LOS ANGELES—We didn’t have to go hands-on with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate to realize how massive this Switch game is. Nintendo’s latest “mascot fighter” sequel emerged on Tuesday via a lengthy reveal of its cast and content, both as a show of confidence and as a way to put doubts to rest. Don’t call Smash Ultimate a Wii U port, the 65-strong, “every character ever” declaration seemed to declare.
Even so, doubters who still scoff at this game counting as a “true sequel” should rest easy. Our lengthy hands-on with the game’s substantial E3 build gave us a chance to confirm changes big and small that combine to make Smash Ultimate look and feel like a bona fide, updates-all-around rejuvenation to the 19-year-old franchise.
Before we get to the combat…
Yesterday’s video reveal didn’t leave many stones unturned. Series chieftain Masahiro Sakurai spent over 20 minutes describing tweaks to each returning character (including every licensed, third-party favorite), along with tight zooms on in-game character models, to confirm that each fighter has gotten some kind of graphical tweak since its last Smash appearance. (Hence, long-absent characters like Ice Climbers, Pichu, and Solid Snake have all gotten apparent, if slight, bumps to polygon counts and detail.)
The playable version that followed Sakurai’s announcement isn’t quite as huge, with “only” 30 fighters and 23 fighting stages available. But after over an hour of fights across most of the stages, I already had enough fun to wish I could steal a cartridge copy of this giant, incomplete build.
The most obvious changes come from presentation elements that streamline and remix familiar Smash content. For starters, fighters must now choose their battleground stage before picking a character, which Sakurai told fans was due to professional players favoring certain stages for certain characters. Meaning, a punch-dominant character like Punch-Out!!‘s Little Mac might not be as attractive a pick if a more vertical stage is chosen.
Another interesting change is a Smash inside-baseball tweak: a “preview” window when any combatant is launched off the screen. (For the uninitiated, Smash Bros. revolves around knocking a rival off a 2D-platforming level, which is easier to do once you’ve battered your rival and raised their damage percentage.) Should your character get hit really hard but not get fully KO’ed, you’ll now see a picture-in-picture preview of exactly where in the screen’s hidden, outer regions your character is as it tries to jump back to a safe platform. This preview (made up of colored dots that match your “P1,” “P2,” etc. logo color) is particularly useful in a more frantic four-player fight, where losing track of exactly where or how you were smashed off the screen is easy.
We appreciated a few new dramatic visual flourishes, as well, including a pre-fight loading screen with screen-filling portraits of each combatant and a new score counter that pops up during one-on-one fights when anybody is KO’ed.
Time to fight
As for the more mechanical changes, the biggest ones come in the form of two new playable characters: Ridley, the alien-pterodactyl boss from the Metroid series, and Inklings, the “squid kids” from Splatoon.
Inklings (which come in eight neo-Tokyo urban-chic outfits) control largely like Smash 4‘s Sonic the Hedgehog, if that character were a touch slower and stronger. In combat, an Inkling revolves around the Splatoon series’ painting mechanic, which means it can amplify damage by covering a rival in paint (which can be shot from a gun or smacked via a melee paintbrush) and move faster through paint on ground. This presents a combat drawback: a requirement of topping off paint tank reserves. When those run out, Inkling fighters can’t use their B-button special moves, which are all paint-driven.
In practice, the Inkling is an intriguing alternate take on the Sonic-speed formula, combined with a totally different take on the damage-amplifying powers of the Olimar and Pikmin fighter combo. Its ink-reserve risk-and-reward balance combines interesting damage possibilities with strategic special-move management and thus feels like the most thoughtful new character in some time (as opposed to a slew of sword-wielders who dominated the Smash 4 DLC roster).
Ridley, meanwhile, feels a little more like a character clone in terms of speed, power, and animations that compare to Bowser. But there’s enough of a difference for anybody looking for another heavy-and-snappy option. Despite his massive wings, Ridley is not a multi-jump flutterer like his floatier Smash peers Kid Icarus and Kirby. Instead, Ridley is all about quick-strike basic attacks and pause-and-lunge specials that can turn a battle’s tide quickly. Its “forward-and-B” special move is the most intense, as this will snap up a rival and drag him/her across the ground as a way to deal damage and force a rival out of position. Otherwise, the rest of Ridley’s move set is pretty traditional for Smash, but its momentum-turning abilities are the kinds that I’d love to see esports Smash players get their hands on.
As for our whopping 15 bouts, three minutes each, of Smash Ultimate fisticuffs: they were a blast. They were all four-player fights with every single item (including smash balls, which can be broken open for super attacks, and assist trophies) turned on, and the results were admittedly so hectic that we had to focus on clearer “P1,” “P2,” etc. icons to find our fighters during some heated moments. The best thing we can report about that madness is that the game’s rendering pipeline, now built using Unreal Engine 4, didn’t flinch from its 60fps target.
More questions—but so far, the answers are sweet
Exactly how the sequel’s list of mechanical changes will impact Smash Ultimate is harder to determine, but plenty is going on already in this build. We enjoyed the little tweaks we did notice, like: the ability to charge B-button special moves in mid-air; Link’s new remote-detonation perk for his throwable bombs; Zelda’s new down-and-B summon of a temporary, sword-swinging knight ally; and Pokémon Trainer’s ability to more quickly swap between three monsters. (That character’s Poke-swap power has only appeared on the GameCube, which always meant a slight disc-scan delay when trying to pull it off.)
In some cases, the demo’s fun factor wasn’t about noticeable character-specific tweaks but about the bigger Smash picture. Simply getting an older, Brawl-only character Solid Snake into a snappier Smash engine (as opposed to the floatier Brawl) and having him face off against the powerful-and-tricky Ice Climbers is one of those hard-to-describe moments of Smash series dedication paying off. Fans thought these kinds of mascot face-offs might never come, but our E3 demo proved they’re here—and they’re sweet.
Above all, there’s at the very least an intangible feeling of a further meter-turn to the tuning, speed, and heft of Smash Melee, a longtime esports favorite. However, the show-floor build focuses largely on four-player, item-filled combat, which is the polar opposite of standard Smash esports material. That means questions will likely linger until the game’s December 7 launch about where Smash Ultimate (and its handling of character balance and general mechanics) will land among a vibrant competitive and live-streaming community.
In the meantime, Nintendo is remaining mum on what else may qualify this game as an “ultimate” entry. Will we get a single-player campaign? Another massive trophy-hunting quest? A collection of cute mini-games? An obnoxious board-game mode like Smash 4? Plus, how will the new “streamlined” character-unlock process work? There are enough questions to leave us waiting for a Smash Ultimate news trickle—but this time, at least, we’ve pounded through enough of the satisfying core game to make that wait a lot less obnoxious.
Listing image by Nintendo
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