” series, you have to fight against a Donkey Kong that has been colored gray and focuses on stampede-style attacks. This is all extremely nerdy, naturally, but it’s a fun mental puzzle for fans.

“World of Light” gives solo players plenty to do, but the bigger picture of “Smash” has always been multiplayer. “Ultimate” gives match setup a little more flexibility when it comes to selecting characters, stages and rules, but it’s mainly the same experience we’ve come to expect. (Yes, amiibo are still supported.) Playing the game online, however, continues to expose weaknesses in Nintendo’s structure. Like many Nintendo Switch games, “Ultimate” is weird about voice chat, giving you very limited options to talk to your friends online. What is more frustrating is that there is no way for you to play two-on-two online with two people in your house and two people in a friend’s. You can play two-on-two online with a random stranger’s household, so why can’t you set that up with a pal?

One last bit of controversy: “Smash Ultimate” opens with only eight characters available to play. This is a nod to the line-up of the 1999 original “Super Smash Bros.”, but it means you must gradually unlock the full squad. There are multiple ways to do this – via “World of Light,” a series of set matches in Classic mode, or by just playing the game in general – but you should still expect to play for ten hours before achieving that lovely screen with everyone on it.

The die-hards can analyze movesets and strategies, and the spirits are clearly Nintendo blessing decades of gamers’ obsessions, but “Smash” works just as well as a lighthearted party crowd-pleaser. “Ultimate” is an absolute monster of a game, packed with play and ready for everyone.

“Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” is available for Nintendo Switch. This review is based on product supplied by the publisher. Images courtesy Nintendo of America.

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