The fifth installment in the Nintendo crossover series, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate brings together many of gaming's most iconic heroes and villains -- 74 of them, in fact -- for a battle royale unlike anything the fighting or party game genre has ever seen. It's content-rich, full of fan service and love, and an all-out joy to play, although not without a handful of downsides.
When the game first launches, you might be taken aback by how many different menus and modes are sprawled out in front of you. Longtime fans of the series will probably go for the tried-and-true "Smash" mode, which, in addition to being the place where you can fight up to seven of your friends (or computer players), you can access the game's "Tourney," "Special Smash" and "Squad Strike" modes.
A much-appreciated addition, "Smash" mode now allows you to create a custom moveset based on how you and your friends play, whether it's a time limit, stock match or a stamina-based fight to infinity. You can adjust item spawns, stage hazards and selections, Final Smash meters and more. There's an insane level of customization that will appeal to everyone from the most competitive of players to someone just looking to have fun with family over the holidays. You now also select a stage before choosing a character, allowing you to tailor who you play as based on the setting on which you'll fight. You can also select stage music and and the option to play on a Battlefield, Final Destination or normal version of every single stage. Options on options, seriously.
Tourney mode returns in a mostly self-explanatory way for up to 32 players, and "Special Smash" offers a fun number of wildcard custom games. But the latest addition, "Squad Strike," might be its most unique experience. Here, you can take on a friend in 3v3 or 5v5 matches, bringing a collection of your main fighters into battle against theirs. It's a mode that could certainly take off in the competitive scene -- or, at the very least, make a splash online.
But Ultimate might make it a little difficult to choose favorite characters, as each of the 74 fighters in the game, aside from the original eight from Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64, needs to be unlocked. Instead of having everyone from the get-go, as in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS/Wii U, you'll have to play your way to unlock your favorites. That can be done simply by playing the game's "Smash" mode or by working your way through its single-player story mode, "World of Light."
And that single-player mode might be the best the series has offered since Super Smash Bros. Melee's "Adventure"mode. In the moments following a catastrophic event that wipes out most of the living creatures in the universe, Kirby is left to pick up the pieces and save his allies, who have been cloned and sent to wreak havoc in this new world. Some of those clones are inhabited by "Spirits," static images of characters from across gaming that have taken the form of familiar faces, each with their own quirky set of rules that make each Spirit encounter an endearing experience.
You can tell there was care put into each one, like a giant Yoshi representing Plessy from Super Mario 3D World. The game might lack the series-famous Trophies, but these 1,000-plus Spirits help to soften that blow. Throughout the main story, you can level up and enhance those Spirits, with each affecting gameplay and boosting player stats in some way.
It's a loose fiction, but it works in a not-so-self-serious way. This mode is also one of the fastest ways to unlock each of the game's fighters. But be warned, if you unlock them outside of "World of Light," you'll still have to unlock them in the story mode to use them there. Whether playing here or just regular "Smash," expect unlocking every character to take upwards of 10 or so hours, barring a popular exploit you could find by doing a quick search.
In addition to these two pillars is the game's online suite. Gone are the days of "For Glory" and "For Fun" from Smash 4. They've been replaced with some more straightforward options, including the ability to customize your "preferred rules" for solo and co-op online play, and a place to create custom "Battle Arenas" where you and your friends can join what is essentially a custom game and duke it out with others. The suite is pretty bare-bones, but if the community is strong, we could see it evolving over time. There are also some issues with lag and delay while playing online -- even after using the Nintendo-suggested Ethernet adapter. That kind of accessory adoption could make or break the online population here.
With everything from its numerous stages and music tracks to its pantheon of fighters, Ultimate offers the most souped-up package the series has ever seen. The gameplay is snappy and deliberate, although we'll have to see how the competitive fighting game community reacts in the coming months.
For now, just sit back and enjoy a greatest-hits compilation of everything wonderful about gaming. Seriously, where else can you make Cloud Strife and Yoshi fight each other?