Like my namesake, I have a weakness for excess. Give me audacious; give me far-reaching. Even if it doesn’t quite hit the mark, I’ll probably be impressed. Hence my fondness for the sprawl of Arkham Horror (2005) with all its expansions incorporated like some oft-supplemented eldritch lexicon, Gloomhaven merely sitting on my shelf weighing more than a Christmas turkey, Alan Moore at his most self-indulgent, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Actually, Alan Moore at his most self-indulgent—by which I mean the Alan Moore who wrote The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier—might be the best analogy for Smash Ultimate‘s bewitching abundance. In case you haven’t read it, Black Dossier is the graphic novel (which remains extraordinarily graphic and quite novel despite a general lack of traditional comic panels) wherein Alan Moore, the mad wizard of comics, takes the premise of the first two League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books—a world in which the roles of fiction and reality are reversed—and removes nearly all pretense of a plot in favor of fitting in as many history- and globe-spanning mash-ups as he possibly can. Flexing his skills in mimicry alongside series artist Kevin O’Neill, Moore tosses in a Jeeves and Wooster story about an encounter with Lovecraftian beings; a faux-Shakespearean script, in iambic pentameter, in which Shakespeare’s Prospero is revealed to be a pseudonym of Johannes Suttle from Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and analog of Queen Elizabeth’s court wizard, John Dee; the two-thousand-year story of the immortal, omnisexual O/Orlando, daughter of Tiresias, consort of Ozymandius, veteran of both the Trojan War and the Battle of Camlann; a cameo-packed segment intended to be read with 3D glasses; political cartoons; and a whole mess of vintage smut, all packaged in a frame story involving James Bond and Emma Peel in a post-Big Brother England. The whole thing is basically Moore and O’Neill shipping the entire canon of English (and some world) literature, shifting styles and voices every couple of pages, and is a wonderful thought experiment in panfictional cross-pollination.
Which is all more or less exactly what Super Smash Bros. is doing, minus the smut and just a touch of the self-indulgence. What began in 1994 as an excuse to “duke it out as your favorite Nintendo character” has grown ever more ambitious and elaborate. Much as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was once about Mina Harker, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo, and the Invisible Man—a sort of Super Friends of Victorian speculative fiction—the original Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64 featured only twelve fighters from Nintendo’s core franchises, such as Mario, Link, Samus Aran, and Pikachu. At the time, even this fairly minor crossing-over was unheard of, but the Smash Bros. series has long since expanded to absorb an ever-growing cast of video game notables—including some who have barely stepped foot on a Nintendo console. Final Fantasy’s Cloud Strife, Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, Platinum Games’ Bayonetta, Konami’s Solid Snake, Namco’s Pac-Man, and Street Fighter’s Ryu are among the series’ more exotic cameos.
Of course, it isn’t the size of the cast that has made Super Smash Bros. a household name. It’s the exacting attention to detail; it’s clear to anyone that series creator Masahiro Sakurai (also responsible for the Kirby series) pours his heart into his work. Watch the announcement trailer from earlier this year, and there’s no hiding his glee as he clarifies the new game’s tagline, “Everyone is Here”: “That’s right, every fighter in Super Smash Bros. history is joining the battle. … We believe that’s what players want, so we made the impossible possible.” In fact, a deep joy suffuses the entire announcement as workaholic Sakurai, who had previously retired from the series due to stress and exhaustion, shares reveal after reveal for twenty-five minutes straight. Sakurai’s face in this announcement is the same face a father makes as his child unwraps the present she thought she couldn’t get. As the first of Sakurai and Nintendo’s many gifts to fans—not just of this series, but of video games as a form—this meticulously crafted announcement trailer, and the ones that followed it, is a fine barometer for the care and dedication that attend the finished product.
In terms of pure stats, Smash Ultimate is definitely impressive: 75 fighters (including 11 newcomers), 103 stages, and 87 items, including a Pokéball that randomly summons one of 55 Pokémon and an Assist Trophy that brings in one of 59 computer-controlled allies. There are U.S. cities with smaller populations, and that’s before you account for the nearly 1300 characters there in Spirit.
