Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has so much meaningful content that it's easy to forget it's a fighting game at its core, but at least one fact rings true just a few days after the game's release: "Ultimate" is a fitting – and perhaps the only – way to describe Nintendo's biggest Smash Bros. experience to date.
Between a robust single-player component that Super Smash Bros. for Wii U sorely lacked and the ever-present competitive modes like VS and online play, there's a lot to unpack in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. More than 50 hours of gameplay have given some insight into the game's many modes, and it's evident that the hype around the fighting game was absolutely warranted.
World of Light is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate's take on a story mode with a sprawling board game-style map leading up to the fight against a new adversary. It's also one of the game's best features, and even the most hardcore Smash Bros. players who strictly stick to PvP matches would be missing out of they ignore it. World of Light is one of the multiple ways new characters can be unlocked, but that's just an extra incentive compared to what it offers, especially since unlocking characters through other means is much quicker if that's your first goal. Multiple paths to follow allow for unique playthroughs of the World of Light mode which players can revisit through three save slots, and the Spirit system actually has an impact on how players can progress through obstacles. There's a surprising amount of depth to World of Light that becomes more apparent the further you get into it, and even if you're only somewhat interested in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate's new mode, it serves as the perfect break from online matches.
The new Spirit system where players amass primary and support Spirits to augment their chosen fighters with stat boosts and tradeoffs is a dense mechanic to penetrate at first since there are so many Spirits to encounter. Smash Bros. is all about brand representation across Nintendo's sprawling catalogue of series, so you can imagine how many supporting characters there are to make appearances in the Spirit system. It feels almost overwhelming to even get started with Spirits when picking the right combos, let alone when you have to invest an in-game "currency" accumulated by fights to level them up. There are also "Skills" players can unlock to add more RPG elements to their fighting game. So many series try to evolve their games with new features that don't have any purpose and only weigh the game down, but the Spirits feel like a welcome refresher to Smash Bros.' formula by not changing the game too drastically but by giving players extra control over their playthroughs.
World of Light is where Nintendo invested the bulk of the single-player experience, but Classic mode is still around for a more traditional story mode. Pick one fighter and you'll embark on a scripted journey through fights that fit that character's theme with a boss fight at the end. Getting to the end of a Classic run and fighting Rathalos from the Monster Hunter series with Fire Emblem's Marth or facing Castlevania's Dracula with Luigi are examples of what best personifies the Smash Bros. experience – there are no walls here, and everyone is fair game.
Both modes and simply playing a few VS matches at a time will unlock new characters which is a plus considering how long it's going to take to unlock everyone. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate starts players out with only eight characters, but with 76 fighters in the roster, don't expect to unlock everyone all at once. If you've got your mind set on your main fighter or a newcomer, you can get that specific character unlocked within an hour or so through the Classic mode, but it's best to just let things flow if you want to unlock everyone without a repetitive grind. This won't be ideal for players who prefer local co-op, but it's clear Nintendo wanted the exploration through the roster to be an extended experience.
But as much as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate excels in the single-player arena, it falters in online play and in the simplest menus like the character select screen. Online modes in Smash Bros. games have never been perfect, but with the new game being the "Ultimate" experience combined with Nintendo's paid online service, one would expect an online component that runs better than the one players have now. It's laggy more often than it feels like it should be, and that's not to mention the input lag that players have reported experiencing depending on what controller they're using (Update: Further testing has shown that the GameCube controller does not have the most input lag out of all the possible devices).
Online play consists of quickplay games that let players get into the action fastest, but that's where you'll find the most issues. A set of preferred rules can be put in place to avoid specific match types, but the online service will often cast those aside if matchmaking takes too long. You'll be put in a match you didn't want to be in, usually a four-player free for all game, but your Global Smash Power that determines your rank among players will be impacted if you lose regardless of the fact that you didn't want to be there. Leave the game and you risk losing GSP anyway and also getting a temporary ban. If you want to be sure you're getting the best online experience, set up an arena or find one that fits your needs, wait in line and watch other players do battle, and then get your fight in with set conditions.
The online feature and the way players enter the matches also raise some questions that players will surely want answers for. Why can't we change our characters between rematches in online bouts? Why can't character outfits be changed by simply pressing "X" or "Y"? Why can't we just press "Start" at the post-match stats screen to skip to the rematch option instead of slamming the "A" button repeatedly to flip through the stat panels? These absent features are relatively small in the scope of the immense game, but all of them, especially the character change option, are features present in past games with no evident purpose or reason known for why they've been removed.
Issues like these and online stability can (hopefully) be fixed by Nintendo, but even with those problems in place, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is still showing itself as a must-have for any Nintendo Switch owner. The stacked roster with a promise of more characters to come means there's something or someone for every player, and like other Smash Bros. games, you don't have to be a fighting pro to enjoy it. With a few tweaks from Nintendo via some post-release patches, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is poised to be the defining Smash Bros. experience.