E3 2018: Hands-on with Super Smash Bros Ultimate
With all the online talk about Nintendo this year, it feels only fitting to give Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros Ultimate a little time. We’ve talked recently about the unbundling of MMOs and why the market seems primed for a big title yet goes unanswered. Readers and writers all noted that other genres help meet the demands for this, from MOBAs to even social media.
In fact, we even covered an online fighting game last year because it included customizable characters (both appearance and abilities), quests, loot, guilds, and even guild quests that involved more than two people. An MMO it was not, but it certainly had enough overlap that it turned a few heads. The last Smash Bros included several of these components but restricted them to mostly offline play. However, one interesting note was that the Mii-fighter, a highly customizable character in the Smash-verse restricted to “fun” and “casual” play off and online, is being prepared for online battles. Whether that means in a new form or its customizable form matters, as one might hint at Nintendo’s aim for this title: another try for sanitized online fighter, or embracing the full spectrum of Smash fans. I’m leaning towards the latter.
For those who haven’t experienced it, the Smash Bros series isn’t just a mascot fighter but uses a ring-out system, with falling too far off screen counting as a loss/life. Combined with simple controls masking deeper mechanics with a roster of vastly different characters, Smash is more the Overwatch of fighters than it is, say, Counter Strike or Call of Duty.
While there’s certainly a competitive scene, it’s mostly been offline. Nintendo’s online systems have been dubious at best, and Smash has usually been the greatest example of the struggle (conversely, the Splatoon series, while not perfect, has been significantly better). Four player multiplayer isn’t exactly massive, but it’s a lot for a fighter, and Nintendo has included up to eight fighters on the screen in the Wii U version of the game, plus promising its return in the newest addition.
If that sounds like a challenge, I assure you it is. Many people I’ve played with have complained about the struggle to find their own character, in both the four-player mode and the eight player. It’s not just because there’s several characters on screen but because in unsanitized play, levels are filled with hazards and gimmicks as well as items. A lot is going on, but for some of us, that’s half the fun.
The problem is, especially for local multiplayer, it can be hard to find enough people to play against. I used Super Smash Bros for Wii U as part of a project on language learning motivation, and the few students who were veterans of the game had been unable to get enough players for big matches as we did after school. On my end, with other adults, many people want to practice more competitively, so they both dislike the modes and the hazards/items that I love. Having huge multiplayer fights available online would certainly help alleviate the struggle of finding not just local players but players who share your gaming preference.
Unfortunately, my E3 demo couldn’t address any of this. I’ve sent a follow-up question in the rare chance our Nintendo contact is able to share some more details on online play, but for the moment, we’ll probably have to wait until closer to the December 7th, 2018, release date.
Mixing it up
Another MOP writer and I were talking about E3 reveals and they felt Smash Bros Ultimate was more akin to a patch than a new game. While my limited demo and lack of developer Q&A prevents me from feeling comfortable calling this a whole new game, they may be onto something. I’d like to call the game more of an expansion, but it could just be seen as a huge balancing patch from what we’ve seen so far. I say this having felt other Nintendo Switch “ports” (like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Pokken Tournament DX) should have been DLC available to Wii U owners as well.
While on the outside it may look like the game is just every past fighter tossed in and given new art, there are some critical upgrades that really stand out. While I could simply list them all, that’s been done. Instead, I want to focus on some major changes that I think even a casual veteran will notice that give the game a different feel.
The first is that you select stages before choosing your fighter. It may not sound like a big deal, but it’s huge, and perhaps the most visceral change. Again, many Smash stages have hazards, unless you put them in a kind of tournament mode that simplify them to be uniform aside from their appearance (like they are in most Street Fighter games), or now simply turn off the hazards. Knowing if you’re doing more of a tournament type level, hazard level, or even side-scrollers (where the level moves and you’re fighting both your opponent and the approaching ringout) really helps you figure out which fighter will work best for the fight.
