Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

With a name like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the Switch’s edition to Nintendo’s massively-successful crossover fighter certainly gave itself a lot to live up to. Somewhat miraculously, Ultimate manages to pull that very feat off, delivering what is undoubtedly the best entry in the long-running series to date. Bursting at the seams with content and fine-tuning the series’ gameplay, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate lives up to its lofty expectations, even if a lackluster adventure mode and a thin (and inconsistent) lineup of new fighters means it doesn’t quite surpass them.

Super Smash Bros. really doesn’t need an introduction at this point. The franchise has become one of Nintendo’s biggest sellers thanks to its engrossing gameplay, which combines elements of traditional fighting games with Mario Kart-esque party elements, all while incorporating sumo style rules that make it unique unto itself.

By ‘sumo style’ rules, I of course refer to Super Smash Bros’ key mechanic of sending opponents off the screen – similar to sumos throwing each other out of the ring – in order to defeat them, as opposed to depleting a health bar as in most fighters. Though with that said, the ‘Stamina mode’ first introduced to the series in Melee, in which players do deplete each other’s health, returns as one of Ultimate’s primary game modes, no longer relegated to a kind of bonus mode as in the past.

That seemingly small change is indicative of the very nature of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. This is the Super Smash Bros. that attempts to legitimize every play style for the series, and to appease every type of Smash fan. And for the most part, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate wildly succeeds in doing just that.

If you’re a serious Smash player, you can remove items and play on flat stages a la Final Destination or small stages with minimal platforms in the vein of the classic Battlefield stage, with no match-altering Final Smashes included. Players who want chaotic fun can have all items active, Final Smashes turned on, and enable every last, crazy stage hazard and gimmick. Or, if you’re somewhere in between, you can play on the standard stages with the gimmicks turned off, only allow Final Smashes by means of building up a power meter during battle, and only enable the occasional Pokeball and Assist Trophy in regards to items.

The ways in which you can customize matches are boundless. This really is the Super Smash Bros. that can appeal to any Nintendo fan. At least in terms of the core gameplay, that is.

If there is one glaring downside with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it’s with the game’s adventure mode. Dubbed ‘World of Light,’ Ultimate’s adventure mode is mind-numbingly tedious, and simply not worth the time and effort it takes to see it to the end.

In World of Light, players initially take control of Kirby, the only survivor of a Thanos-style mass extinction, as they progress through one battle after another, unlocking the other characters and collecting ‘Spirits,’ which are won after defeating opponents in possession of said Spirits.

These Spirits are a new feature in Ultimate, replacing the series’ long-standing trophy collectibles. It’s ultimately an unfair trade. While the trophies of Smash’s past featured unique character models and gave some insights into Nintendo (and gaming) history, the Spirits are merely presented as stock promotional art from past games, and provide statistical bonuses to your characters when equipped. Spirits can grant boosts to attributes like strength or speed, or provide you with a special ability (such as starting fights with a particular item, or being resistant to certain types of attacks).

This may sound interesting in concept, but it kind of goes against the very nature of Super Smash Bros. This is a fighting series all about learning the different play styles of the various characters. So if you have Spirits activated in the standard game, it makes things more about who has the best Spirits equipped, as opposed to who played the best in any given round.

Suffice to say the Spirits find all of their appeal in the single player World of Light mode. Though even then, the game often mishandles their usage. Pulling a page out of Paper Marios Sticker Star and Color Splash, there are a number of battles in World of Light in which it is necessary to have specific Spirits equipped in order to win. If the Spirits gave you advantages in these situations, that’d be fine. But on more than one occasion you will come across a battle in which victory is impossible unless you have a specific Spirit equipped.

Another issue with World of Light is that it’s just too long for its own good. It features an unnecessary amount of branching paths, alternate routes, and  overall battles. And when it finally looks like you’re done with it, World of Light pulls a Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins on the player and extends the adventure by rather lazy means. To detract from the experience even further, World of Light is exclusively played by a single player. Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s adventure mode, Subspace Emissary, was far from a winner, but at least I could play that with a friend.

