Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review: It makes me feel like a kid again

Review: It's the Goldilocks of Super Smash Bros. games.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
7 min read
Screenshot by Alfred Ng/CNET

For me, Super Smash Bros. is less a game and more a foundational part of my childhood.

During those simpler times, my friends and I would play Super Smash Bros. Melee on the late, great Nintendo GameCube for hours after school. There was a time when it was all I really wanted to do. But nowadays I don't have time to figure out frame data and combo follow-ups. The game isn't as much of a priority, despite how much fun it is.

If that's all Greek to you, just know that Super Smash Bros. is Nintendo's consummate version of the brawler. It's a fighting game populated with exclusive characters from Nintendo's stable. There are more than 70 playable characters including Mario, Captain Falcon and Fox, along with "guests" from other games, including Snake from Metal Gear Solid and Cloud from Final Fantasy VII. Super Smash Brothers Ultimate is the fifth entry in the series, the first on the Switch. Arriving Friday for $60 (£50, AU$80), it's easily the platform's most anticipated game of the year.

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Technically, this is the second portable version of the series. But let's be honest: The 2014 3DS version was a watered-down experience. This is the real deal. I've been playing SSBU during in between moments in my day, and it's everything I've ever wanted. On Saturday, I found myself waiting at an art gallery for two hours, wishing I'd brought my Switch the whole time. On Sunday, an hour-long train ride to Queens felt like nothing while I was playing through SSBU's new adventure mode. Even at dance practice, I was able to play 1v1's with friends while stretching.

Hardcore players will likely want to invest in the retro GameCube controller that's being released alongside the game, but playing on the JoyCons wasn't a terrible experience. It's missing that important C-stick, but it's fine for short, casual matches, like playing a game with a friend when you're waiting for a flight.

While it's not ideal for playing competitively, the Switch itself provides a smooth gaming experience. Even when I tried overloading it with eight Ice Climbers (meaning there were 16 characters on the screen) on Fountain of Dreams -- a stage with many elements to render -- I didn't get any lag time on the Switch itself.

Simply put, SSBU really feels like the Goldilocks version of Smash Bros. Everything is just right. 

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Bringing balance to Smash

As a concept, Super Smash Bros. has stayed the same since it was first released in 1999. Nintendo characters battle in the platform fighter game, trying to knock each other off the stage. But small changes to the physics with each new game have made it more or less competitive.

The original on the Nintendo 64 was limited in its options, but allowed for deep development within those restrictions. Melee, for the GameCube, was fast-paced and combo driven but could be too difficult for newcomers. Brawl on the Wii was easier to pick up but not as competitive. And the last version, on the Wii U , focused more on strategy and mental fortitude but wasn't as aggressive.

I've wanted to play Super Smash Bros. while on the move for years, but this wish could easily have been ruined if SSBU was flawed competitively. Previous versions of the game each had their own traits that created different tribes of players with different preferences.

The hope is that SSBU will have all the qualities needed to bring every player under one game.


Despite 16 characters on the screen on Fountain of Dreams, this ran pretty smoothly on the Switch. 

Screenshot by Alfred Ng/CNET

Nintendo has returned to rewarding aggressive play in SSBU. You'll do better if you chase after your enemies and fight them, and it's more difficult to run away. Characters could dodge in the air as much as they wanted in the Wii U version, making combos difficult unless you could predict when your opponent would do it or bait them into a mistake. This was a shift from Melee, where you could only do one air dodge then you'd be immobile until you landed again. 

SSBU takes a middle ground: Air dodges now have a long cooldown time, so you can't keep spamming them to stay safe. This forces you to be more precise with dodges, making for more fighting than running. It's subtle adjustments like this that make SSBU more competitive than previous games while keeping it fair for novice players.

Watch this: Here's what you need to know about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

That middle ground means leaving out wavedashing, a technique for sliding and moving quickly in Melee, while bringing back dash dancing, another movement tactic that's simpler to pull off.  

Another example is reducing Rage's effect. Rage was introduced in the Wii U version. It made you stronger the more damage you took. This was fine when playing with friends because it allows for comebacks, but competitive players often saw Rage as the game rewarding you for losing -- kind of like how you only get the best items in Mario Kart if you're in last place.

There are many more minor changes I haven't found yet, but a few notable ones include Perfect Shielding, which allows for counter-attacks if you block a hit with precise timing, and higher gravity for more fast-paced air combos.

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Playing SSBU feels like rediscovering a competitive game. It's exciting to think about how strategies will develop in the months after its release.

There were many times I found myself watching replays frame by frame to see the most optimal aerial move with the least landing lag, and noticing what moves kill at certain percentages.

Each version of Super Smash Bros. has its own loyal fans and top players, but SSBU is Nintendo's best chance at getting them all together under one title -- the same way they brought every single character back in one game.

Playing solo

Obviously, SSBU is all about multiplayer. You can play online (if you have the service) or with friends in person, whether it's with the Switch's small JoyCon controllers, the classic Gamecube controller with adapters, or against someone else with a Switch.

We talked more about the competitive aspects of SSBU from playing with a professional Smash player in a previous article.

While the most fun ways to play Smash is with friends, I spent the majority of my time with the game alone, and I couldn't play online.

With past Super Smash Bros. there was always a limited single-player mode, other than Brawl's Subspace Emissary. There were challenges such as Home-Run Contest, Break the Targets and All-Star mode, but they didn't have much replay value.

SSBU tries to address that with World of Light, its new adventure mode structured like a board game. It plays a lot like an RPG: You walk around a map collecting spirits that have their own power-ups to help you in future battles.

Some spirits you'll absolutely need to continue the story -- like finding a pilot spirit so you can use a spaceship on the map. The World of Light board is massive -- after a week of playing, I'm still finding areas that I haven't been to yet.


The story mode is expansive and solo play doesn't feel as limited as previous games.

Screenshot by Alfred Ng/CNET

And some fights are too difficult unless you have the proper power-ups, like a fight where the floor is lava unless you have a spirit that grants you immunity to it. The story itself isn't great, and at times can feel a little bit corny -- but I don't think anyone is playing Smash Bros. for its narrative.

When you first get the game, you'll spend plenty of time unlocking all the characters. Compared to previous Smash games, it's a real mountain to climb with 66 fighters to unlock -- not counting the original eight you start with.

The AI has gotten a lot smarter since the last Super Smash Bros. too -- along with the changes making SSBU more competitive, the computers have changed to fit that play style too. Computers will now chase you off the stage to kill you and are much less predictable than previous games.

Most importantly, they're much better for training solo players. In previous versions, training on computers at the highest difficulty didn't translate well to playing in tournaments, because the computers had perfect reaction times and dodges.

If you trained against those computers, you were playing with an unrealistic standard, and would be unprepared to play against a human who makes mistakes and picks up patterns in real time. The new AI is much smarter, often using techniques that I've only seen humans using in the past.
At one point, I played against a computer-controlled Young Link that held onto a bomb to blast itself in the air to get back onto the stage. That's a strategy that players in Melee developed, but I'd never seen it played by a computer.

For now, SSBU plays like a well-balanced game with new elements to keep it fresh and interesting for a long time.

The meta game could develop to a point where one character is broken and overpowered, but until then, SSBU has a great shot at bringing Smash players from across the fandom together.

More SSBU: See GameSpot's review of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

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