The latest entry in the Smash Bros. series doesn’t just cash in on nostalgia, it builds on it. Sam Brooks reviews Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
I write about nostalgia a lot – it’s a fascination of mine. Nostalgia is the process of memory taking up space in your mind and your soul; it takes the hazy and the loose and brings it from that vanishing point into focus. In doing so, the memory loses any flaws and holes and becomes something golden and special.
As gaming passes into its eight generation, and its second since the form has been in homes, the nostalgia factor only winds up. It’s why we have Playstation Classic, it’s why we have updates of old games. It’s all about trying to capture that first high, that first wonder, when you played those games for the first time. But there’s only so far you can move forward while looking back.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is forward-facing nostalgia at its finest. It’s a game that trades fully on your childhood nostalgia, while being committed to providing a robust, deep experience that doesn’t just trade on that nostalgia, but makes new emotional bank on it.
The Super Smash Bros. series turns those playground conversations of ‘Who would win in a fight?’ into something that players can actually action. You can pit Mario (from Mario) against Cloud Strife (from Final Fantasy) against Sonic (nee the Hedgehog) and see who wins. They’ve been doing this for two decades, the fighting roster gradually expanding until it now balloons out at seventy-five characters, ranging from the most popular of Nintendo’s gaming mascot stable to third party characters like Solid Snake and Simon Belmont.
The series has always been known for its breadth, but for the first time since Melee in the halcyon days of the GameCube, it has evened out its breadth with a mind-boggling depth. Not only are there those seventy-five characters, there’s over a hundred customisable levels from all the best Nintendo (and third-party) games, and eight hundred songs.
If, for some reason, you wanted to watch Peach and Kirby beat the shit out of each other with lightsabers in Hyrule Temple, then you can do that here. Even beyond the amount of choice you have for characters, stages and music, you can customize each individual fight to be exactly the fight, and more crucially, the game you want to play. Want to play a four minute match with constant beam-sword drops or constant Pokemon balls dropping onto the level? Or maybe you want to play a twenty second fight with a million lives? You can do that!
Beyond its value as a multiplayer fighting game, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate brings back a sort-of story mode, the World of Light. The plot, if you’re interested at all in the Smash canon (and why on earth would you be?), is that a huge cosmic entity has killed and/or brainwashed all the warriors except for Kirby, and Kirby has to rescue them from their certain doom. What this means, practically, is a sort of board-game type situation where you move Kirby around on a board, fighting various fights, until you free all the warriors and destroy the huge cosmic entity.
It’s a little bit more complex than that. With each fight, you can equip Spirits – giving your chosen fighter certain attributes, or immunities – and fight against other Spirits. Each of the fourteen hundred spirits has an origin in a Nintendo, or in certain cases, a third party game, and the attributes of each Spirit lines up with each game nicely. Also, it leads to crazy situations like the below:
'The body I've lost…the comrades I've lost…wont stop hurting…it's like theyre all still there. You feel it too, dont you, Kirby?' pic.twitter.com/2WOzrgZhYE
— ah!! my nyans~!✨ (@kitty4pres) December 8, 2018
The World of Light mode is great, and if you’re into a meditative, single-playing fighting game experience like yours truly, it can be ideal. It’s also a good way to get used to all the fighters gradually, or, in my case, truly mastering one fighter by honing them against wildly different experiences. While there’s a lot of these fights that will be over in a minute or so, there’s more than a few that require tactical thinking – like an early fight with three Simon Belmonts throwing axes at you or a later one against a massive Bowser.
But for all its new depth, Ultimate‘s best and most important feature is that it’s a goddamned fun party game. Whether your friends are hardcore fighting game enthusiasts, and therefore maybe a bit boring, or just a few people who want to push lots of buttons after some brews, this is a great way to get your party going or settle some scores. There’s nothing quite like beating up your masc Ridley-playing friend than with a Peach who saunters through levels with her parasol, hip drops and stalwart bodyguard, Toad.
In an era when the triple-A games seem to want us to spend hundreds of hours blowing through their stories, it’s refreshing to find a game that you just can pick up and play for a quick fight or session or sit down with for a good ten hours running. And if you aim to unlock those seventy-five characters, you’ll be wanting to do the latter.
Anybody can cash in on nostalgia – it takes minimum effort for maximum reward. But to take an audience’s nostalgia and use it to create a new experience that is gratifying in its own right is an achievement that is worth praise.
More than that though, Super Smash Bros. has established itself as a bridge between the past and the future. It can be a lifeline for forgotten older games, and a way for them to create new relevancy. It was only fifteen years ago that an appearance by Roy and Marth in Melee was how Fire Emblem got a foothold in the West, and now the series is one of Nintendo’s cult juggernauts. I can’t say what Ultimate will do for any of these series – there’s literally hundreds of games that are represented here – but it’s important to recognise Super Smash Bros. as one of the industry’s key gateways to canonisation. If you’re in these games, your place in history is secure.
But that’s meta-game stuff that’s mostly for industry nerds like me. What’s important is that this game is fun and worth playing. Not only that, it’s one of the key games of this year. Whether you’re in for a fighting game to let off some steam, or you’re using this as your entry point into the competitive gaming world, this is a necessity if you’re anywhere near a Nintendo Switch.
Go hard, Peach fans and nobody else.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is available for Nintendo Switch right now.