As a Nintendo fan, I’ve naturally always enjoyed the Super Smash Bros. series, but I’ve never quite loved it. Sure, it was always great seeing a bunch of characters from games I love all thrown together, and things only got better when legendary third party characters like Sonic and Mega Man joined the battle, but for some reason it just felt like something was missing. Thus, while I was certainly excited for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in the build up to its release thanks to the reveals of characters I’ve always wanted to see (Ridley, King K. Rool) and the reveal of options I’ve always wanted to have (Final Smash Meters, Stage Hazard Toggles), I was just expecting a sort of “greatest hits of Smash with a couple bells and whistles” compilation.
What I wasn’t expecting was for the development team at Nintendo and Namco/Bandai to have figured out that certain something that was missing.
Warning: This post contains some spoilers regarding boss fights, World of Light locations, classic mode routes, and spirit battles.
In previous Super Smash Bros. titles, Classic mode is a simple mode in which you go up against some of the game’s fighters on their home stages before reaching the end and fighting Master Hand. There were some changes along the way to randomize the fights leading to the end or to add a new original boss at the end, but it largely remained its same simple self. It was fun, but as the roster of the games grew, there became less and less of a reason to keep playing it with every character seeing as how it got very repetitive.
In the lead-up to Ultimate’s release, it was announced that the game’s classic mode would feature different routes for each character which seemed like an immediate upgrade. After all, with Ultimate’s massive roster, I can’t imagine many players were excited to rerun the same thing over 70 times. When I first picked up the game, I did what I always do with each Smash game and started with Mario’s classic mode. Mario’s adventure is largely meant to mimic the classic Classic Mode experience with Mario going up against characters from other series on their home turf, at least until the end. Mario’s 2nd to last fight, the mode shifts into a fight against all 7 Koopa Kids as the Fortress Boss Music from Super Mario Bros. 3 plays. Then, Mario reaches the end and instead of typical Master Hand, there’s a slight twist: his final boss is a 1 vs. 1 showdown with Bowser on Final Destination. However, the typical Final Destination music is replaced with a tune I’ve always felt was underappreciated, the final boss music of Super Mario Bros. 3. Upon defeating regular Bowser, however, Bowser transforms into Giga Bowser who first appeared in Super Smash Bros. Melee.
I found it to be a neat twist on the original classic mode formula. Even if it was largely the same, I liked the way it brought things back to a classic showdown between Mario and Bowser. However, it made me curious: if Mario’s path ended in Bowser, surely Link’s path would end in Ganondorf. Or maybe even the true Ganon itself on Final Destination? There was only one way to find out.
Link’s path sees him going on a quest to seal away the darkness. Since this is still Smash Bros. Classic Mode, it’s still just a series of fights against other characters on the roster but the twist is that they’re all dark characters: Dark Pit, Dark Samus, the Dark Link alternate outfit for Link, and so on. Link teams up with Zelda to face off against Ganondorf in the penultimate fight before indeed facing off against Ganon in the final battle.
However, this fight is a different beast than Giga Bowser, which was immediately made clear the moment the fight begins and I delightfully realized I was not in Final Destination, but in the flaming ruins of Ganon’s Castle from the end of Ocarina of Time as Breath of the Wild’s orchestrated soundtrack roars. While fighting Giga Bowser is effectively like fighting a super version of Bowser, Ganon’s battle throws some of the rules of Smash Bros. out the window in favor of the rules of his original boss fight: like in Ocarina of Time, Ganon can only be hurt by hitting his tail, and you’re going to have to dodge around his attacks to get to it. Also like the original boss fight, after Ganon takes enough damage he’ll go down on one knee and allow you to hit him as much as you can. The fight is intense and incredibly fun, but the best part is how for a brief moment it feels less like you’re playing Super Smash Bros. and instead playing the climax to a Zelda game that just so happens to share its physics. It’s a loving tribute to one of Nintendo’s most memorable moments.
Much like Mario and Link, Kirby’s final encounter is against what is perhaps his most memorable foe, Kirby Super Star’s Marx. The Marx fight goes almost exactly the same as that fight, which makes him the easiest boss for me entirely because I’ve fought him so many times over the years replaying my favorite Kirby game. However, he is armed with new attacks which double down on the surprisingly creepy vibe of Marx: he can now grow eyeballs on his eyeballs to shoot lasers, or turn them pitch black and fire chasing projectiles. It’s a great way to recapture the same fear some little kids had with the original. In the same vein, Simon Belmont faces off against Dracula who again like in his original series can only be damaged by hitting his head and again like his most famous incarnation transforms into a giant demon halfway through the battle.
The new bosses do such an excellent job of capturing the spirit of their original incarnations that I began to become disappointed when classic mode routes ended in the typical Master Hand and Crazy Hand fights or with a boss not really tied to the character. Even then, though, the developers found clever ways to keep these themes interesting. Mega Man’s route acts as a faux mini Mega Man game with a few fights against enemies standing in for robot masters, the standard bonus game standing in for a Wily Fortress level, a fight against a team of Mega Men standing in for the robot master refights, returning Smash Bros. Boss Galleum filling in for the Wily Machine, and Dr. Mario standing in for Dr. Wily...who promptly “transforms” into Mewtwo just like Wily transformed into an alien at the end of Mega Man 2. Even some of the individual fights themselves are twisted in a way to bring a smile to your face: in the penultimate fight of Pokemon Trainer’s route, he/she fights against a rival Pokemon trainer who tries to always make sure they’re using the Pokemon with the canon weakness to yours, again just like in the original game. Donkey Kong teams up with good old Diddy on a trek to New Donk City. The list goes on and on.
