Hands on review: Super Smash Bros Ultimate for Nintendo Switch

Bigger, Better, Ultimate-er

To finally get a hands on with Super Smash Bros Ultimate is like that moment when you sit down to a long anticipated dinner. Maybe you’ve been starving yourself all day because it’s a special occasion or something – like a birthday meal at an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet (the dream) – or maybe you can’t often afford a good quality steak and this is the one time in the year when the stars have aligned and you’re able to gorge your meaty little heart out. Regardless, it’s a beautiful moment, and the temptation to inhale everything at once like a magnificent land whale and swiftly ruin the evening with a thunderous bout of indigestion is near impossible to overcome.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I was gleefully excited – and almost immediately overwhelmed – by Smash Bros Ultimate. In the very best way.

A new challenger approaches

The demo build featured 30 of the mammoth full 68 character roster, consisting of a good mix of classic fighters and newcomers, including both the Inkling and Ridley who are brand new in Ultimate – and Cloud, Ryu, Corrin, and Bayonetta who were all available as DLC in the previous games (and therefore, for me at least, all brand new too).

Even though the class was only half full (along with 23 stages out of a currently unconfirmed total) it still felt like a lot, which is testament to just how “ultimate” Ultimate truly is.

If you’ve played a Smash Bros game before then you’ll know what to expect here. True to the series’ form, Ultimate puts its emphasis on small-scale changes to the cosmetics and under-the-hood functionality over large-scale, dramatic updates. The fundamentals of the game are the same: 2 to 8 players duke it out, individually or in teams, in an arena with a variety of normal and special moves, wacky items, and environmental hazards, to build your opponent’s damage percentage until you’re able to smash them off the screen in a glorious explosion of light, then whoever has the most points at the end wins.

Small changes, big gains

The base simplicity of the game (in comparison to other fighting games at least) is still very much in place and yet, in even the short time I had with the game, it was clear that all of the nuanced gameplay mechanics that pro-players look for are accounted for and updated too. In particular, air-dodging and air-battles more generally felt notably different, with characters feeling freer and quicker off the ground thanks to directional dodging, and if you’ve previously spent any considerable length of time with the games’ minutiae this is something you’ll undoubtedly lose yourself in mastering.

The biggest change that’s worth noting is just how much quicker everything feels. Super Smash Bros Ultimate runs at a serious pace, even in comparison to the much loved (or hated, depending on where you fall) frenetic pace of the previous games. It feels as though every single thing in the game – every character move and stage, the activation time of items, repsawn time – has been knocked up a few notches.

Granted, this may just be because I haven’t played a Smash game in a little while, but in talking with other players it seems a generally universal takeaway. It may just be the demo build, or it may be something that players will be encouraged to experiment with in the settings as per previous games, but it’s sure to play a role as players seek to retrain for Ultimate.

The game looks absolutely gorgeous – it’s not a massive upgrade over Smash Bros Wii-U but it’s full of bright, vibrant colours that make the most of every HD pixel. The presentation has had an appealing update, with easy-to-navigate menus and a particularly lovely versus screen prior to the battle that adds an extra sheen on an already obscenely polished experience.

Further to that, the battles now include an unobtrusive little “map” in the top corner that shows one square for the stage, a second larger square for the KO area, and little colour markers for where the players are (check it out in the video below, it thankfully disappears when players pass through it). It’s a tiny little addition that actually makes a pretty significant difference to the game-playing experience: working out where you are when the stage erupts into a thousand explosions, and knowing how far you need to hit players to score a point (or, vice versa, how far you’ll be able to recover from) is invaluable.

In terms of the characters, like with everything else, it’s mostly a case of minor tweaks over major changes. For some characters, like Fox and Kirby, the changes are almost imperceptible unless you’ve been maining them for years. For others, the updates are more obvious – and welcome.

Ganondorf for example – a longtime personal favourite despite his general meta rubbishness – has had a bit of a glow up, and not just with his appearance, though he’s looking great in his Ocarina of Time threads. He moves a bit quicker, hits a bit harder and, most significantly of all, his sword has been added as part of his smash attacks, so he’s now much less of a Slowpoke’d Captain Falcon and more of a beefy sword-swinger like Ike, balanced nicely against his traditional goblin magic (a phrase that will never stop being hilarious).

Also very pleased to report that Ridley fits in incredibly well – all those years of “but he’s too big!” excuses are certainly looking rather silly now. He’s a big lad granted, but no more so than the other chunkier contenders like Bowser, DK, or the aforementioned ‘dorf. Much like his beefy brothers, he’s powerful with big area-of-effect specials, though he’s also notably a fair bit quicker. His side B attack in particular – where he quickly dashes sideways and grabs hold of an opponent before dragging them along and smashing them in a big shadowy explosion that hurts nearby players – feels like a handy microcosm for where he fits in with the meta roster. I didn’t get the chance to check out his Final Smash sadly… though everything is firmly crossed for some Meta-Ridley action.

About to unleash Fox’s Arwing Final Smash

In short, if you’re a Smash Bros fan it’s clear you’re in for an absolute treat – Super Smash Bros Ultimate it’s the smashiest brother-iest Smash Bros that Smash Bros has ever Smash Bros-ed and, to that end, more than delivers on the promise of its subtitle. With even a brief hands on there was too much to write about – like how the Pokéballs now feature Alolan versions of Pokémon and Smash Balls behave in a completely different way, not to mention how much quicker and punchier Smash Attacks are more generally – so hopefully this will serve to whet that growing appetite.

We’ll feature further updates on the game as we get them and of course a full hands-on when it’s finally unleashed upon the world on December 7th, but until then keep calm and start stretching those thumbs. Or, for the more impatient among you, check out our round-up of Switch games you’re going to want this year. It’s a good time to be a Switch owner.

Zack Fox, Chief Screen-Watcher
About Zack Fox, Chief Screen-Watcher 26 Articles
Chief Screen-Watcher Zack writes about gaming, TV and movies. He also runs Gadgette's commercial side, and works part-time at a film production company. Follow him on Twitter: @ZackFoxFilm