Super Smash Bros. Ultimate review: the crossover to end all crossovers

While Super Smash Bros. began as a quirky fighting game featuring Nintendo's biggest mascots, it's evolved to become a historic crossover of almost unbelievable proportions. Each version aims to pack in more stuff than the last and, as the title suggests, Ultimate is so full of content it's hard to imagine it will ever be topped.

That characters, locations, music and items from franchises as disparate as Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Castelvania and Street Fighter can all coexist in a coherent game at all is incredible, not to mention the obvious inclusion of Nintendo staples like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon and many more.

But the fact that it all adds up to an endlessly enjoyable museum/brawler hybrid despite so many moving parts, as viable a friendly couch party game as it is a high-level technical fighter, is nothing short of a miracle.

At its most basic, Smash is a kind of souped-up sumo wrestling contest, where the winner is the one who can force their opponent off the screen. This sets it apart from almost all other fighting games as, instead of having a health bar whittle down as you take damage, your damage percentage increases as you're hit, with a bigger number meaning you'll fly further the next time you sustain a big attack.

Combined with the fact that every character plays quite differently but follows the same logical rules in its control scheme (i.e. pressing up and special will always do a move that helps you recover from falling), and the madcap insanity of the stages and items, this makes the game extremely easy for beginners to have fun with, even though it scales gracefully to accommodate more accomplished and even pro-level players.

Adding more characters to a battle ups the intensity, but also helps level the playing field, as a cautious fighter can stay out of trouble and score on a weakened opponent with a single touch.

Choose your character

The roster has expanded this time to an unsettling 74 characters, although counting gets a bit complicated when you consider Pokemon Trainer — who is really three fighters in one — or the seven so-called "echo" fighters like Daisy and Ken, who are really just slightly tweaked versions of other fighters.

But when you start the game for the first time you'll only have access to a basic eight fighters, with the rest drip-fed to you at a steady pace, which means you're not overwhelmed for choice at the get-go. Even though I knew who all the characters were going to be, I was always excited to see that "challenger approaching" screen that meant a new combatant was about to enter.

Every character has eight distinct outfits, often representing various games they appeared in.

All characters from previous games have returned, and all have received aesthetic and moveset tweaks. I love the new designs on some of my favourites including Link (now inspired by Breath of the Wild), Zelda and Zero Suit Samus, but veterans will most appreciate the six brand new fighters that bring fresh techniques and strategies to the table.

Simon Belmont from Castlevania is the standout, with his whip-based attacks and arsenal of thrown weapons that all require careful spacing for maximum damage. Then there's the Splatoon Inkling that throws paint at opponents to weaken them, Samus' massive dragon-like nemesis Ridley, the insane alligator King K. Rool from Donkey Kong Country, the comically non-combative dog Isabelle from Animal Crossing and the pokemon Incineroar, whose flamboyant Japanese pro wrestling style is tough to master but looks great.

Though the roster is somewhat bloated by all the returning characters, the variety is key to making the game fun for everyone. The joy of having video game icons like Mega Man meet abstract weirdos like Mr. Game & Watch (inspired by the LCD electronic toys of the '80s), or for cutesy kid-friendly folks like Kirby and Yoshi to take on the very adult Snake or Bayonetta, never gets old.

Do we really need three versions of Link and two flavours of Mario? Or seven characters from Fire Emblem? Yeah, we kinda do.

Battlefield or bust

Of course playable characters are just part of the epic crossover. There are more than 100 stages to choose from, all unlocked and ready from the start. Four are brand new, the rest are inspired or remade from previous games, and each represent a specific area or theme from video game history.

As with the characters it does seem like some edits could have been made (I'm not sure anyone would have missed the levels from Ice Climber or Nintendogs), but in the pursuit of being "ultimate" I'm glad they're all here. Every level has its own layout and hazards, which really helps sell the feeling that your fighters have been transported to that game. Of course more serious players would argue this all detracts from skill-based play, and will usually opt for one of the two basic, symmetrical stages: Battlefield or Final Destination. Happily this time you transform any stage into the same shape as either of those, letting you get down to business while enjoying the visuals and music associated with your favourite games.

Stages run the gamut from retro fare like Duck Hunt to more contemporary locations like a track from Mario Kart 8, but also include settings from old games reimagined into HD.

And speaking of music there are more than 900 tracks included, many present at the beginning but some which must be unlocked, and they're so good I surprised myself by actually creating custom playlists and listening with headphones while out and about, awkwardly carrying my Switch like a giant walkman. There are original tunes taken straight from the games, modern remixes brought forward from prior Smash games and a big helping of new remixes from some of the most notable composers in the industry. It's like buying 30 game soundtracks at once.