It was while playing through these routes that it began to dawn on me what Smash Bros. had been missing. Previous games had the fighters, the environments, and the music, all things you would expect from a crossover fighting game. However, Ultimate feels like a true celebration of the games themselves. We don’t love Link or Mario just because they’re cool characters with neat moves: we love the adventures they went on. This design philosophy drives the game’s single player modes, none more so than the Spirit Battles in World of Light.
When Nintendo announced spirit battles, they mentioned that they wanted Super Smash Bros. Ultimate to be the Ultimate crossover. At the time, I thought it was marketing speak to smooth over the removal of trophies, but after playing through World of Light, I understand what they were saying. Trophies were neat, but it felt largely like navigating Wikipedia and reading quick stories on each item. Spirit battles, by contrast, try to capture...well, the spirit of the thing they represent. Some of these are obvious: the Bullet Bill spirit contains a fight with a lot of Bullet Bill items. This character with a sword in their picture is a fight against a Fire Emblem character with buffed sword attacks. The Alucard spirit battle has you fighting off both a Simon Belmont and the Alucard assist trophy.
However, this mode really shines when it captures a very specific reference to a character or game you just simply don’t expect. For example, in Swanky Kong’s spirit battle, you fight Donkey Kong while tons of the new baseball-ish Beast Ball items appear. This is a reference to Swanky Kong’s minigame in Donkey Kong Country 3 in which you hurl baseballs at targets like a carnival game. The Iridescent Glint Beetle spirit replicates the feeling of the enemy from Pikmin 2 perfectly by using a gold Squirtle that just runs away from you the whole match. Model X’s spirit from Mega Man ZX sees you fighting off against several Mega Men, each with a different color palette favoring different moves, each meant to represent the different models of Mega Men in the source game.
The fact that a spin-off of a third party DS game not many people seem to remember gets its own slice of gameplay in a major 2018 release feels special in a way seeing a 3D model and a description in a menu just doesn’t. It’s like a parade of memories of individual moments in games, and you can just tell the developers had fun coming up with these challenges. In fact, the only problem is they may have had too much fun: there’s so many spirits that the adventure mode drags on for a bit too long. Luckily, some neat ideas near the end keep it from collapsing from the weight. Many of these neat ideas come in the form of interesting mechanics on the world map itself, each serving as their own references to classic games. A mini world replicates the character select map from Street Fighter II. Another one contains an HD remake of the map of the first world from Donkey Kong Country. A Legend of Zelda area has puzzles and riddles, and as you’d expect, the “puzzle solved” jingle plays as you solve each one. Each feels like a small individual salute to a beloved series.
Speaking of jingles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the game’s absolutely massive soundtrack. Like previous games, Ultimate contains a giant amount of remixed and classic music and you can adjust the frequency of which songs play on which stages. By default, the game tends to favor certain songs over others which you can adjust.
When I went to adjust these songs, I realized that curiously by default, the game virtually always favors the songs that originally played on each stage rather than many of the new arrangements made for this game. Why would they go through the trouble of making so many remixes if they were going to be buried in a menu many people won’t adjust ensuring they’re almost never heard?
The more I listened, the more clear the answer became: “Because they wanted to.” The more you go through the game’s soundtrack and find remixes buried, the more you form a picture in your head of a group of composers from different companies each just listening to songs and going “Yeah, I want to remix that.” That’s how you end up with one longtime Sonic composer mixing Splatoon tunes while another jams out a Mega Man medley. It starts to feel like a fan album stuffed into a giant game.
Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U, while great games in their own right, felt like obligatory sequels. The modes feel like they were designed by people who were just trying to come up with something...anything to put in the package. Many of the remixes felt limp. Prior to the DLC, many of the new character additions felt like they were adding characters for the sake of it. Even the name itself sells this story: This is the Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U because there’s supposed to be one of these on every console, right?
By contrast, in spite of the relative lack of new content, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate feels like it was made by a group of artists, developers, and musicians who were having the time of their lives. Sure, there were other Smash Bros. games that probably took a lot more work. Many will point to Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s adventure mode, the Subspace Emissary as the series’ best attempt at a true crossover adventure. However, to me it always felt off: a bunch of our favorite characters get together and fight generic enemies in generic grassland. All in all, it felt like it missed the point: seeing these characters together on screen isn’t the same when they’re stripped of all of the fun we had with them in the past. Sure, there were a couple of neat bosses, but they weren’t a climatic battle against Ganon, or Bowser, or Dracula.
I love Super Smash Bros. Ultimate much more so than its predecessors. This isn’t just because the gameplay is refined and the characters are more balanced. This isn’t just because there’s 74 characters and 103 stages. It’s because it feels like a game made with as much love for all of its source material as I have if not a Hell of a lot more. Much like past incarnations, the game brings together a huge collection characters, environments, and music from your favorite games. This time, however, it also brings the memories.