Not to mention Subspace Emissary served as a fast means of unlocking every character. But World of Light just drags on and on, with the lonesome tedium making you seek one of the many other means of unlocking the characters (thankfully, there are no shortage of options when it comes to expanding the roster). The fact that World of Light actually makes me long for Subspace Emissary could be a sign that maybe Super Smash Bros. is better off without an adventure mode at all.

Of course, the adventure mode is just a small part of the overall package, and every other mode included in the game delivers in spades: Classic Mode is more fun than ever, and includes unique challenges for every last fighter. Tournaments are easier to set up than ever before. New Squad Strikes have players selecting teams of characters and eliminating them one by one. Smashdown sees players cycle through the entire roster one at a time, with previously selected characters getting locked out after use. The variety never ceases to impress.

On the concept of variety, the biggest selling point of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is that every playable character from the franchise’s history is present. If they were playable in a past Super Smash Bros. title, they’re playable here. So those of you who missed Solid Snake for being omitted from Super Smash Bros. on Wii U/3DS, he’s back. Young Link and Toon Link can now face off against one another. Pichu makes his return after seventeen years (they can’t all be winners). The DLC characters from Wii U/3DS return. Even the good ol’ Ice Climbers have found their way back to the series, after technical limitations on the 3DS prevented their appearance in the last installments. And yes, we even get a handful of new characters joining the fray, meaning that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has all of the character variety of each and every one of its predecessors put together and then some.

“You’re the man now, Croc!”

Speaking of the new characters, that’s where things can be a bit inconsistent when it comes to selections. Ridley and King K. Rool feel like the most meaningful newcomers, given that they’ve been in high demand from fans since Melee. Splatoon’s Inklings also make sense as they represent one of Nintendo’s contemporary success stories. And Simon Belmont feels long overdue in the third-party character department (seriously, besides Mega Man, what other third-party character even compares to Castlevania’s early history with Nintendo?).

The remaining newcomers, however, are a bit of a mixed bag. Isabelle from Animal Crossing – though a welcome addition in her own right – doesn’t exactly come across as a character fans were dying to see join the series. Incineroar feels like he could have been any randomly selected Pokemon. And the downloadable Piranha Plant just feels like a big middle finger to the fans who have been requesting their favorite characters for years. That’s not to say that these characters detract from the gameplay by any means. But for a series so grounded in fanservice, some of these character selections feel misguided.

“Evil kings from classic series are the coolest!”

Perhaps with more newcomers the more disappointing entries wouldn’t stick out so much. But with most of the emphasis going towards bringing back every past character, you kind of wish that the smaller quantity of newcomers would have translated to a consistent quality. And that’s unfortunately not always the case.

Some fans may also lament that clone characters – now officially referred to as “echo fighters” – are still present, but at least now they’re categorized appropriately, and not treated as though they’re full-on additions to the franchise.

“The colors, Duke! The colors!”

Still, it’s hard to complain too much when Ultimate boasts seventy unique characters (with more on the way via DLC. Here’s hoping some favorites make the cut). There’s simply never a shortage of characters to choose from, and all of them bring their own sense of fun to the gameplay (with the possible exceptions of the excessive amount of sword fighters from Fire Emblem, who often feel interchangeable even when they aren’t clones).

Each character’s Final Smash has also been altered this time around, as they take on a more cinematic approach. Unfortunately, while the Final Smashes look more impressive than ever, their infrequent interactivity makes them less fun than in previous installments. This was probably done for the sake of balance, which is admirable. Though chances are, if you have Final Smashes active, you aren’t exactly aiming for a balanced, competitive bout.

The stages also adhere to Ultimate’s “everything but the kitchen sink” mentality. Although there are a few omissions, the majority of stage’s from past Super Smash Bros. titles make a return (unfortunately, Brawl’s Electroplankton-inspired stage is bafflingly among them). There are only four brand-new stages in the base game: Odyssey and Breath of the Wild themed levels for Mario and Zelda, and courses based on newly-represented series Splatoon and Castlevania. That may not sound like a whole lot of newness, but more stages are planned to be added along with the DLC characters. Besides, with the returning courses, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate includes over one-hundred different locations to do battle. And as stated, every last stage comes in three different versions (standard, Battlefield, and Final Destination), so you’re not very likely to get bored from repetition.

