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We’ve played Nintendo’s upcoming brawler, including the two brand new characters and returning favorites.
It’s hard to argue that Super Smash Bros. isn’t the most exciting video game franchise. There have been four entries in Nintendo’s mashup masterpiece series, and every single one has been an event. Games like 64 and Melee forever changed the fighting game genre. Brawl and Smash 4 made months of entertainment out of slow-dripping character reveals. Building on that legacy, Ultimate, just announced at E3, could well become the definitive entry.
Prolific director Masahiro Sakurai sent the collective fanbase into shock when he appeared in the annual Nintendo Direct to announce that every single character to ever appear in a Smash Bros. game would be returning for the Nintendo Switch installment. On top of that, the most loyal fans saw years of wishing paid off as Metroid‘s Ridley finally joined the fray alongside Splatoon’s Inklings.
This series of megaton announcements sent ripples through the community, with nearly every player buzzing with a different set of questions. How do new characters control? What updates to older fighters will be implemented? Do old stages keep their same gimmicks? The demo available on the show floor was packed with content from the game, and it still felt overwhelming after more than two hours with the game.
A few headnotes: We weren’t able to try the game without items, or in stock mode, so all impressions are based on two-minute four-player matches across roughly a dozen stages. Also, the Switch was always docked, so it’s hard to tell what the game’s final performance will be like in handheld mode. However, Nintendo did let players try the GameCube controllers recently unveiled to accompany the game’s arrival.
Off the bat, it’s clear the game was built right on the skeleton of the Wii U entry: To be familiar with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is to be familiar with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Featuring the most expansive roster of fighters, many customizable elements, and deep mechanics, the Wii U version of Smash seemed hard to top. Even the physics are roughly identical to the Wii U version, while movement does feel a bit faster. Ultimate, it turns out, isn’t aiming to blow that game’s formula, but to iterate upon it and achieve something greater. Calling Ultimate a port of the Wii U game isn’t necessarily wrong but certainly does the Switch edition a massive slight. Eight-player matches and Omega stages are back, though it’s still a mystery if we’ll see the return of the single-player components of the game like Smash Run or Subspace Emissary.
But Smash has always been first and foremost a multiplayer experience, and players know what to expect. Ultimate feels frenetic, especially with assist trophies, items, and stage hazards clogging the screen. The sheer amount of stuff that can be on the stage at one time is intimidating to think about. Every screenshot taken has the potential to represent a wildly different game. With the presence of Pac-Man, Mega Man, Solid Snake, Ryu, Cloud, and more, Smash Bros. has gone from being a celebration of Nintendo’s best to gaming’s single most important crossover.
Characters that have felt antiquated in the past are getting some overdue updates. Ganondorf’s appearance has been tweaked from a clone of Captain Falcon to a more unique fighter that swings a sword. Zelda’s new costume capitalizes on her magical abilities from A Link Between Worlds. It’s clear that Mario’s moves will make use of Cappy from Super Mario Odyssey. Shulk, Palutena, and Bayonetta are being tweaked from their appearance on the Wii U. Link now wears his Breath of the Wild outfit. Daisy is now known as an “Echo Fighter” for Peach, and every frame of the fighter promises to be colorful, exciting, and jam-packed with references to Nintendo’s history.
However, Super Smash Bros. is so much more than a Ready Player One–esque bombardment of nostalgia. There is a deep competitive edge to the game, and Nintendo has never been more welcoming of it. Not to ignore the prevalence of esports, the biggest first look at Ultimate came in the form of an all-star tournament featuring the most prominent players from around the world. Watching the high-level play in action revealed even more intricacies of the game. For example, watching wavedashing at work appears to allow for more mobility and nuanced controls. Players can cancel their attacks with an additional press of the attack button. Small movement mechanics were confirmed as well, like hopping and directional air dodges. Ledge grabbing works like it did on the Wii U, where players can grab onto the edge of a stage and force off the player currently hanging on.
On top of small tweaks to returning characters and updated mechanics, Ultimate is adding two brand new fighters (so far). Ridley is, appropriately, a lumbering behemoth. He crawls slowly, flexing his claws and whipping his pointed tail back and forth. Ridley’s Smash attacks are weighty and deal massive damage. Holding the attack button rapidly slashes, while his neutral special launches a wave of fireballs.
Where Ridley adds a powerful but patient tank to the mix, the Inklings are among the most unique Smash characters to date. On their character screen, an ink gauge is always displayed. Their Smash attack makes use of the ink shooters, expending fluid the more it’s used. Only holding the neutral attack can recharge the tank, leaving you open to damage. Zipping around the stage in Squid form, finding safety, and filling up will be a core strategy to anyone who plays this character.
Between new techniques, returning favorites, and six whole months’ worth of unknown surprises, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate offers fans so much to be excited for. The game’s familiar controls could be seen as a plus for some, offering the chance to dive in and start learning the intricacies out of the box, or a negative, if players feel it lacks compelling original content. It will be interesting to see how the game positions itself away from previous iterations leading up to release, or if it admits it’s more of an “enhanced” edition.
Right now, everything we’ve played points to this game being special. There’s simply so much packed into one experience, promising hours upon hours of fun and competitive bliss. Following on the smashing success of Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, Ultimate seems like the next must-own flagship title in Nintendo’s lineup.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate hits Nintendo Switch on Dec. 7.
AJ Moser is a Brooklyn-based reporter who focuses on video games, movies, and internet culture. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Game Informer, and Big Spaceship.