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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a big game, crammed to bursting with more characters, modes and side activities than any other fighter to date. But does more necessarily mean better?
In the case of the Nintendo Switch's highly-anticipated brawler, the answer to that question is a resounding "yes." Getting ready to write this review, my biggest fear was that anything I had to say would come out sounding like little more than a laundry list of modes, features, gameplay additions and the like. There's so much on offer here, I was having trouble figuring out where to begin.
Then, last night, I finally got to fill in the last piece of the puzzle that should probably be mandatory before offering a final verdict on a game like Smash Ultimate. I was with a group of friends and, when our original plans for the evening fell through, I pulled my Switch out of my bag and the five of us started beating the stuffing out of each other.
Up to that point, I had experienced almost everything else Smash Bros. has to offer, pouring hours into the game's various modes in the week following its Dec. 7 launch. I unlocked characters galore in standard Smash matches while creating custom game modes that I knew I would like to play with my friends. I conquered a corner of the World of Light campaign map and unlocked/upgraded several dozen Spirits. I messed around with the various training options, tackled some of the extra modes and even spent some time kicked back on the couch, reading the news while the impressive music player rolled one hit after the other in the background.
After all of that time, I knew for certain that Smash Bros. Ultimate was a top-notch single player experience with a solid but friendly fighting system and more than enough options to keep a solo pugilist entertained for a very long time. But the game wasn't cemented in my mind as an instant classic until I finally got to go toe-to-toe-to-toe-to-toe-to-toe with a bunch of friends.
Some of my best memories from college revolve around being crammed into a dorm room, playing various incarnations of games like Smash Bros. and Mario Kart with my pals. I typically prefer to play just about any game all by my lonesome, but you really can't beat the atmosphere of half a dozen or so people gathered around a single TV, cheering and jeering for hours on end as Mario punches Link and Kirby sends Jigglypuff flying off of a platform.
So I had a pretty impressive rush of nostalgia last night as we booted up Smash Ultimate and dove into the antics. We finagled some controls, experimented with some game types, set up a new mode and proceeded to enact all kinds of over-the-top, cartoonish violence upon each other. Along the way, we got to cheer each other on as one of the remaining locked characters would swoop onto the scene to challenge the most recent victor. As we played, I kept thinking of new tweaks to the gameplay I wanted to try out, formulating themed matches and, for the first time in a long time, toyed with the idea of inviting a whole bunch of people over to host an actual tournament.
But what's super impressive -- and maybe even a little overwhelming -- about Smash Ultimate is that we had so much fun while only scratching the surface of the modes and options available. Director Masahiro Sakurai and his team have poured an insane amount of time and care into this game, making quality of life adjustments and piling on the options so that it's easier than ever to fine-tune and get lost in the mayhem. And that doesn't even take into account the ridiculous little Easter eggs and fun touches fans of the series will find peppered throughout. More than a love letter to Smash fans, Ultimate is a love letter to video games in general.
But no amount of modes, options and collectibles would be worth your time or money if the gameplay driving the action wasn't solid, and that's yet another area where this latest iteration of Smash Bros. shines. I am by no means a fighting game expert, but I at least know enough about the genre to know what works well and, more importantly to yours truly, what I myself enjoy. To me, the best fighting engines are those that are simple enough for just about anyone to pick up and play, but deep and rewarding enough to challenge more serious combatants. And that's exactly what you get out of Smash Bros. Ultimate.
On the surface, Smash is an extremely simple fighter. You've got one button for basic attacks and one button for special attacks. You can hold a direction on the analog stick to augment those attacks, but that's pretty much the basics. Throw in a grab and a block button and you've got a streamlined system anyone should be able to grasp in just a match or two.
But there's a hell of a lot more to it than that, all just waiting to be discovered by more dedicated players. From Tilt and Smash variants to all sorts of additional finesse moves like parrying, side-stepping, short-hopping and beyond, there is a complex network of variables hidden just under the surface. Hell, there are something like four or five ways just to get back onto a main platform when you find your character hanging from a ledge, all of which offer their own advantages and disadvantages depending on what situation you find yourself in.
I doubt I'll ever go that deep into the layers of combat, but I can absolutely appreciate that the team at Nintendo has managed to evolve the series time and time again in order to create something that's unique and super rewarding to dig into and master.
In the end, Nintendo has managed to squeeze a behemoth of a game onto about 13GB of space, and we're talking about more than 100 beautifully detailed stages, nearly 80 characters (Belmonts, finally!), customization aplenty, modes galore, a soundtrack of hundreds of songs and things I probably haven't even discovered yet. And most importantly of all, it's an absolute blast to play, full of wonderful moments and unexpected surprises at every turn.
Whether you're looking to brawl solo or cram a room full of friends and battle your way through an impromptu tournament, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate takes an "everything, including the kitchen sink" approach that absolutely works and will keep everyone entertained for a long, long time to come. It's basically a perfect evolution of the series, one that more than lives up to the "Ultimate" tacked onto the end of its moniker.