Super Smash Bros. Ultimate's true value lies in its singular vision of video game history
A personal museum that doubles as a fighting game.
I have never cared for the Super Smash Bros. series, and according to almost everyone I've ever spoken to, this makes no sense. After all, I've had at least one Nintendo console in my possession at all times since I bought an NES 30 years ago. I've certainly done plenty of gaming on other companies' platforms, yet I have a certain undeniably fondness for the Big N. And what is Super Smash Bros. if not an orgiastic celebration of all things Nintendo?
For whatever reason, though, Smash has never connected with me. For one thing, I'm not much of a fighting game fan, and Smash's approach to fighting is basically the opposite of everything I look for in a fighter. It's hyperactive, messy, and decidedly not technical. The idea is to launch opponents out of the ring, as determined by a percentage indicator along the bottom of the screen... except not actually, since you can be launched with a low percentage or somehow survive certain destruction with a high percentage. It doesn't make any sense! "Who thought this was a good idea!?" I inevitably mutter before dropping the controller and playing, you know, an actual Mario game or something.
So, no, as much fondness as I have for the Nintendo and Nintendo-adjacent properties contained within Smash, the fact that they've all come together in service of a chaotic take on the brawler doesn't do much for me. Still, the latest game in the series—Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which launches early next month—appears to be my last opportunity to rectify this curious failing of fan loyalty. If indeed this is the "ultimate" iteration of Smash, as in "final," it's now or never. So I've decided to open my heart one last time to see if I can learn to love Super Smash Bros., as (I'm often told) is my obligation as a long-time Nintendo console owner.
Having spent a little hands-on time with Smash Ultimate recently, I think I've made a breakthrough on this front. The fact that it's a fighting series doesn't particularly matter anymore, basically. At this point, the core game mechanics have grown almost secondary to what the series has turned into over time. Smash may not have had much to offer two decades ago, when it was just a humble fighter sporting a 12-character roster two decades ago, but the bizarre mutant that is Ultimate barely resembles that simplistic Nintendo 64 original. At this point, you can practically hear Smash groaning under the weight of its more than six dozen playable characters, its something like 100 playable stages, its tons of alternate play modes, and most of all, its constant, breathtaking flurry of fan service.
I don't mean the sleazy kind of fan service (even Bayonetta and Zero Suit Samus are toned down for Ultimate), but actual fan service. Nintendo and co-developer HAL have managed to cram every single playable character to have appeared throughout Smash history into this game, and each one comes with their own background stage (or two), loads of unlockable, deep-cut, archival material, and they often alternate costumes to boot. The sheer breadth and depth of the game history contained within Smash Ultimate makes it, quite likely, the single most extensive interactive chronicle of video game history ever created.
It is not, however, comprehensive. This is history seen through the lens of Nintendo. Really, it's not even that broad; Smash Ultimate is history seen through the eyes of director Masahiro Sakurai, expressed with goodies from the Nintendo toybox (no, not literally a toybox this time around). This specificity is simultaneously Smash Ultimate's greatest shortcoming and its greatest strength.
As a shortcoming: It's nothing short of tragic that this mad excursion through four decades of video game heritage can't encompass the full scope of the medium. From a simple matter of business logistics, that would be impossible; heck, the credit-roll for this game is so laden with corporate logos and rights notifications it's like taking a tour through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's headquarters. Throw in other first party console makers like Sony, Microsoft, Atari (and all their affiliated studios) and you'd end up with a project whose entire budget would vanish before you even paid the corporate lawyers for their basic due diligence. This is, by virtue of the sheer realities of capitalism, a game that has to focus in on a single corporation's interests.
As a strength: Sakurai genuinely loves Nintendo games and properties. Smash Ultimate reads as a work of sincere enthusiasm from one fanatic to millions—efforts aided and abetted by the dozens of other fans working on the game. Sakurai may not be an auteur designer like Hideo Kojima or Swery65, but his guiding vision turns this into a game wholly distinct from what any other designer would create. Consider the sheer volume of Kid Icarus-related content in Smash Ultimate—there are no less than three playable characters from a series that consists of three games spread across 32 years of history. There's no objective justification for that tiny hiccup of a Nintendo franchise seeing such disproportionately outsized representation in Smash Ultimate... but the simple fact is, Sakurai loves Kid Icarus. So there's your Pit, your Dark Pit, and your Palutena. This, despite lacking a single C.O. from the entire 20-year history of Advance Wars!
