A lot has been said and written about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Some said it was a deluxe version of the Wii U game, others stated that it's the most ambitious crossover in video game history, and there are those who are betting that it could end up being the very best entry in the series. What hasn't been said, or properly explained so far, is that this is going to be a gigantic, astonishing encyclopaedia transcending the Nintendo universe and paying homage to the broader video game industry. And we can now attest to that.
We've been playing different early builds throughout the summer, but we've just got our hands on a pretty final version of the Nintendo Switch exclusive. Its launch date of December 7 seems way closer now but, after digging into its massive array of content for a longer, deeper preview session, every day seems like too much waiting. It really is a monstrous game.
That session was split into four sections that, for now, will be the four main game modes. Yes, we've experienced that moment when, as if he were a Marvel villain, Galeem (a.k.a. Sakurai) wipes every single character from the series off the face of the Earth (well, all but one: Kirby), and we've explored that adventure. Yes, we've played the more classic mode too. We've also taken a deeper look at its challenges and experienced tons of combat. And yeah, we're absolutely dazzled by it.
There's a whole lot to digest with this entry, as this time the dev team wasn't satisfied with just reaching the same figures in terms of content. As if it wasn't enough with the sheer amount of stages, characters or sound tracks (don't even try to do the maths), the creators have decided that absolutely everything in Smash Ultimate has to be somehow connected. They went as far as flirting with RPG tropes and stealing a few elements from the Fire Emblem series to experiment with.
But how can you combine and present something like this without breaking the game-defining mechanics? By means of the World of Light story mode, that's how. The single-player campaign, which for many acts as the spiritual successor to the beloved Super Smash Bros. Brawl's Subspace Emissary, throws you in a world with Kirby as the only playable character, fighting to reunite all the heroes against the power of Galeem. Beyond the tribute by Masahiro Sakurai to his favourite creation (perhaps a nod to Satoru Iwata as well), the first minutes with the story make two things very clear: the objective is that mysterious winged orb and, as proven by the very first movement of the camera, the map is massive.
The world is covered with levels represented as battles, and each battle is at the same time a homage to a character or franchise, and also a challenge in terms of both skills and strategy. Here, same as with another mode we'll talk about later, your ability to achieve victory depends not just on your dexterity with the controller, but also on your mastery when using and taking advantage of the Spirits (which represent all sorts of video game characters).
At this point, something very interesting enters the mix that adds both uniqueness and historical value to the game. Each battle you encounter is versus the 'mould' of a fighter from the roster... but with the soul of a different one. That is, you might be fighting Metal Sonic, which is a metallic version of the hedgehog with a jetpack. Or a Guardian from Breath of the Wild, which is a giant, laser-shooting R.O.B., or even Ness and his father, the latter being an invisible Snake (a reference only Earthbound fans will understand). On top of that, stages can transform as well, adding even more challenge.
The combinations we encountered during our session were full of invention and challenge. In fact, even though we had a good start, it didn't take much until we had to stop, take it easy and explore the RPG side of things. Merging role-playing with Smash combat is a constant here, and the result so far seems both amazing and complex.
In practice it's much easier to understand, but on paper the Spirits system might seem a bit confusing. Throughout your adventure, you can access a specific menu to switch characters, handle your accompanying Spirits (which you get by defeating them), or equip abilities that you unlock on a skill tree. Those companion Spirits are the most important aspect here, as they provide life to everything else.
Then there are two classes: Primary Spirits and Support Spirits. The former have attributes including Attack, Grab, Shield, or Neutral to begin with, all of which relate to each other in a rock-paper-scissors kind of deal which has been inspired by Fire Emblem. This makes more sense given Sakurai-san's love for the S-RPG series, and attack beats grab, grab beats shield, and shield beats attack. Neutral has no specific advantage or weakness over the others.
This setting, coupled with the special skills provided by the Support Spirits, and with the levelling of the Primary Spirits, is the core of the RPG side of the experience. We confess it took us no more than ten minutes before we bit the dust in combat, so we were forced to check our Spirits properly to work some sort of advantage. There are scenarios and battles in which the role of the support is vital, more so when they give you extra buffs or status, such as poison resistance, items, and less recoil to your attacks.
So, saying Spirits are the soul of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate might sound like an easy pun, but we really mean it. It's true that we still have to dive deeper into the game, but the fact that everything in this mode is linked to them - even to the point where entering certain zones in the map asks you to have a specific Spirit with you - underlines their role. And keep an eye on that map, as branching roads and barriers will force you to backtrack in order to find all the secrets and unlock characters, at the same time exploring a narrative that should have some fun twists.