The music is organised by series this time around, so if you're playing on a Sonic stage you can choose any Sonic track to act as the backing. Most of the collections are excellent, although Final Fantasy — a series with exceptional music — stands out as only featuring two songs.

Play your way

Changes to the actual gameplay in Ultimate are subtle. Apart from the fact that everything looks much more beautiful than in 2014's Wii U version, the main differences are easier-to-pull-off smash attacks, faster and more impactful fighters, and changes to the "final smash" finishing moves that make them tougher to pull of and more consistent and focused than before.

But many of the game's most notable changes are in the setting up of the matches, with a lot of new options that seem designed to let you play however you want, with minimal barriers or hassles, whether you're on the couch with friends or live-streaming a pro tournament.

You can now play on any stage you like, and with any rules, with any number of players between two and eight.

Rather than setting the rules each time you play, you now save your setups and give them names so you can get into the game much quicker. So if you often want a time-based three minute match with no items and only Battlefield style stages, but sometimes need a more casual friendly bout where everyone has three lives and the underdog gets a power boost, you can save both rulesets and pick either with a single button press.

There are even some interesting new rules that make for more flexibility in your matches, including the final smash meter for more frequent finishing moves, or the brilliant stage morph that allows you to pick two stages and have them swap in and out seamlessly at set intervals.

Outside of the standard "smash" mode there are also some brand new ways to play. Tournament mode has everything you need for epic competitions with up to 32 players (no pen and paper required), while Smashdown is a test of adaptability that where characters selected become unavailable for subsequent matches.

My favourite new mode is Squad Strike, where two players each choose a team of three or five characters that cycle through as they're defeated. Combine with stage morph for maximum crossover weirdness.

If all you want to do is play match after match with your friends, there are now heaps of ways to set it up and keep it interesting.

Of course you can also play online. And while I only tested this briefly with a handful of quick matches, it's already leagues ahead of Wii U in terms of stability the range of options on offer. My Wi-Fi connection did suffer while using the Switch in handheld mode and walking around the house, so serious players will probably want a wired connection.

Going solo

If you're playing alone you can do any of this against computer-controlled players, and it's a lot of fun, but the revamped Classic mode is where it's really at. Each and every character now has its own themed six-round journey, so for example Peach goes on a revenge fantasy through every character on the roster who's a known kidnapper, while Kirby battles other greedy characters in arenas filled with health-restoring food.

Each run culminates in a boss battle, from Giga Bowser for Mario to Dracula for Simon, which is a welcome change from the usual setup where all characters end up facing Master Hand (though he and his crazy brother still put in an appearance here).

Classic mode features a little story for each character, told entirely in the medium of Smash battles.

Not all the new singleplayer additions to the game are as successful, as I found it hard to fully commit to World of Light, the new adventure mode. Ultimate introduces the concept of Spirits, which are essentially stickers themed after everything from Zelda villains to obscure Japan-only '80s games. These replace trophies in the game as the primary collectible, but they also replace the old "Event Match" mode, as they can be attached to combatants to augment their abilities in a range of ways.

In World of Light, you travel around an illustrated world map, fighting clones of fighters that have been imbued with spirits to make for very specific challenges, and using spirits yourself to gain abilities. The main problem here is that it just isn't as enjoyable as picking some characters and going to town in a standard match.

Adjacent to World of Light is the Spirit Board, where spirits appear like wanted posters throughout the day. Again it's a fun distraction (especially if you only have a few minutes to play on the bus), but many of the matches feel much more random and unfair than the curated event matches.  did, however, really get into the act of collecting, combining, summoning and levelling up the spirits.

Spirits offer a very deep collecting game in the style of popular ‘gacha’ smartphone apps, and you can even get special spirits by scanning random amiibo, but using them in battle takes away from the pure fun of the game.

The ultimate crossover

There's so much more in this game, from the gruelling "Mob smash" and the crazy home-made variants in "custom smash", to the unlockable challenges and the in-game shop, and even the unnecessarily detailed photo mode. But the common thread tying it all together is just how thoughtful and polished it is throughout.

More than any previous game in the series, Ultimate seems to have taken into account the needs and desires of all players, and made it possible here. Ancillary content like Spirits may not quite live up to pure fun of the main Smash mode, but then few things in video games do. And that main mode is the biggest achievement here. It's bigger and better than it ever has been before, and somehow incorporates just about everything that's come previously.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is out today on Switch.

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