Watch Waypoint's Austin Walker, Natalie Watson, and Ricardo Contreras play Smash Ultimate above!
Nintendo's long running Smash Bros. "platform fighter" series means different things to different people, which means that the developers need to serve a lot of different audiences when a new title launches. For some, it's a goofy good time with friends. For others, it's a gateway to explore some Nintendo nostalgia or a toy to mess around with in your spare time. For many, it's a nail-biting competitive play. (And hey, if you're curious, or even skeptical, about competitive Smash, give East Point Pictures' outstanding documentary series on the subject a watch). And I'd wager a guess that for most people, what Smash "is" has changed over time.
I’ve been playing Smash Bros. off and on since I was ten, when the first game in the series launched in 1999. With three siblings, its four player versus mode was the perfect setup for my family. I'd sit around the TV with my sisters and brother, having a silly, goofy time together, and I wound up winning a lot because I was the oldest, which meant I could always lay claim to the working controller.
We played each of them like this until 2008's Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but then I moved out on my own to live my life as an adult. Since then, I’ve followed Smash much more casually, to the point where it became a game I only really played when I went back home. I'd still watch the occasional Smash tournament, but because I didn’t own a Wii U (and the demo for Smash 4 didn’t feel great to play on the 3DS’ stick) I never felt the need to own that game.
Enter Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. I had a Switch, so immediately I was interested. Maybe this would be worth the purchase just to relive some of those childhood moments when I would visit home? I was on the fence, was that really enough to justify buying this game in a year where I’m already falling behind on my already large backlog of games? Would it have enough for me, the player who can no longer just wander into the living room and find people to play with?
Then, Nintendo announced World of Light, a single-player mode focused on collecting and leveling “Spirits,” characters from across Nintendo’s wide history of games, third-parties included. The quick and dirty is this: You fight these spirits in order to add them to your collection.
Each fight is set up in a unique way to capture the essence of the character: The Eevee spirit, for instance, has you fighting three Yoshis, each holding an elemental item to mimic the three evolutions for Eevee from the original Pokémon games. Once you’ve won the fight, you get the spirit and can now equip it, enhancing your fighter with a variety of stat increases and special abilities in World of Light (and in multiplayer battles where you choose to allow their use). There’s even a rock-paper-scissors mechanic setup where certain spirits have advantages over others, and spirits can also be leveled up through winning or losing fights.
All of this essentially amounts to a series of fun, quirky fights that have me actually considering my loadout and which spirits to level when. There's an unexpected depth of mechanics that adds a longevity that was missing from the single player content in past Smash games. It’s continually surprising me with what characters they’ve included and just how the fights are going to emulate their abilities or personalities.
An early fight that does this particularly well is the fight against Celeste from Animal Crossing. She’s an Owl that you often find asleep in the AC franchise, so the fight is against a Jigglypuff that favors using the Rest move—which puts her to sleep, but does incredible damage and knockback to anyone unfortunate enough to be too close to her. This would be funny enough on its own, but then the AI in this game has also been stepped up a notch: This Jigglypuff is out to win, and the fight turns in an instant from funny to harrowing for the middling Smash player like me.
Ultimate has hit on something really special in World of Light, offering solo players the kind of breadth of experience you can already get from the multiplayer. Nintendo’s deep well of characters and worlds enriches this experience not just through its sizable roster, but also through the multitude of stages and music you have access to. The library is deep, and they’re pulling from everywhere they can, and with the polish and care you expect from Nintendo. Being able to play within this nostalgia, not just for Nintendo as a whole, but for Smash itself, is a big draw of this game for me.
It can be easy to take for granted the various stages as simply a series of platforms—the game even gives you the option of turning any stage into a “Final Destination” variant of itself. But there was a moment where one of these levels instantly transported me back to my childhood, playing at home with my family. It was during a Spirit fight against Zelda and Young Link, in order to unlock Zelda’s spirit. Neither of these fighters were in the original game, but the fight took place on the Nintendo 64 version of Hyrule Castle. The large polygonal level was such a part of my childhood that despite everything new in Ultimate, I felt like I did back when I was 10, seeing something so familiar to me—Hyrule Castle—transformed into a multiplayer battleground.
Smash Ultimate leans into this blending of old and new. The Spirits system is unique and surprising, but it draws on knowledge of past games I sometimes forgot I even had. The jukebox like "Sounds" mode makes me bop my head not only to classic game tracks, but to exciting new remixes. Even "echo fighters," which offer new variations on other playable characters, blend the old and the new in smart new ways. It's impossible to know if Smash Ultimate could ever serve everyone. But with this strategic mix of nostalgia and experimentation, it was able to do something I didn't expect: Bring me home.