For those who don’t always have someone at the ready for some couch multiplayer, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate also expands the series’ online capabilities. Creating online matches has been streamlined by means of creating arenas, where players can set the rules as they see fit. You can even search for specific rulesets if you want to join an arena that’s more to your play style (though admittedly, the search engine needs some work). It’s now much, much easier to set up or join an online match and play with or against Smash players from around the world.

Sadly, the online functionality still isn’t perfect. Though lag is considerably less frequent than in Brawl or Wii U/3DS, it’s still present more often than you’d like. It isn’t limited to worldwide matches, either. I’ve encountered some slowdowns in games against my friends. Again, the lag isn’t so common as to detract from the overall experience, but considering that in five years’ time I’ve never encountered any lag issues in Mario Kart 8 (whether on Wii U or Switch), you have to wonder how and why Nintendo can’t replicate that level of online functionality with their other multiplayer franchises.

Other quibbles with the online mode include some minor (but no less irritating) design quirks, such as leaving your place in cue for the next fight in an arena just to change your character’s color (let alone change your character). Or why entering the spectator stands also removes you from cue (why the cue and spectator stands aren’t one and the same is anyone’s guess). Again, these are all just minor annoyances, but you have to wonder why they’re there at all.

Of course, it must be emphasized that, with the exception of the World of Light adventure mode, all of the complaints to be had with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are minor grievances in the big picture. The series’ signature gameplay has never felt so polished, the content has never felt this endless, and with every last character in franchise history present, Super Smash Bros. has never felt this complete.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is also a technical showcase of the Switch’s capabilities. Though it retains a similar overall look to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS and Brawl, the graphics are much sharper and more refined. The level of background detail in the stages themselves – often so small you’d never see them in the heat of battle – is a testament to the abilities of the artists behind the game. The character animations are similarly impressive, especially those with unique characteristics (such as DK’s eyes bulging out of his head when hit, Donkey Kong Country-style; or Wario’s manic, sporadic movements).

Complimenting these visuals is a soundtrack that represents an unrivaled array of video game music, featured in both their original and new remixed forms in addition to many remixes from past Super Smash Bros. installments. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s quite as many new pieces of music added into the fray as Brawl and Wii U/3DS brought to the table, but it’s hard to complain too much when the music is this terrific. Not to mention the soundtrack to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is inarguably the biggest library of classic video game themes ever compacted into a single game.

On the whole, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is an absolute winner. Its overall sense of newness may not be as prominent as the past few entries, but its inclusion of the best elements of every past installment, along with each and every last one of their characters, makes this the definitive entry in the long-running Super Smash Bros. series to date. With the exception of its egregious adventure mode, everything about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is exploding with fun. With so many characters, stages, modes, and options, the content included in the package is seemingly bottomless, leading to an unparalleled replay value.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is not only the best game in the series, it’s one of the greatest multiplayer games ever made.

 

9

Advertisements

Why Kingdom Hearts Fails at Storytelling

“Meh.”

Kingdom Hearts storytelling is a disastrous mess.

With that sentence, I have made countless enemies within Kingdom Hearts’ questionably diehard fanbase, who seem to hold Kingdom Hearts storytelling capabilities on a pedestal. But I’m sorry, Kingdom Hearts is simply a failure at its narrative, which is more often than not little more than gobbledygook.

I know, Square-Enix fans often seem to be quick to deride those who criticize the studio’s storytelling of just “not understanding complicated stories,” but that’s just the thing, Kingdom Hearts’ storytelling isn’t complicated, it’s just convoluted nonsense. It seems many people within the gaming community these days believe that more story automatically equates to good storytelling, but that’s just not the case (after all, the Sonic the Hedgehog series began to go off-the-rails once it started emphasizing cheesy cutscenes over polished gameplay).

