I’ll admit, I’ve not really played a Smash Bros. since the GameCube glory days when, as with many other fighting games, my brother got much better at it than me and I took a bit of a disliking to only being able to lose. Yet there’s something about them that, compared to more technical fighters, makes me think I should love it. Certainly, it has a lucrative cocktail for Nintendo of having both broad appeal to casual players and a fanbase that will pour over even the tiniest changes between games.
As someone firmly within the former camp, and with the trauma of defeat to my siblings, tucking into the various single player offerings was a good place to get me vaguely up to speed. The World of Light adventure mode drops you in as Kirby, the sole survivor of a huge assault on the realms of Nintendo (and friends) by an army of Master Hands, to capture them and turn them all into shadowy minions. It’s the new flagship mode from the game’s single player, and starts off nice and gently as you battle a puppet fighter version of Mario, following it up with a brawl against a bunch of Yoshi, and then a demonic Jigglypuff.
Whether you’ve played literally any fighting game before or not, Smash is still almost insultingly easy to pick up and play – all you really have to worry about to start with is your base attack, special attacks with directional modifier, and trying to knock the enemy off the map – but has depths that serve to frustrate me. There’s the few dozen times where I lost track of whether I’d double jumped or not, or used the special attack that can act as an extra air move, inevitably seeing me fall to my death. I’d completely forgotten how to charge up an attack and knock other players out of bounds, which certainly isn’t an issue in the early stages against the AI, but does come back to bite you when playing against other people.
You’ll move through the first few fights in World of Light very easily, before battling Mario a second time and adding him to your roster for this mode. It’s at this point that the mode starts to really open up, giving you a choice of different paths and a choice of further fighters that you can unlock, and it’s clear that there’s a sprawling maze for players to delve into.
However, World of Light is also an introduction to the new Spirits system, which is perhaps the most dramatic addition to the game. These are there to provide what feels like a near unlimited amount of variety, both in terms of things to occupy your time with, and to tweak and boost your chosen character’s abilities. There’s tons of them in the game, and they gave the team the opportunity to really pay homage to the wider world of video games without having to represent them in the roster of fighters.
Primary spirits come in four different types – Attack, Grab Shield and Neutral – which mimic the different attack types in the actual fighting, and can boost your power against an opponent with bumps to both attack and defence and in a classic rock, paper, scissors set up. However, they can then also have slots for support spirits which come with more specific skills, whether it’s giving you a floatier jump, or letting you start the battle with an item already equipped.
Throw in being able to level them up through combat and feeding them snacks you earn, then being able to return them to the ether once they’re levelled up and get Spirit Cores to use for unlocking more powerful spirits, there’s a huge meta game for people to really sink their teeth into. It goes well beyond the adventure mode skill tree, which boosts player abilities in a way that simply wouldn’t fly in a more competitive setting, because Spirits spread out through the rest of the game as well.
That’s why, once you’re done with World of Light, I’m certain that the Spirit Board is going to become a real time sink for most people. It presents to you a gallery of ten spirits of varying difficulties for you to battle in order to try and capture, all of which refresh every five minutes, or are replaced five minutes after an attempt. It’s a source of constant change, and it’s pretty wild.
Every spirit battle, whether it’s in World of Light or on the Spirit Board, is brought to life vicariously through the main roster of characters, and it gets pretty wild. Rabbid Mario from Ubisoft’s brilliant mash-up? It’s Mario in red and white striped dungarees wearing jump-augmenting rabbit ears and with a laser cannon, as you try to battle him on a scrolling level. Red Pikmin? It’s an army of miniaturised Incineroars. Detective Pikachu? Well it’s a team of Pikachus all wearing baseball caps. Sure, you have to let your imagination go with it a bit, but there’s such fantastic variety there.
To actually catch the spirit, though, you don’t just need to beat these barmy battles, there’s a further little minigame. A shield barrier spins around the spirit’s icon and you need to try and time your shot just right to get through the gap. Fail, and that’s your chance gone until it comes back around on the Spirit Board, albeit with a weakened shield. There are a few consumables to let you slow time or shrink the shield, at least.
Of course, you don’t have to engage with all of this if you don’t want to. Classic Mode is still there for those that want to dash through a few battles and face a boss, with points awarded based on the intensity setting. You pick where it starts, but it then scales up as you win, or down as you lose and retry a battle – this is where my penchant for falling to my death really punished me. The final battles won’t always be against Master Hand, so I duked it out with Galleom as Wolf, while Duck Hunt went hunting the Rathalos dragon for a finale.
The game really is as manic as ever, especially in four player multiplayer. It’s sometimes tricky to keep tabs one what’s happening, as levels transform, different items come into play, and the balance of battle swings back and forth. There’s a unique stress to trying to get into position and land that final blow on someone that’s weak, while knowing that others are trying to do the same, and to get you as well. If there’s one thing to be said, it’s that some of the newer additions are overpowered – I’m looking at you, King K. Rool and Ridley – while others like the Splatlings are so wonderfully true to their origins, but in a way that makes them hard to learn.
Even if there’s some balancing still to be done, it’s hard to complain when considering the game as a whole. There’s just such a wealth of characters, of maps, of broad single player modes, of in depth rules and options to customise. It really feels like, whether you’re after multiplayer or single player brawling, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is living up to its name.