Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is not perfect for the Nintendo Switch

Commentary: It might be the best game in the series, but Ultimate fights against exactly what makes the Switch great.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
6 min read

It's been just over three months since Nintendo unleashed Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the fastest-selling Nintendo Switch game yet.

For the uninitiated, Smash Bros. pits Nintendo icons -- Mario, Link, Kirby -- against an all-star cast of video game characters in explosive free-for-all battles. It's something of a revelation in Nintendo's typically kid-friendly lineup of games, where instead of seeing characters politely race each other, or compete in friendly games of tennis, they punch each other in the face. A lot.

Smash Bros. is a game built for short bursts. It's a chaotic storm of quick-fire reactions and on-the-fly adjustments. Matches are often so short you can sneak one in the time it takes to make a coffee.

And Ultimate is the quintessential version of Smash, cramming almost everything from the franchise's 20-year history into one tidy package.

That makes it perfect for the Nintendo Switch, right?

It should be -- but it isn't. It can't be.

Because Smash Bros. is an anachronism so firmly rooted in the past it will never be able to take full advantage of the Switch's best asset: Its portability.

And so Ultimate is like a two-patty, three-cheese, double-bacon burger dripping with secret sauce but the bun has been replaced by two cookies. I love burgers. I love cookies. This should be everything I want, but Smash Bros. is just not meant to be consumed in this way.



First, a little context: In 2002, I was a chubby kid that bailed on after-school socializing for Super Smash Bros. Melee, on the Nintendo GameCube .

Basically, if it was legal for a 12-year-old to get a forehead tattoo, I would have plastered the game's logo smack in the middle of my brow.

I have thrown money at every Super Smash Bros. game. There was the Wii version, Brawl, which I had to buy three times. It didn't receive a simultaneous worldwide release, so I employed the internet dark arts just to get it three months early. Next came Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U and 3DS -- the same game but on two different consoles -- both of which I had to own.

But for all the copies bought, Melee's successors never quite captured the same emotion that Melee did, even though they tapped into those memories where I'd waste entire days in uncomfortable chairs, drinking warm, discount cola from 2-litre bottles and rubbing Doritos dust on grubby sweatpants.

I'm not the only one with a nostalgic link to Melee, either. The game is revered as the pinnacle of Super Smash Bros. It's a Godlike figure that lords over the Church of Smash. It has endured, over the last 18 years, as one of the world's most popular competitive fighting games and is played at the biggest tournaments every year.

Melee is deeply ingrained in the Super Smash Bros. psyche as The Very Best -- and the reason for that can be partly attributed to the Nintendo GameCube controller.


Super Smash Bros. Melee is considered one of the best games of all-time. 


Burden of control

Some rate the GameCube controller as the best ever. Others would prefer to see it relegated to the dustbin of video game history.

Wherever you sit, there's no doubt that Super Smash Bros. Melee and that awkward, gaudy, curved controller were made for each other -- and it has become the controller of choice for every Smash since.

The quick-flick C-stick under the right thumb, the friction of a full-trigger press with your index finger and the bounciness of the X and Y buttons all delicately mix with the exploding light on screen. No Smash has quite been able to affix the "stickiness" of its controls to the high intensity action unfolding on the screen like Melee does.

When Super Smash Bros. was announced for the Wii U in 2013, it seemed like the era of the GameCube controller was over. But in 2014, to the delight of many fans, Nintendo announced that the Wii U would be getting an adapter. Think about that.

Rather than develop a Super Smash Bros. that took advantage of the Wii U's unique second-screen setup or utilized its touch controls, Nintendo released an adapter for an (at the time) 13-year-old controller.

Which brings us to the Switch. The Switch doesn't have GameCube controller ports, but you can plug in a dual-USB adapter, just like you can on the Wii U, to play with GameCube controllers. But the Switch is meant to be portable. It's a lift-and-go home console you can play literally anywhere -- and plugging in a 'Cube controller goes against that.

Ultimate doesn't get to take advantage of the Switch's best feature. It's not Breath of the Wild, which is crafted so perfectly it suits both short bursts and long, intensive stints. It's not Super Mario Odyssey, which is conveniently carved into neat segments so that it fits into your schedule whenever you turn it on.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a game you have to make time for.


Super Mario Odyssey has you collect hundreds of moons in each level. It's perfectly designed to pick up and play. 


I want to be a kid again

In CNET's review of Ultimate, Alfred Ng said Ultimate makes him "feel like a kid again." He's not wrong. Its full roster of characters, stages, items and collectibles, spanning the series' 20 years, delivers an overwhelming dose of nostalgia. When I first jumped in, it had me smiling like a buffoon, remembering the good ol' days.

But making me feel like a kid again is a double-edged sword.

When I was a kid, all I had to do was make it through a six-hour school day without the Phys Ed. teacher berating me for being unfit.

Now I'm 30 -- an adult with real adult things to do like mop the floor and take the garbage out and try to eat healthy and make sure I exercise daily so I won't berate myself for being unfit -- Super Smash Bros. exists in a different world.

You want to play with the best controller? OK, but you have to get home and drop the Switch into the dock, the only place where the GameCube controller adapters work.

And you've got to stack the dishwasher when you're home!

You want to play with friends? Better organize a meetup after work at somewhere mutually convenient for the four of you to get to at a time that takes into consideration late working hours and early starts the next day and wait -- doesn't John's kid have ballet class on Wednesdays?

And remember to vacuum the living room where you spilled your granola this morning, idiot!

Want to play online? You have to go home and connect the Switch to the Wi-Fi and sit through an outdated online matchmaking system that desperately requires further tweaking before you can get into a game you might not even want to play.

Oh -- and don't forget the dishes!!!

'Perfect for the Switch'

Everyone is buying the Nintendo Switch. In 2019, some analysts predict it will outsell both the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One.

Based on its current sales data, it seems Super Smash Bros. Ultimate will become the system's best-selling game by year's end. It currently sits in third, trailing only Super Mario Odyssey and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe .

Deservedly so.

Ultimate is a wonderfully crafted game -- it's almost perfectly balanced and one of the most fluid, well-performing games on the Switch, given how ridiculous a round of Smash can get. Masahiro Sakurai, Smash Bros. creator, has routinely sacrificed his health to get this made, and the love and care for all its systems and characters are readily apparent as soon as you press start.

Maybe I'm just getting old. Maybe I'm just trying to justify my unwillingness to change. Maybe I'm just more prone to yelling at clouds than I was 18 years ago.

Because you certainly don't have to look far to find kids sneaking games in during gym class, or during a tornado warning, content with their Pro Controllers and Joy-Con. My muscle memory is likely fine-tuned to the curves of an awkward 18-year-old controller and I just can't get out of that cycle.

But Edmond Tran perhaps put it best in a glowing review at GameSpot: "There is one significant struggle that Ultimate comes up against, however, which lies in the nature of the console itself. Playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in the Switch's handheld mode is simply not a great experience."

For all the video games that are "perfect for the Switch," Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a game that feels -- sacrilegiously -- burdened by it.

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