There is nothing in gaming quite like the frantic energy that a solid round of Super Smash Bros can provide.
Nintendo’s brawler franchise has been through as nearly as many iterations as console cycles, each new entry making incremental changes that, depending on who you ask, are for the better. As the sun begins to set on the Nintendo Switch’s second year on the market, and with flagship Zelda and Mario titles already out of the way, we are finally coming up on the release of the latest Smash Bros entry, Ultimate. Here at PAX Australia, the game is playable just months before it’s wide release and I’ve spent some time smashing my way through opponents and getting to know the newcomers to the roster and boy, this game is a lot.
The thing about Nintendo and PAX is that they let their hair down, even if just a little.
The Nintendo booth, which is really more of an entire corner of the floor, is draped in bright red and overrun with overly enthused representatives. It stands tall as a monument to positivity, an almost physical embodiment of the Switch’s library (many of it’s cheerier titles playable on the show floor). Painted across the side of the thing is the now famous Ultimate cast mural, and in this larger than life form it strikes any passerby with its scope and infectious energy. This game, even its art, is brimming with joy and begging you to play it.
As I’m ushered into the Ultimate playground I am asked, with deadly seriousness, am I here to ‘play for fun or for glory?’. I laugh to myself but admittance is not granted until the question is answered, as it turns out Nintendo understand exactly the kind of folks who will be playing this weekend. I’m told that if you are here for fun, the consoles on the left are for you as they each have items enabled in-game, but if glory is what you are chasing then the right-hand side are set up for ‘proper’ play without items – I’m not a proud man so I choose fun and am not even remotely disappointed.
The demo launched right into a stage selection screen, several of which I recognize and others that are brand spanking new. My partner and I decided to try one of the revamped stages from the WiiU entry and landed on the Street Fighter inspired, sunset-drenched rooftops of Suzaku Castle. It really can not be overstated how richly detailed these stages feel, the lighting effects from the sun alone inspire awe. It’s a real treat to see arenas, old and new, given a fresh coat of paint in efforts that showcase exactly how much can be achieved with the relatively lower power of the Switch console. The buddy I was playing with was a purest at heart and insisted that our second battle take place on the traditional stage Battlefield but Nintendo has polished the art to such a degree that even the simplest of stages will inevitably catch the eye.
Of course, the true appeal of any Smash entry is the roster of fighters and Nintendo’s boastful confidence regarding the robust cast of characters is not misplaced. At the booth, players were invited to try out several of the new additions to the lineup, including the Inklings, Bayonetta and, the crowd favourite, Ridley. Perhaps too keen to try out the new toys in the box, I jumped right in with Metroid alum Ridley and was quickly reminded how skilled a player you need to be to pull off a heavy fighter. To put it bluntly, Ridley feels fat; movement, bar flying, is slow and attacks are meant for more deliberate players than myself. I lost that round with spectacular style but quickly found my footing again in round two by switching up play styles with Bayonetta. Her style is much more matched with my own, with swift smooth movements and showy attacks that look as good as they feel.
Unsurprisingly, the Inkling kids seem to have received the most love in terms of animations and mechanics.
Nintendo is abnormally proud of the Splatoon franchise so inserting these weird little children into their all-star line up makes perfect sense and the pairing of Smash Bros flare with Splatoon‘s signature attitude is a no-brainer. Once you have chosen your preferred boy or girl Inkling the fun truly begins as they effortlessly slide along the stage, covering everything in sight with their ink (still, somehow not as weird as it sounds on paper). Carried over from their own title, the Inklings join the fray using their ink weapons, as well as the need to refill their ink reserves by turning into squids and sliding away. It’s a small touch that adds a lot of strategy to their playstyle, as well as providing players with a quick getaway when in a bind. Covering other fighters in ink also slows movement and when combined with their ease of movement, it’s not hard to see how the Inklings will become fan favourites.
Ultimate also has a much faster pace than previous entries, and paired with the richly detailed animations battles can quickly begin to feel almost overwhelming. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing mind you, part of the appeal of the franchise is that frantic energy I talked about earlier, but with even two players the moment a few items were in play it became difficult to keep track of exactly how the fight was progressing. Keen-eyed players will be able to take advantage of haphazard Assist Trophy use from other players – at one point I was able to tactically deploy a bomb to clear a healing zone and turn the tide of the fight but for the most part, the item use was far too chaotic for either of us to truly feel in control. How this plays out in the final release remains to be seen, especially in matches that hit the player cap or shoddy online connections become involved, but for now, it has me just slightly concerned.
All of that aside, the true test of any entry into the Smash Bros series is how the game fares once it is out in the wild, in the hands of the fans who will undoubtedly pick it apart and make their decision. For now, Ultimate feels to me like a worthy successor to what appears to be the entire series’ legacy – the gigantic roster is rumoured to just keep growing and the sheer attention to detail Nintendo has committed to this latest game is damn impressive.
Keep a look out for our review soon!