It's probably also not a coincidence that Kirby—the star of Sakurai's original breakout hit game—seems overwhelmingly favored in the "World of Light" story trailer. Some fighting game creators aspire to fairness and balance. Sakurai has no problem playing favorites.
Kid Icarus also neatly demonstrates the reverse influence Smash has on Nintendo brands. Kid Icarus as a property was essentially forgotten when its protagonist Pit showed up in Super Smash Bros. Brawl on Wii a decade ago, and his appearance there directly led to that franchise receiving a third entry (under Sakurai's guidance) several years later. Similarly, a huge percentage of the Nintendo fan base would have no idea what Ice Climber or a Game & Watch system are if it weren't for those series having introduced them as playable characters for various Super Smash Bros. rosters.
I suppose, then, that what impresses me most about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is that its window on Nintendo history works both ways. Long-time fans can sit back and smugly train-spot and compare notes on how many characters and references they understand. At the press event where I demoed Smash Ultimate, there was a sort of running undercurrent of journalists jostling for street cred as they (well, we) conspicuously made note of where the different characters and trophies we spotted on-screen had originated. Though, at the same time, everyone seemed only too happy to acknowledge the fact that Smash Ultimate contains a bumper crop of references so esoteric even people who make their livelihood by being experts about Nintendo-related matters had never heard of them. Supposedly the game includes more than a thousand unlockable characters and items that can be used as gameplay modifiers, and some of those inclusions are preposterously obscure.
For those who come into Smash Ultimate with only a vague awareness of Nintendo's deep bench of characters and properties, these references work the other way. I have nephews who instantly recognized a certain dog and duck when I introduced them to the lost art of CRT-based light gun games because they'd pummeled their siblings with the Duck Hunt team in Smash. They grew up 30 years too late for Metroid and Mega Man to be cutting-edge works (or even relevant) for their gaming experiences, but they still know who Samus Aran and Mega Man are.
I suppose if you wanted to be cynical, you could write off Super Smash Bros. as a property investment of sorts. After all, characters and brands are the most valuable asset in Nintendo's portfolio. And yet the sheer volume of material in Smash Ultimate goes a long way toward diffusing such criticisms. You don't include a minor character from Disaster: Day of Crisis (which was never released in the U.S.) in a game like this as a hidden bonus perk because it's going to keep that property alive in people's hearts; you do it because, well, that guy is a part of video game history and deserves to be enshrined in some small way.
Similarly, the incredible volume of characters and augmentations transform Smash Ultimate, ostensibly a fighting game, into something that barely resembles a fighting game anymore. With more than 70 characters (none of whom fight exactly alike) available to play across dozens and dozens of dynamic stages and available to tweak with more than a thousand different expendable, randomly acquired modifiers that can alter both the combatants' and the environment's nature, Smash Ultimate becomes... something else. But not really a fighter. I still don't particularly care for its ring-out and percentage tally systems, but on the other hand, this is a game where Solid Snake can fight a Piranha Plant and a Mii in Dracula's Castle, avoiding the werewolf boss from Rondo of Blood who shows up midway through the match, while doubling everyone's weight by means of an unlockable character from, I dunno, Sky Skipper. It's so weird and so constantly, incredibly specific that I can't help but find it fascinating.
And that's not even getting into things like the mini-story mode, where you face off against increasingly deadly challenges before fighting a completely inappropriate boss (in the case of my playthrough, a rathalos from Monster Hunter). Or the fact that the credit sequence is basically a remake of Solar Striker. Or the way King K. Rool has an ultimate attack that involves blasting Donkey Kong's island with a super-laser, which may or may not be canonical acknowledgement of the Great Ape War.
I'm still not sure if I like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, but I certainly intend to spend more time with it. There's just too much of video gaming's history here to be unlocked (and applied in bizarre ways) to be ignored.