The first feeling that comes with playing Smash Bros. Ultimate is not exhilaration, but overwhelming panic. At least that was my first thought as I pressed past the lengthy theme song and took in exactly what was possible in the game’s litany of menus. There’s so much to do, so much to unlock, and no clear path through which you get anything accomplished.
Should you dive right into beating up on the base fighters that come with the game and hope new challengers approach in the process? Should you attack the Spirit Adventure portion and free various characters and support spirits? Or you could try a Challenge, or maybe go through the Classic Mode with your favorite main character — if they’re unlocked, that is — to see what comes next? What about firing up online play and seeing how good your friends are with DK? And where do my Amibos and Miis and all these outfits I’ve unlocked go? Does that stuff matter?
Overchoice. The Paradox of Choices. Call it what you will, but if you stop and think about it for too long, you might get stuck pivoting between menus for a bit trying to take it all in. There’s an incredible amount of game to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and in the strangest of ways, it makes it that much harder to love.
If you’re deep into the Nintendo ecosystem, you probably won’t have that feeling as much as I did. But even the most otaku gamers out there must feel at times blitzed by not just the amount of ways to attack the game, but all the strange characters and references laying in plain sight. It feels like you’re supposed to know exactly what’s going on at all times, and that’s rarely the case, especially when the clock is ticking down and your Spirit Board looks something like this.
So many times I had to stop myself and blurt out “who are these people” to no one in particular. It was a sensation that kept me bouncing aimlessly between tasks in the game, unsure of whether I was actually getting anywhere at all. I’ve played every version of Smash Bros. there is, and I know how the game is generally supposed to play out. But even a familiarity with what’s a gigantic celebration of Nintendo lore is not preparation enough for just how much there is to tackle here. I couldn’t imagine picking this game up cold after hearing it was fun and trying to figure it all out.
A friend described much of the game as feeling like “homework,” and in the process I realized I feel the same way about Smash Bros. Ultimate as I do golf. Sometimes, I love golf. It can be really fun, especially in pairs or foursomes, and the moments of progress on the links are extremely satisfying. Those moments come too few and far between, however, especially if you don’t invest the time and energy into actively getting better at the game.
There’s something to be said about rewarding the hard work to find success, but much like in golf, there’s also that lingering sense that the problem is you simply don’t have enough merchandise necessary to look the part. There’s a feeling that you’re just not taking this whole video game obsession serious enough. All games require practice to find success, but truly getting into Smash Bros. Ultimate is an investment of your time and emotional capitol.
You have to want to get good with Kirby long enough to get rolling in the Spirit Adventure to unlock other playable characters to succeed. You have to invest in leveling up these endless main spirits and support spirits to handle different scenarios with different characters. That also means managing the various types of digital currency earned and spent in the number of shops found throughout the game. Making Super Smash Bros. Ultimate the brawling party game you want to play with your friends requires building it with your time and digital coinage. Someone has to invest that capital, and if you bought the game, well, it’s going to be you.
Once you do that, local multiplayer is the great game everyone comes to expect from the Nintendo franchise, to a certain extent. But putting eight characters in a Smash battle on a TV of any size is pure chaos. Even experienced players I battled with lost sight of their characters no matter how varied our fighters and their costumes. Playing with others followed the same pattern as playing solo: It was charming for a while, until it just became frustrating and made us switch to something else.
And let’s be extremely clear about something here: Putting eight fighters on the 6.2 inch screen the Switch comes with is a vile act that may still be illegal in some southern states. I saw someone playing Smash on a flight home over the holidays and had a mild panic attack for him. How do you live like that, man?
But just like golf, the moments of immense joy hidden in the hours of time you spend hacking away in the weeds keep you going. There’s a certain spirit challenge where you and a giant Pikachu attack each other with bees in a timed stamina battle that feels equally absurd and frantic. Despite the litany of tasks involving beating up on generally anonymous licensed characters you’re not familiar with at all, the moments where you get all the sly references and jokes are rewarding.
But beating that giant Pikachu amid the bees unlocks a “dojo” where you can upgrade your spirits and teach them … more styles? The breakthrough just further complicates an already heavy game. In a way, that level of complexity and intensity in a colorful cartoon fighting game should be commended, but it’s a heavy price to pay to get the full Smash Bros. Ultimate experience, one I suspect not many people will fully commit themselves to.
That’s not to say that Smash Bros. Ultimate can’t be a game for everyone. It’s supposed to be, and with the right conditions and when in the right mood, you can drop in with friends — GameCube controller-armed and button mashers alike — and have some messy fun. But someone needs to set the stage for you — and be decent enough at the the technical and canonical minutiae — to make it past the obtuse parts to find the fun you were promised. If you have that friend, you can bring your JoyCons and try to get them to connect to their Switch instead.