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Commentary Video Games

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: 5 things Nintendo needs to fix

Commentary: Nintendo's latest Smash Bros. game is fantastic, but parts of it feel incomplete, broken and backward.

From the moment the Nintendo Switch was first announced, fans knew it was coming: a new version of Super Smash Bros. It took about a year after the console's launch for Nintendo to catch up to that expectation, and a few months more until it promised the next game in the series would be the most complete iteration of the fighting game ever made. To drive the point home, Nintendo baked it into the game's title: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

This was supposed to be the best version of Smash Bros, the game that had everything fans wanted: every character who had ever appeared in the game; all of the most iconic stages and items; faster gameplay; better online support and more.

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If you glance at the game's Metacritic score, it seems like it has met those expectations: fans and critics alike love Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. But the honeymoon is starting to wind down. We're starting to see flaws.

That isn't to say SSBU is bad, or even a bad Smash Bros. game. In fact, it might be the best entry in the series since fan favorite Melee -- but there are some real shortcomings we need to talk about. The issues revolve around two major aspects of the game: the single-player Adventure Mode and anything that involves online multiplayer.

Adventure Mode is a shell of what it could be

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Nintendo

Let's be honest: Nobody ever expected Super Smash Bros. to be a platform for good storytelling. But that doesn't mean nobody ever played a Smash game for the story. Despite being a game that's mostly about orchestrating increasingly ridiculous fights between iconic Nintendo characters, Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the Nintendo Wii boldly included an adventure mode. The Subspace Emissary offered six to eight hours of gameplay, sprawling platform levels with diverting paths and nearly an hour of cutscenes filled with action, comedy and drama.

World of Light, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate's single player adventure mode, has almost no platforming levels, very little story and about 10-15 minutes of cutscenes -- 20 if you include the ending credits.

It's not necessarily a bad single player mode, it just feels like wasted potential. World of Light tasks the player with rescuing captured fighters and battling clones of the Smash fighters who have been possessed by spirits of characters from other games. It's a clever framework that allows the game's cast of 74 fighters to represent countless other characters. It even takes place on an enormous, gorgeous world map the player can wander around and explore -- but it's also a soulless experience.

Apart from the opening cutscene, the player never gets to see the characters he rescues interact with each other. There are hardly any moments that drive the story forward, or scenes that show off the fruits of the player's labors. There aren't even bonus levels or platforming segments to break it up -- just spirit battle after spirit battle.

It's not as if Nintendo has lost its talent for making delightful cinematic mash-ups of Smash characters either. The character reveal videos for Metroid's Ridley and Castlevania's Simon Belmont felt like pieces of an epic cinematic story that we never got to see, and King K. Rool's introduction could have easily been lifted from a more lighthearted part of a larger story. Why did Nintendo make these incredible, Brawl-like previews of these characters interacting only to leave us with such a gutted and lifeless adventure mode?

The cutscenes that are in the game look great, but even those feel a little incomplete. In the opening cinematic, Fox and Zelda have spoken lines, but World of Light's sparse plot points are delivered through voiceless subtitles, every word begging for a narrator.

Super Smash Bros. Adventure mode has a beautiful world map and a great basic framework, but it feels half done. And that's a shame.

There's no easy way to play with friends online

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Look at all these friends I'm not playing with!

Screenshot by Sean Buckley/CNET

There's nothing better than getting together with a group of friends, starting an argument over whether a hotdog is a sandwich or not, and settling the absurd debate in Smash. Ever since the series debuted on the Nintendo 64, Super Smash Bros. has been an epic, hilarious party game experience. That's great when everyone is in the same room, but replicating that multiplayer magic over the internet is a challenge.

Smash Bros. Ultimate may have online multiplayer support, but setting up a match with friends is unnecessarily difficult. It's not completely the game's fault. Nintendo's Switch Online service is notoriously bare bones compared to Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, to the point where it doesn't have built-in voice chat or a group system of any kind. There is a friends list, and you can see when your friends are playing Smash Bros, but there's no way to invite your friends to play with you or to join the game they're playing.

That means that if you want to play a game of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate with your friends, you'll need to call or text them first, tell them when you're going to be online, make a private Battle Arena room in Smash Bros. Online mode and ask them to search for it or enter the arena ID code hidden in the Arena Settings menu that becomes available after you create a room.

Sound complicated? That's because it is. And that's not even getting taking into account the messy smartphone-app-required voice chat system.

Ultimately, this is a failure of the Nintendo Switch Online service, but it would have been nice if Smash Bros. had accounted for those shortcomings. Sadly, it doesn't. Playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate with your friends is too complicated to be fun.

Smash Tags could be so much better

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Screenshot by Sean Buckley/CNET

When you first set up online multiplayer, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate prompts you to make a Smash tag -- basically, an online user profile with your username and an icon. When you defeat a player online, a copy of their battle tag will be added to the collections menu in your vault.

