Nintendo's all-star brawler Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has had us giddy with excitement ever since its initial reveal during this March's Nintendo Direct. It strives to be the pinnacle of the franchise, reuniting all characters from throughout its history and adding fresh new mechanics such as an RPG-inspired spirit system. Two exclusive Smash Directs later and after earning the accolade of being the most pre-ordered Switch title in history, Ultimate is finally here and we believe that this fifth instalment is the best the series has to offer.
Ultimate compiles together all characters that have made an appearance across the 19-year-old franchise and introduces six fresh faces of its own. Newcomers include Inkling (Splatoon), Ridley (Metroid), King K. Rool (Donkey Kong), Isabelle (Animal Crossing), Incineroar (Pokemon) and Simon (Castlevania) as well as seven new echo forms. Kremling chief King K. Rool was a standout for us due to his sheer bulk and diverse movepool despite looking downright goofy with his crazed expression and solo bloodshot eyeball. The overweight croc can use his crown as a boomerang and smash foes into the ground by crushing them with his gold-plated stomach. Another favourite was the Inklings as they can steamroll foes with paint rollers, shoot into the air by transforming into squids, and they have a distinct handicap where you have to manage their rechargeable supply of ink.
The bulk of the single-player experience in Ultimate is World of Light, a new mode that flirts with RPG mechanics and has a sprawling board game-like map for you to explore. The story mode sees our fighters become slaves to antagonist Galeem after being crushed by a horde of Master Hands and occupied by the spirits of various other video game mascots. Gliding on the back of a star and zigzagging through the piercing beams of light is Kirby, the only character who survived the attack and the one fighter that you'll be playing as initially when working to defeat Galeem and free all of your trapped allies.
Moving across the gameboard you'll encounter new spirits on each square which you can battle to earn orbs and snacks to level up. There's an RPG skill tree here where you can use your orbs to improve qualities such as your shield strength and braking ability and this is carried over across all of your playable characters. You'll also unlock other distractions on the map such as caves and dojos where you can send your spirits to explore for hidden goodies and do some much-needed training. The board is open in structure so if you're finding yourself really stuck on one particular spirit you can always take a detour and do some much-needed grinding to gather some more spirits and level up.
Spirits are at the heart of World of Light and help provide an extra layer of depth as each one comes with its own perks and stat-altering abilities. There are a staggering 1297 spirits featured which have allowed the devs to pour in characters from popular franchises such as Shovel Knight and F-Zero that otherwise wouldn't have made the cut. Primary spirits and support spirits are the two types available, with primary spirits bolstering your attack and defence, and support spirits being equipable to primary spirits to offer different abilities. Wrinkly Kong, for example, allows you to start battles with 30% damage but with more defence; Mite increases your jump and overall floatiness; Blaze the Cat lets you start with curry breath.
There's something quite addictive about unlocking spirits and we loved how each interaction on the board felt that much more special than a typical encounter. Playing against the Pidgey spirit, for example, we had to fight on a stage with extreme winds and we also had to fight against a golden shelled Squirtle who was possessed by a Glint Beetle from Pikmin. It's worth noting that these spirits are available in multiplayer too and you can save different combinations to easily access your favourites. The main issue that we had is that many of the spirits shared the same abilities as others making some feel kind of redundant and we wish our inventory stacked up duplicates as our collection filled quickly.
Spirits mode is the more casual companion to World of Light and allows you to build up your spirit collection in more succinct bursts without any of the boardgame-style exploration. The spirit board features several squares of spirits which refresh in a handful of minutes and you can quickly dive into a battle with them for a chance at unlocking them. There's real danger right until the very end because even if you are victorious you have to successfully scoop up the spirit with your blaster as a circular shield rotates around them. Luckily though there are items you can purchase that can swing things in your favour such as replays and the ability to refresh the board completely to get something closer to your liking.
Classic mode takes things back to basics stripping out spirits and pushing your fighters through a gauntlet of eight challenges which includes a bonus stage and concluding boss battle. Each respective classic mode is themed around your selected fighter with us playing against 80s gaming mascots such as Pacman and using Pokeballs and Masterballs as the main spawnable items when taking Pikachu's path. We admired these subtle deviations but we found the mode lost steam during the latter half as we were pushed through the same basic collectathon challenge mode and lost track of the times we fought Master Hand. That being said, it has one of the greatest credits sequences we've seen in a game as it saw us dashing through space and blasting the devs names into a bunch of fiery particles.
Online and local multiplayer modes, of course, remain as chaotic as ever. You can fight with up to eight players at once and create your own custom matches tweaking aspects such as spawnable items, stage transitions, and damage counters. There's even GameCube controller support allowing you to relive the title's former glory days on the lunch box-shaped console. On top of standard battles there's the tournament mode that can have up to 32 participants and Squad Strike where your teammates can take turns joining the fight and jumping into battle.
While much has stayed the same, there have also been changes across the board even when excluding the addition of spirits. Upon booting up the game players now only have eight playable fighters to select between with the rest being unlockable when sinking time into the various different modes. We get that this was perhaps not to overwhelm players and let them get to grips with the more straightforward characters but we can see why it may be disappointing for casuals looking for some multiplayer fun right out of the box. A welcomed change is that you now select your stage before your character which can help you make a more informed choice when it comes to your fighter (unless you have the stage set to random, of course).
The hybrid nature of the Switch made Ultimate feel like a true combination of the divided Wii U and 3DS versions we got during the last generation. We played a fair amount of battles across handheld and docked mode and don't notice any major performance issues but we didn't find that the more chaotic battles were harder to focus on the smaller screen. The Pro Controller felt much nicer in hand when pulling tougher strings of button combos but even the single Joy-Cons were a perfectly serviceable option as one Nintendo employee proved to us in the review session as he proceeded to wipe the floor with a group of players using the seemingly less intuitive method of control.
Ultimate lives up to its name - it's the definitive Smash experience. It also helps to solidify what was a fairly limited first-party line-up for Nintendo following the launch of heavy hitters Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild in 2017. It brings together more than 100 stages and all of the fighters as well as introducing an all-new RPG-like spirit system that helps expand customisation tenfold and provides a satisfying fix that we are sure completionists won't be able to get enough of. Its Classic mode does have some slight flaws and we would have preferred that more fighters were able upfront, but these minors flaws don't stop Ultimate back from being a title we can see ourselves returning to for years and years to come.