Then there are the fighters themselves. The first thing veterans look out for are the newcomers. Ridley from Metroid had a unique feel. Some other press told me that he’s completely broken. My booth guide said he straddles the line, as he’s not newbie friendly but can be quite good in the right hands. I feel the latter is appropriate, as I was able to do pretty well with him but nearly killed myself several times. His moves had delays or left him exposed in ways I hadn’t expected, and a veteran booth guide certainly took advantage of that.
The inkling was, perhaps, trickier. While it had some nice moves, I had trouble figuring out how to reload its paint, a mechanic other fighters don’t need to worry about. In fact, when a booth guide played her, we stopped the fight at one point because she needed to ask a co-worker how to reload. That being said, much as in Splatoon, the paint roller is tons of fun.
But let’s not forgot that the core roster is made up of veterans, which may be why some people feel Nintendo’s just recycling its own games. With that in mind, though, some of these characters have been out of the game for ten years or more. There are mechanics that weren’t around when they entered the fray, such as Pichu being around before the series introduced Ultimates called “Final Smash Attacks.” Curiously, while originally a clone significantly worse than Pikachu, the character will be different enough to drop that clone term.
See, one issue Smash Ultimate is solving is clones. Certain characters have often been seen as copies of another character’s moveset, just being faster or stronger than the original. In those situations, Smash Ultimate labels those characters as “Echoes.” This has allowed for certain characters like Fire Emblem’s Lucina to exist on her own before, yet Princess Daisy was simply used as an inspiration for one of Princess Peach’s costumes. Now, Daisy actually gets to be her own character, but players will know immediately that she should play similarly to Peach. Pichu, though, isn’t an Echo, so it needs to be balanced as a separate character.
And balancing has certainly happened. I can’t speak for the whole roster, but of the characters I played (against), I really noticed some interesting changes. Mewtwo may have been one of the more surprising ones. One of its primary special moves, Disable, was, well, useless. I’d even spoken to one of the more competitive Smash players in my console group who mains Mewtwo about it’s function, and he admitted as much.
However, in my demo, I was able to successfully execute Disable several times. The range felt far enough to finally pose a threat, which is does. As the name suggests, it leaves the opponent unable to move for a brief period of time, allowing Mewtwo to get in a solid hit. There are other examples of this kind of tweak that on their own make sense for a patch.
But as the Smash Ultimate trailer above revealed, Final Smashes for many characters have been revamped. While previously the attacks had a wide variety of functions, from full-screen damage to disabling opponents, all ultimates seem to be about damage now. Transformations are for looks as the character executes a showy attack. While I didn’t see each character’s ultimate, the general rule should affect about 15 of the currently known 65 characters on the roster.
Ready to Smash?
There are new levels with details that even my booth guides hadn’t noticed until my arrival in the final hours of E3. New items like the Fake Smashball add new strategies. Cameo assist fighters allow for more mascots that for whatever reason just didn’t make the cut (sorry Bomberman!). Cinematic changes in 1v1 fights make competitive play more watchable. Damage in 1v1 is increased a bit, while larger fights mean taking a little less damage. Nintendo has made changes that support both the casual Smasher like yours truly and the competitive Smash fans.
While the game still feels like a Smash game, there are enough visual tweaks, functional additions, and balance changes in the demo I played to make me willing to buy the game as is. Admittedly though, this is also because I expect the Switch’s new subscription model to make online gameplay smooth enough to actually make online play, well, playable. By comparison, I played the heck out of Pokken Tournament (in arcades and on Wii U), but didn’t feel the additions justified having to buy an entirely new game.
Maybe Super Smash Bros Ultimate really is just a huge balance patch. Maybe Nintendo won’t bring back its custom fighters system. Maybe fun stuff like amiibo fighters and eight-player brawls will remain locked into local-multiplayer only. I have so many questions I want to ask, but sadly didn’t get answered from my demo. What I did get, though, were some really fun fights. Even when one of the booth guides utterly humiliated me when I tried to use a more technical character, I had a lot of fun. With any luck though, Nintendo will throw in a big dose of online support as the industry finally notices that the sleeping giant has at least been stirred.