It's a neat idea, but the tags just don't do that much.

The tags appear in your vault as a scoreboard, a collection of all the players you've beaten. You can set one as a favorite, if you want to keep track of your wins against a rival, or sell them for a limited amount of in-game gold... but that's about it. The feature just doesn't seem useful at present. Have a favorite rival you want to send a message of congratulations to, or someone you want to challenge to a rematch? Too bad. This list of opponents has the same restrictions as your Switch friends list: You can't send messages or invites to any of the Smash Tags you've collected. You can, however, send them a friend request -- doubling the ways in which you can't invite them to battle.

Mangled matchmaking

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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate feels well balanced for beginners and hardcore players.

Screenshot by Alfred Ng/CNET

Even if you don't want to play with friends, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate's online multiplayer experience still has plenty of room for improvement. There are two basic multiplayer modes: Quickplay and Battle Arena, and they both have their own quirks to deal with.

Quickplay is exactly what it sounds like: an easy way to jump into online matches. It's also supposed to curate your matches by a set of preferred rules -- but the game seems to use your rule preference settings as more of a suggestion than a strict search parameter. Players looking for 1-on-1 matches with no items, limited stock and omega battlefields can sometimes find themselves thrown into four player free-for-all battles with all items. This would be more forgivable if the more competitive Elite Smash had stricter matchmaking, but at the time of this writing, it has the same problem.

Both modes have improved after a recent patch, but most of the matches I've found still fail to meet my rule preferences on one or more points, offering matches with the wrong stock settings, different stage configuration or item setups. It has become more consistent about getting 1-on-1 battles, however.

The only way to ensure you get a match with your preferred rules is to play in Battle Arena, which sets up a dedicated, miniature tournament room with custom rules. Unfortunately, that comes with its own frustrations: Rooms are only open for as long as a host is playing, so if the host leaves, you'll need to find a new room or start your own. These rooms also penalize you if you want to change characters, taking you out of the battle queue and forcing you to wait in line to get back into a match. Worse still, the rules for each room are set: If you want to change items, stock, match time or any other setting, you'll have to back out and create a whole new room.

Perhaps most frustratingly, Battle Arena matches don't count toward your Global Smash Ranking, the game's point system for ranking competitive players.

Smash 4's For Glory was widely criticized by competitive players, but somehow, this is actually even more frustrating. Right now, the only true solution for serious competitive players is to seek unofficial matchmaking solutions like Anther's Ladder, a site dedicated to matching up like-minded players. That works for hardcore competitives, but it'd be helpful if the system built into the game simply worked better.

Lots of lag

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Nintendo

Even if Smash Ultimate's matchmaking system were perfect, it'd still have to contend with the lag plaguing online gameplay. This isn't a new problem. Super Smash Bros. online play has been plagued by slow, stuttering, laggy matches since the Wii's Brawl -- it's just frustrating that it's still an issue today. In Smash Bros, lag will either slow down the game's frame rate, ruining the pace of the game, or temporarily pause the action altogether until the connection stabilizes. Both have devastating effects on a match.

How bad the issue is really depends on where you live, how fast your connection is, and who you've connected to. Some of us have experienced almost no lag in my online play, but several people at CNET say they can barely play online, facing an unplayable slideshow despite living in San Francisco and having stable, fast connections.

The problem is made worse by Smash Ultimate being a faster Smash game than the last few iterations, making slowdown all the more painful.

Hopefully, it can be fixed

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Sean Buckley/CNET

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has flaws, to be sure, but they certainly aren't deal breakers. It's true, the adventure mode's narrative is sloppy, and doesn't deliver the cross-brand character interaction that made Brawl's Subspace Emissary so special -- but Smash is still a triumph of excellent gameplay mechanics and pure distilled fun. The story mode is fun and all, but Smash doesn't need it be an adventure. It's a game worth playing for its own sake.

Likewise, the failings of Smash Bros. Ultimate's online offerings are a huge blunder -- an embarrassing mess of failed network support and mediocre matchmaking systems -- but that flop doesn't diminish how amazing the game still is as a local multiplayer party experience. We're not splitting any hairs here. Smash Bros. Ultimate is a fantastic game, we just know it could be better.

The good news? Nintendo seems to know it too. As we were working on this piece, the company announced and released a 1.2.0 patch that directly addressed some of these issues -- namely, matchmaking, which has been updated to adhere more strictly to the player's requested rule set. It's still an imperfect multiplayer queue system, but it's noticeably better. Even so, the update openly admits that players still may not get matches that adhere to all of their preferred rules.

Still, it's a positive sign, and proof that Nintendo is already taking steps to improve the game. With any luck, we'll see more patches in the future that address other issues... and if somebody in Japan really loves me, a more filled-out adventure mode.

Maybe. Here's hoping.

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