Two hours with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate prove this might just be the best Smash so far
by on August 25, 2018

Last week, in a tiny hidden bar typical of Melbourne’s inner east, Nintendo gave us hands-on time with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

Nintendo Australia had hoped to get us in front of a newer build of the game (we would have loved to try King K. Rool and Simon Belmont!); however, the build was identical to the one we played at E3 some two and a bit months ago. However, where our time with the game at E3 was rushed and hectic, this time we had a solid two hours in a laid back environment which allowed us to get comfortable and explore more of what it had to offer.

And what a difference that makes to perspective.

To sum things up, we had a smashing good time, and we’re now more excited than ever to add Smash Ultimate into our gaming libraries. Our Publications Director David Johnson and Special Projects Director Shona Johnson were at the event. Here are a few of our thoughts on the game:

Shona Johnson, Special Projects Director

As a long-time Smash player — I’ve been with the series since the Nintendo 64 — playing Ultimate with a big group over food and drink was instantly familiar, taking me back to happy times when I played Melee for hours on end with friends or, more recently, Smash Wii U parties. Although it’s been a while since I last fired up a game of Smash, and I haven’t played since the demo at E3, my Smash instincts and muscle memory kicked in, throwing me into that wonderfully chaotic place where some of my favorite characters are beating each other up.

At E3 there were a limited number of play slots available (strictly one per person), and I signed up to play it competitively, which meant that part of my attention was given to attempting to win, meaning I played it safe with characters I knew well, in addition to checking out what was new and different. Fortunately, towards the end of the second day of E3, the lines died down to the point where the wait wasn’t hideous, so I was able to get in a few rounds of fun play where I could at least try out some of the new characters. I had fun and walked away from E3 feeling incredibly impressed by the game’s polish, but spending two hours with the demo gave me a chance to try out a lot more and really get a feel for the gameplay.

Matches were limited to two-minute free-for-alls with up to four players playing solo or in teams. Items were on, and we couldn’t change any of the settings. A roster of 30 characters was available, and we could choose from 23 stages. I was able to play most of the characters and stages available. The event had multiple stations, most of which had Pro controllers, but a couple had GameCube controllers. It’s nice to see the GameCube controllers being carried through, as many Smash veterans are familiar with these, and, at the end of the day, each player will be able to set up their preferred controller configuration.

Existing characters feel familiar, and most of the changes to their moves are subtle if any have been made at all. Most of them appeared to be fairly well balanced, although it’s hard to say given that I was swapping characters a lot and playing against people of varying skill levels. Ridley and the Inkling were the new characters in the demo, and both had their own unique movesets that took some time to get used to (and honestly, I didn’t play them enough to get used to them). Ridley is slow and heavy, and I struggled with him a bit because I struggle with that sort of character more in general, and I found that the pace of the gameplay made it hard to spend time effectively splattering paint over everyone as the Inkling. That said, in one match while playing a different character I kept getting trapped in paint by another Inkling which was somewhat annoying for me but great for them I imagine!

The list of stages we had to choose from included both new and returning ones. A big difference in Ultimate is that players choose the stage before choosing characters, with the idea that players can choose a character to suit a stage, although that never really crossed my mind because it’s something I’ve never considered before; for me, it’s more the stages in general that I love or hate rather than playing on them with specific characters. And at this event, I was much more in the mindset of wanting to see everything and try it all out, so I never even thought about the stage while I was selecting my character.

All of the stages look amazing. Of the new ones, the Great Plateau Tower from Breath of the Wild is a fairly small one where the roof collapses in occasionally, and surprisingly this isn’t a hazard; it just looks cool. Moray Towers is the new Splatoon stage, and it’s a series of sloping levels stacked vertically above each other. I found this one hard to fight on because players were more spread out and on different levels which made it hard to land hits. I imagine this will be better suited to people who like slightly slower gameplay and having more chances to recover, or it might be more fun with eight players. Conversely, I cannot imagine how chaotic eight-player Smash is going to be on the Great Plateau Tower!

In Ultimate, having items turned on didn’t feel quite as chaotic as they have in past games, and I think they’ve been nerfed a fair bit. The once-almighty hammer — I got one and the guy next to me said “uh oh” as soon as he heard the music — didn’t produce the KOs or near-KOs I would have expected in the past. Likewise, Smash Balls didn’t always guarantee KOs like that did in Smash Wii U/3DS. They’re also harder to grab, although they also sometimes just land on the ground and stay still; the first time this happened we were all wary of the Fake Smash Balls and ran away from it until someone hesitantly kicked it and realized it was a real one!

I felt that I had to be very accurate when landing blows and dodging. It should lend to a technical playstyle that will suit competitive players and those who play for fun.

Overall, the gameplay feels faster and more precise. Thankfully there’s no Brawl-style random slipping and tripping, and I felt that I had to be very accurate when landing blows and dodging. Fast characters like Fox and Sonic covered ground incredibly quickly, and some of the heavier characters like Donkey Kong felt more agile. If you’re not paying attention, you can be sent flying off screen and not realize where you are at first! It should lend to a technical playstyle that will suit both competitive players as well as those who play for fun (because the core concept of Super Smash Bros. is fun).