Of course, Super Smash Bros. is about a lot more than raw stats. It’s about heart, about spirit. Still, Smash Ultimate wastes no opportunity to weaponize the dizzying size of its cast, from the ultra-panoramic mural that was unveiled in the announcement trailer to the scene of annihilation at the opening of the World of Light Adventure Mode to the (different) mural used to represent Intensity in the addictive new Classic Mode. A key component of this latter mural is that the fighters aren’t pictured in isolation; they’re depicted grappling, sparring, and threatening one another in a runaway train of a battle royale. A similar spirit attends the silly tableaux vivant, composed using in-engine characters, animations, and environments, that serve as rewards for achieving the game’s many “Milestones.”
Super Smash Bros. has been many things to many players. The fast-paced, character-based brawler has long been a favorite among the tournament crowd, who tend to favor the second entry, Melee, for its comparatively pared-down features and stage structure. At the same time, series creator Sakurai has continually added new features to more fully capture the spirit of the many game worlds the series has come to embrace. Elements such as cinematic Final Smashes (a kind of finishing move unique to each fighter), stage-based hazards, the ever-growing grab-bag of items and power-ups, and assist trophies have proven divisive among fans of the series. They broaden the series’ appeal for more casual players (a necessity in the fighting game market, which can often seem inaccessible to newcomers) while leaving “hardcore” players feeling alienated. But you can’t please everybody, can you?
You can if you’re Masahiro Sakurai. Smash Ultimate is designed with that exactly that mindset: include everything that everyone loves about Smash, even if those things are in direct and noisy competition with each other. So, alongside the tumultuous, interactive stage design that has dominated later entries in the series, every stage now has a more static “Battlefield” variation, which mimics the structure of the series’ most popular battleground among the tournament crowd. Alongside many flashy new features and animations come subtle balance changes and the addition of technical moves aimed at the lightning-thumbed among us; the rest of us, among whom I include myself, probably wouldn’t even notice if we managed to pull off a short hop attack, perfect shield, or directional air dodge. The tagline “Everyone is Here” doesn’t just apply to the fighters; it applies to the players, too. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate welcomes everyone.
Another issue of contention among series fans is just how much Smash Bros. should be a multiplayer game. As a fighting game, this is naturally going to be the main focus for most players. But Sakurai has always been generous to his solo players. Never has this been more true than in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the series’ third entry, which included a sprawling, story-driven platformer, complete with pre-rendered cutscenes featuring that game’s entire roster teaming up in an Ocean’s 39-esque infiltration mission, playable alone or by two players cooperatively. Dubbed “Subspace Emissary,” this ridiculously detailed mode, which features its own enemies, environments, and bosses, has been the gold standard of single-player content among fighting games ever since.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s single-player Adventure Mode, “World of Light,” doesn’t quite match Subspace Emissary’s ambition, especially when it comes to the story, but it does perfectly capture Ultimate‘s spirit of generosity. In the manner of Black Dossier, World of Light forgets almost immediately that it’s supposed to include an actual plot; instead, its focus is on expanding Ultimate‘s already impressive catalog of characters and references from across video game history. The setup, one of this mode’s very few narrative-centric moments, depicts Smash Bros.‘s multiverse being obliterated by a new antagonist: Galeem, Lord of Light.
The fighters and their countless stories came to an end as the light consumed them. Thus, the world was crushed in the hands of Galeem. Those who fought the light were devoured. The others lost their bodies and became spirits. Only one survived… A star of hope twinkles faintly as the dust settles on the new world.
