Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is going to be a monumental release for Nintendo.
Based on the performance of previous games in the series, we can assume that the majority of folks who already own a Nintendo Switch are going to buy a copy. And many of the friends they invite over to play who don’t yet have Nintendo’s popular hybrid console are going to have so much fun that they’ll rush out and drop hundreds on both the hardware and software so they can own it, too. It’s almost going to be like a console launch triggered within a software launch. Just in time for the holidays. It’s the sort of sales event that comes around only once or twice in a hardware generation — if you’re lucky.
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But why are the Smash Bros. games such a big deal? Probably because they’re like a Hollywood celebrity party for video game characters. Nearly every notable hero and villain in Nintendo’s vast stable appears somewhere in this edition. And partner studios have provided dozens more. And all of these characters from disparate universes interact with each other within an enormous collection of arenas based on beloved virtual worlds, with familiar theme songs and sound effects providing the soundtrack. It’s a video game rush — a celebration of the culture — that nothing else can match.
As someone who’s been playing games for more than 30 years, I understand the excitement. I get twitterpated seeing promotional art showing Zelda, Solid Snake, Mario, Pac-Man, Peach, and rows of other characters from both my childhood and adulthood grouped together.
But the game itself? Not really for me. Fighting games simply aren’t my cup of tea — though, it’s worth adding, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has come closer to hooking me than any of its predecessors.
The amount of content on offer is unprecedented. There’s a bounty of ways in which to play, from local multiplayer matches with fully customizable rules to a surprisingly dark story mode that begins with all of the heroes save one — the little pink puffball Kirby — essentially dying and forced to exist as spirit puppets. You can engage in mob battles where you take on a procession of 100 enemies; try themed ladder challenges in which most of the characters, environments, and music hail from a specific game; train with your favourite fighters to master all their moves; or hop online to test your mettle against players around the world. And through it all you’ll find yourself earning various in-game currencies, unlocking more characters and spirits, and satisfying milestone challenges that come with their own rewards.
The whole experience has been brilliantly designed to prompt little bursts of satisfaction every few minutes. It’s like being hooked up to a dopamine drip.
The key to really enjoying it all, however, is an appreciation of both social gaming and fighting mechanics. The pleasure of nostalgia and recognition only goes so far. You also need to relish the combat and competition.
My daughter fits this bill perfectly. As the offspring of someone who plays games for a living, she recognizes and adores just about all of the characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. What’s more, like most kids her age, she loves playing games with friends. She’d much rather play in a group than alone. And her competitive spirit is innate — inherited, I think, from her mother, who, when once asked whether she would rather never play a game again or be able to play games but be cursed never to win, answered without hesitation that she would prefer never to play if she couldn’t win.
Needless to say, my daughter adores Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. She’s been my playing companion this past week, and there’s rarely been a spare moment that she hasn’t had our Switch in hand, working to unlock more characters and rewards. We’re about equally matched when we go up against each other, but only because I’ve focused on mastering Link (in all his many forms) whereas she’s been experimenting with all sorts of characters, from various Pokemon to Samus to Lucina. Once she chooses some favourites and gets to know them a little better I’ll be no match for her.
But while her enthusiasm knows no bounds, mine typically begins to wane just a few fights into each play session, after the novelty of watching Final FantasyVII‘s Cloud Strife face off against the dog from Duck Hunt in a Bayonetta-themed world wears off.
For whatever reason, I’m not particularly competitive when it comes to games. I don’t feel a burning need to best my playing companions, which eliminates much of the motivation to play a game in which your primary objective is simply to beat other players.
But a bigger factor, I think, is that I’m just not into fighting games. I don’t like memorizing button combinations and mastering split-second timing. And I always find the controls a bit stiff, with characters that get locked into a series of actions or stuck facing the wrong direction while executing them. Add in the unique chaos of the Smash Bros. games — there are times when I completely lose track of my character amid all of the dashing and explosions, only to realize I accidentally ran him off a platform edge — and it’s just not a game that keeps me coming back.
Or, at least it wouldn’t if it weren’t for my daughter.
Watching the look of glee on her face while playing is sometimes all the reward I need to stick around for a few more bouts. And, as our house’s resident games expert, it’s also kind of nice to be able to regale her with stories about her favourite characters’ earliest adventures. I might not be able to teach her how to repair a car or build a birdhouse, but at least I can tell her about the time an underdog named Little Mac took on fighters twice his size to become the champion of an ancient NES game called Punch-Out!!!.
And I suspect Nintendo knows that’s all the prompting a few other gamer moms and dads out there will need to bring Super Smash Bros. Ultimate into their house this holiday and roll this game’s ginormous sales snowball just a little bigger.