This isn't the only new mode in the new Smash Bros. Even though The World of Light is one of the most tempting additions for solo players, there's another part of the game which is closely related to the story mode, and that's the Spirits Board. At first it looked to us like an enhanced version of the good old Challenge Mode from previous entries, with the significant difference being that the amount of battles is, again, enormous.
Every battle focuses on a specific subject, a certain reference, a nod or a wink meant to put the spotlight on a particular franchise, living or extinct. We've fought against characters from Castlevania, Mario & Luigi, Paper Mario, EarthBound/Mother, Elite Beat Agents, and even some more obscure titles like Famicom Tantei Club. We even smashed poor Waluigi, and the best part of it is that their essences have been carefully adapted to the game's mechanics. All is perfectly threaded, with jaw-dropping accuracy.
Let's not forget we're not talking about 3D playable models, but "interpretations" of existing fighters via skins, decorations, and moves, but that's precisely what makes some of the appearances all the more hilarious. This part of the game also retains the Spirits systems from the adventure mode, so you can equip them as you see fit and get to keep every spirit you beat (and also those you hit during a brief mini-game after victory). Indeed, everything you unlock here transfers to The World of Light and vice versa.
These two Spirit-based single-player branches in Smash Bros. Ultimate are colossal already and look set to deliver content to satisfy even the most gluttonous player. And if it wasn't enough with the standard Smash mode, which boasts an extensive character roster (which you keep unlocking by both progressing through the adventure mode and by meeting other requirements we haven't learned about yet) and a similarly large range of stages, Sakurai and co. have built a huge game world which is connected to a very straightforward experience.
The World of Light is something you can enjoy at a slower pace, as you keep uncovering new places, searching for new paths, and unlocking new Spirits to progress and to get more characters. But the Spirits Board is something much more direct, offering quicker play sessions for those who want to master this new and deep addition to the series. Given the Switch's portable feature, it also seems pretty convenient too.
Much simpler than the single-player variants we've described already are the Classic Mode and the traditional Versus. In these cases, Spirits are off the table and the core gameplay, which was comprehensive enough as it was, comes under the spotlight. It's the two branches catering to the more veteran players, those who would rather have their skills tested over their mastery of the fighters and their detailed knowledge of both moves and stages.
So just like the Smash 64 that started it all, the arcade mode takes you through a total of eight levels, including a bonus stage and a final boss battle. We tried it out with Duck Hunt and Mario, and once again we were amazed at how much love has been put into everything, including a mode that could be easily randomised and is separate from the story modes. As it turns out, every character has their very own path here in the Classic Mode, and as such, they tackle different opponents based on their role. The duck and the dog are all about hunting, with NES Zapper references and each fight featuring an animal, for example, but the best hunting reference was saved for the end, as we tackled one of the most iconic 'huntable' monsters in gaming, the Rathalos.
Elsewhere on Mario's path we battled some other iconic Nintendo franchises, and we even spotted Wolf had his own path, only fighting against rivals who are making a comeback after having left the Smash series before. So it's all calculated, and it's constantly assessing your skills, rewarding you with food for Spirits (to power them up and to evolve them), skill spheres (for that aforementioned skill tree), or coins for other yet to-be-uncovered purposes. You may be better or worse, but you always get some nice rewards along with a correspondent difficulty tweak, so that your time here is more or less tricky the next time.
Even though talking about the standard versus multiplayer mode would be redundant at this point, there's something we noticed that is worth mentioning. When we played the summer builds, we pointed out that there had been a noticeable tweak to the game's speed, characters' weight, and behaviour on the stage. In this almost final version, we've spotted even more changes, other than the addition of newcomers such as Ken or Incineroar (the latter, by the way, being very tough and fun to play). The pace, which was way more dynamic than ever before, is retained from the previous builds, but controls have been softened, now leaning closer to what we had on the Wii U. It might sound like a conservative decision, but tweaks made to knockback, falling from ledges if you hang too long, or the fact that characters can't run through each other, are crucial to the pacing and the development of each fight.
We look forward to taking a deeper look at the differences between TV and handheld mode, and between Pro Controller and Joy-Con, with our upcoming full review. So far it seems like, given our habit of using tilt moves, the little controllers might very well end up being our weapon of choice. As long as, of course, there's no GameCube controller around...
But even after all we've written about it we insist: we haven't been able to play as much as we would like to. So while we've tried out what seems to be the four main game modes in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, we're certain it'll be hiding much more than meets the eye. The official figures are titanic already, and everything we've tested has clearly been worked on with reverence and care. As a fighting game it looks set to become a benchmark; as a video game, it's just nuts. We might be looking at Super Smash Bros' greatest achievement so far.