This new world, a composite of the many games featured previous in Smash Bros. (and many not previously featured), makes up the World of Light’s massive overworld map, explored via a network of branching paths; the whole thing is akin to a vastly more complex version of Super Mario World‘s world map, including many alternate routes and switches to unlock new nodes. Dotting this map are the Spirits mentioned in prologue, characters from all over video game history. These Spirits aren’t faced directly; instead, they’re found pulling the strings of puppets modeled after the fighters who opposed Galeem. In practical terms, this means that Smash Ultimate’s adventure mode is a series of custom battles designed to evoke the characters represented by the Spirits. Most of the time, this is done exceptionally well; for example, the battle against Fatal Frame‘s Mio and Mayu Amakura has the twins, inhabiting the forms of princesses Peach and Daisy, fleeing the player’s attacks in the haunted Luigi’s Mansion. It’s actually rather amazing what can be accomplished using a relatively limited toolkit: every element of the battle, the specific color palette applied to the enemy fighters to details like battleground, starting items, and background music, works together to convey the essence of this vastly expanded cast and tickle players’ sense of nostalgia.
Like Pokémon, these Spirits, after being defeated, can be collected, leveled, and in some cases evolved, then equipped to your fighter to augment your abilities and starting equipment. There’s a strong exploration element at play here, too, as collecting certain Spirits will open up previously inaccessible portions of the largely nonlinear world map, including treasures, dungeons, side activities, and a few special boss battles. While the lack of story is disappointing at first, the satisfying, Metroidvania-style sense of progression, which includes a simple skill tree, more than makes up for it. The rewards for each battle are proportionate to the power disparity between the player’s Spirit team and the opponent’s, meaning that this mode, too, caters to every kind of player: there’s a strong incentive for you to play at the very edge of your skill level.
The same holds true for the new Classic Mode, which is built upon an adaptive, sliding “Intensity” level that makes the battles more taxing, and the rewards greater, as you succeed in successive battles. Playable alone or with a partner, Classic Mode also includes a unique, themed “path” of encounters built around each of the game’s 75 fighters. For example, newcomer Simon Belmont will be battling the game’s more monstrous opponents, while Solid Snake’s “Weapons and Equipment OSP” path features a generous helping of items, particularly firearms, explosives, and other gadgets, as he battles a selection of other deadeyed fighters. Wii Fit Trainer whips a bevy of portly opponents into shape, boxer Little Mac’s “Friendly Sparring” is exclusively one-on-one battles versus unarmed rivals, and Dark Samus’s “The Great Poison Given Form” is a series of team-based matches in which the Phazon-formed entity fights alongside corrupted versions of various games’ heroes.
This clever abstraction of theme perfectly captures what I love about games of any stripe, and Smash Ultimate does it brilliantly. Here we have characters, settings, and items from dozens of franchises in dozens of genres, all abstracted onto the framework of Smash’s kinetic character-based brawler. Whether it’s Kirby’s floatiness, Sonic’s speed, or the predictable arc of Simon’s ax tosses, every character that makes its way into Smash just feels right. Superstars like Cloud and Link are of course fun to play, but this series really shines in its cast of oddballs, whether it’s the Wii Fit Trainer telling you to work on your core while pummeling you with yoga poses or Duck Hunt’s dog/duck duo tossing clay pigeons and tin cans across the screen. The same holds true for the stages: weird entries inspired by Pictochat, Electroplankton, and Nintendogs often outshine their more recognizable neighbors. And the beauty of it is that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, with its “Everyone is Here” mentality, includes every one of these oddballs right alongside your favorite fighter, item, or stage, no matter what kind of player you are.
Of course, Smash Ultimate is at its most frenetic in the classic, and highly customizable, Smash Mode, which supports matches of up to eight AI- or human-controlled brawlers. This is Super Smash Bros. in its purest form, a fast-paced melee in which anything could happen, including the battlefield itself morphing into a new form. And it can be played, seemingly, however you’d like; there are presets and customization options for 32-player tourneys, squad-based elimination matches, stamina battles, last-man-standing or timed bouts, and even a big head mode.
I’ll leave it to other reviews to discuss the new fighters and gameplay tweaks in depth, or to analyze Smash Ultimate‘s online matchmaking and tournament-readiness, or to speculate about the five upcoming DLC characters, or to discuss the game’s many entry points and progression paths toward unlocking 100% of its content. There’s plenty of room for them. Everyone is welcome, and everyone is here.