Two hours of the one style of match flew by, so I can only imagine how many hours I’m going to get out of the game playing with different modes and rules. And that’s before I even consider any possible single-player modes, which I hope there will be for the times when I take my Switch with me on the go by myself. I didn’t want my time with Ultimate to end, and now more than ever I eagerly await December when I can get the full version into my hands.

David Johnson, Publications Director

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has all the potential to be the best Smash Bros. game to date. Thus far, everything Nintendo has shown oozes with that careful attention to detail that Nintendo is simply known for. While we don’t know all of its secrets yet — there’s this maybe “Spirits” mode on the main menu that we know nothing about that may be a major single-player component to the game(?) — I can’t help but be extremely excited for the series to make its way to the Switch.

How can I describe Ultimate? Well, the short answer is that it feels very much like Smash Bros. More specifically, it feels a lot like Melee, though admittedly I haven’t pulled out my GameCube to play it in quite some time. While there is a good dose of beautiful chaos in the game caused by items, assist trophies, and Poké Balls, it’s all a manageable sort of chaos. It just feels good to dart into piles of characters, take some pot shots (or get hit trying!), and then escape to go at it again.

At the event, they had a couple of stations with GameCube controllers set up, but I figured I would give the Switch Pro Controllers one more fair go, even though the default control scheme of every controller since the GameCube has made me want to cry. And while I still wasn’t 100% in love with the Pro Controller’s default setup, I did find myself hating it a lot less. But I still will either be using a GameCube controller or resorting to making a custom controller configuration for me when the game comes out.

Because we had two solid hours with the game, I went and truly experimented with characters both familiar and unfamiliar as well as played practically every stage that was on display. For the characters I was familiar with, I found the differences between the Ultimate fighters and their earlier incarnations rather subtle, though Marth especially seemed incredibly floaty, much more so than he was in Melee. (That said, I chalk this up as a good thing!) For characters I was unfamiliar with — Ridley, Inkling, and the host of DLC characters from Smash 4, they all felt incredibly unique from the cast of old, and that’s hugely refreshing. That said, the fact that many of the characters are becoming Echo Fighters (thus with the official salute that they’re “the same character” as some other), makes me happy; finally, we can hope to see so many characters truly become unique entities rather than carbon copies of one another.

And the stages were mostly fantastic. They look utterly fantastic, and they set the stage for a visually impressive game. And none of them felt like they detracted too much from the overall premise of the game: dominating over all your friends. That said, I still utterly despise the Mega Man stage brought forward from Smash 4, though I’m extremely relieved that not only can we trigger each stage’s Ω (omega) form but also simply play with the stages as is sans their various stage hazards. Finally, we can play the Dr. Wily stage without the Yellow Devil ruining an otherwise fun game.

The Smash Balls’ effectiveness has been nerfed quite a bit. In order to counterbalance that, the Assist Trophies seem much more powerful.

As far as the items go, there were only two major differences I’ve noticed in playing the game. First and foremost, the Smash Balls’ effectiveness has been nerfed quite a bit. Since Brawl, while it’s always been possible to survive a Final Smash, it was exceedingly unlikely. However, now the survivability has been greatly upped as the Final Smashes aren’t really so “final” any longer. Perhaps this is done in order to keep it in line with how short many of the moves have been made or just to allow them to not disrupt gameplay as much, but it really makes it feel much more balanced as a whole. (That said, the Smash Balls seemed extremely difficult to even get to as they moved far quicker than before!)

In order to counterbalance that, the Assist Trophies seem much more powerful. In previous games, Assist Trophies generally remained on-screen for no more than a few seconds at most. Now, many Assist Trophies have been modified to become temporary allies on the stage, giving you a not insignificant advantage. While the Assist Trophies are able to be defeated and don’t dish out overwhelming damage in one go, they possibly will be one of the more contentious design decisions for Smash Ultimate.

The gravity well item popped up quite a bit in the game, and its effects can be felt everywhere.

Thematically, Ultimate is full of so many little subtle details that show just how much Sakurai and his team love Nintendo and its entire legacy. The subtle changes to Link to bring about his Breath of the Wild form are carefully balanced by pushing Princess Zelda and Ganondorf to other parts of the timeline to showcase the breadth of the Zelda series. The fact that the Echo Fighters now exist allow for a greater depth of exploration into the various franchises without providing an overwhelming feeling of sameness permeating everything, such as when Dark Pit was announced as a separate character in Smash 4.

Outside of my hands-on experience, what I think impresses me the most about Ultimate is just how much variety there can be inside the ordinary Smash experience. Sure, there are tournaments and oodles of other features and modes, but having well over 60 characters to choose from and over 100 stages to fight on will give so many permutations of fighting that it’ll be impossible to play them all. Whenever I’m smashing it up with friends, there always comes to that point in the evening when I stray away from the characters I’m familiar with and start playing the characters I’m either terrible with or simply don’t play as much, and Ultimate will ensure that I’m always wanting to experiment and try another character again and again beyond that.

December 7 cannot come fast enough. Smash Ultimate, I’m desperately waiting for you.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate will be released on December 7 for Nintendo Switch. Thank you to Nintendo Australia for inviting us to come and Smash!

David Johnson
David Johnson, a.k.a. "The Missing Link," was once the webmaster of both Zelda: The Grand Adventures and ZeldaBlog. He works as a software engineer in the games industry. David also pontificates about Zelda, writes features and guides for ZU, and obsesses about CD-i.