There are plenty of well-written, complicated stories in video games, just as there are great, complicated stories in movies and TV shows. But thinly-veiled insults towards the intelligence of anyone who dares question the narrative abilities of Kingdom Hearts as simply “not being able to understand something complex” just shows off a great deal of immaturity, which is perhaps not all that surprising, since Kingdom Hearts’ supposed complexity is little more than a faux-complexity.

Admittedly, Kindgom Hearts isn’t alone in this, as the Final Fantasy series began to add layers upon layers of convolution to its plots once Tetsuya Nomura got heavily involved. Seeing as Nomura is also behind the Kingdom Hearts series, well, I’m guessing its no coincidence that they share many similarities in such nonsensical storytelling.

By nonsense, I’m not simply writing off the more weird fantasy elements of Kingdon Hearts (if anything, those are its good points). But Kingdom Hearts is a series whose idea of storytelling depth is to simply cake on as many needless details as possible, fill it with numerous cop-outs and deus ex machinas, and make retcons whenever it’s convenient.

A good example of this can be found in the series’ primary villain, Xehanort (or Xemnas or whatever the Hell his name actually is). In the first (and most playable) entry in the series, he went by the name of Ansem, But then in Kingdom Hearts 2, we discover that Ansem is actually an entirely different character, and that the Ansem from the first game was actually Xehanort. Or at least his Heartless (more on that in a moment). But actually, that’s not even the case, as the Xehanort who was Ansem in the first game is actually the Heartless form of Terra-Xehanort, which in itself was created when the original Xehanort forced his heart into a character named Terra. Terra-Xehanort is a hybrid of two humans, and it splits its heart to create the “Nobody” Xemnas and the Heartless called Ansem from the original game.

“Yes, please explain these details to me in an obnoxiously long cutscene, only to alter/retcon these details later because reasons.”

Geez, how many retcons does that description alone reveal? That’s not “complicated storytelling,” that’s just Square-Enix pulling a bunch of details out of their ass and then rewriting them in an attempt to make things complicated. So many details about that one character are so needlessly tacked on, and the series is full of such things.

Going back to the Heartless and the Nobodies (one of the series’ better world-building elements), they are entities that are created by the splitting of one’s heart. When the heart is split from the body, the heart becomes the Heartless, and the body becomes the Nobody (you’d think it’d be the opposite, given their names). That’s all well and fine, but the series often uses this element to create duplicate characters who, frankly, only make the series more convoluted.

For example, Kingdom Hearts 2 introduced the villainous Organization XIII, a group consisting of thirteen Nobodies, some of which were established (and later to be established) characters. One of them, Roxas, even turns out to be the Nobody of the series protagonist, Sora. I don’t immediately dislike the idea of Organization XIII, but the inclusion of Roxas really just adds another unnecessary element to the series, as he’s essentially a second main character.  By that, I don’t mean he’s a deuteragonist, but an additional main character with a story of his own. That could work, if Kingdom Hearts decided to dedicate a series of off-shoots to the character, but all too often the franchise likes to keep all these different narratives going on in the same game. It lacks any shred of focus.

But wait, things don’t end there. Organization XIII itself isn’t even the real Organization XIII. Though Organization XIII served as the main antagonists for Kingdom Hearts 2, they were later retconned to being a secondary Organization XIII, and the Real Organization XIII (yes, adding the word “real” is what differentiates its title) is a group consisting of (wait for it) thirteen different incarnations of Xehanort?! 

Geez, certainly getting a lot of mileage out of that Xehanort character, aren’t they?

I haven’t even mentioned the worst aspect of this convoluted disaster yet: every Kingdom Hearts game is integral to understanding the overall story. Now, that may seem like a no-brainer in many cases, but we’re talking about a series that has released on several different platforms over the years. It would be one thing if the titles released on handhelds were some kind of spinoffs, but nope. They play into the main story as well (which makes the impending Kingdom Hearts 3 actually the twelfth game in the series, not the third).

So, in order to understanding everything that’s going on in this overbloated narrative, you’d have to play the games on PS2, GBA, DS, PSP, 3DS, the upcoming PS4 game, and an episodic mobile game! That’s asking a whole lot of players to delve time and money into all that just to have a semblance as to what’s going on.

Now, Kingdom Hearts fans try to justify this by saying you can now purchase the collections that include the various different games in the series, but that’s an incredibly poor justification, considering these bundles were released years after the fact. If anyone wanted to follow the series in all those years in between, they’d have to own all those different platforms. It’s one thing when a series gets a new entry on a subsequent console of the same brand, since you would assume you’d have the same audience moving on to the next system in that line. And it would be fine if, again, most of these entries were spinoffs. But spreading things out to so many different platforms just to get the full story is ridiculous, especially when the story is as convoluted as it is.

Kingdom Hearts (or, perhaps more accurately, Tetsuya Nomura) simply doesn’t understand how to tell a story in any coherent manner, nor does it (or him) know how to tell a story within the video game medium. It’s bad enough that most Final Fantasy titles these days feel so narratively confused, but at least they’re (mostly) self-contained. But Kingdom Hearts takes the negative aspects of modern Final Fantasy storytelling, and spreads it across an entire series, making what little it does have to tell become thinner and thinner, and then trying to add depth by adding in a bunch of fat and retcons.

This isn’t even taking into account it’s lack of emotion. Now, Kingdom Hearts makes an attempt at pulling at the heartstrings from time to time, but it fails miserably because it seems to not have any understanding of the emotions it’s trying to convey.

Again, this isn’t something that’s exclusive to Kingdom Hearts, as I’ve seen a number of other video games, as well as anime, that seem to have a computer’s understanding of human emotion. Some might say it’s a cultural thing, but considering there have been plenty of Japanese video games and anime that have touched me emotionally, I don’t think that’s it.

A few years ago, Hayao Miyazaki famously (or infamously, depending on how you like your anime) said that he believes modern anime is suffering, due to their creators having a lack of understanding of human emotion and behavior; claiming that many such creators are “otaku” who liked anime and such growing up, and try to emulate it, but without understanding that something extra that gave them meaning. I can say I agree with his sentiment, and I even think this lack of understanding of depth has found its way to video games. It isn’t strictly Japanese games, mind you, but I do feel Kingdom Hearts has become a prime example of a game trying to be deep, but without any knowledge of how to do so.

“Between all these classic Disney villains like Hades, or the cardboard personalities of Tetsuya Nomura villains, guess which ones Kingdom Hearts emphasizes?”

This makes things all the more sour for me personally, because I am a Disney fan. With all the Disney characters and worlds that appear in the Kingdom Hearts series, and being produced by one of the most acclaimed game developers in history, I really wish the series lived up to its potential. But the Disney material that is present isn’t even utilized very well, always playing second fiddle to the (pretty generic) original characters (and the Final Fantasy characters end up getting an even shorter end of the stick). The inclusions of the Disney and Final Fantasy characters almost feel entirely cosmetic, and don’t add anything meaningful to the narrative.

I can’t help but feel that Kingdom Hearts would be insurmountably better – at least narratively – if they actually got some of Disney’s people to do the stories for the games. At least that way, the narrative wouldn’t be so muddled, and it may actually be able to resonate. I would hope that Square-Enix could fix things up themselves, but seeing as the series’ narrative continues to implode in its own convolution, I don’t see things picking up for Kingdom Hearts without a little outside help.

Frankly, I don’t know how anyone but the most diehard of Kingdom Hearts fans could be looking forward to Kingdom Hearts 3 at this point (if it ever resurfaces, that is). Sure, I’m curious to see what other Disney worlds make the cut, seeing as they seem to be focusing more on recent Disney films as well as those of Pixar (instead of recycling Halloweentown for the umpteenth time). But then I think of all the baggage that’s going to come with it, and I don’t think even Arendelle could save it for me. And boy, is that saying something.