I love Smash Bros. I think anyone who grew up with Nintendo pretty much inevitably does, or at the very least appreciates what those games do. There’s always something enticing about a good crossover, and more so a crossover with a good fight. A good fight you can invite your friends to, at that.
With the right group of people, Smash can still be a fun, accessible game in the same way that Mario Kart is, with chaotic factors on the part of the game design coming in and turning a whole match on its head. In Smash, stages and items are designed around this purpose.
The thing is, that all changes if you play with those random elements turned off.
So, once the game becomes just a matter of skill, what does the greenhorn player do? Of course playing against skilled players begets skill, especially if one is blessed to play with people who aren’t pricks about it. But what can you do on your own? Games that demand players take time to build skills – to “git gud,” as it were – face the question of how to keep a player hooked through that process. It all comes down to time and effort in exchange for reward, but how do you make that process hook players consistently? After playing since launch and discussing it with peers, I think that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate does arguably the best job of motivating players to keep getting better that any game in the series has done.
And it all starts with the enticing, addictive, persistent Spirit Board.
When Nintendo revealed Spirits as part of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, they talked about them as this sort of hybrid substitute for both stickers and trophies, but with a form over function side, a sort of more accessible version of the move customization that the Wii U and 3DS entries shuffled in about as well as peanut butter into spaghetti. But here we are, game in hand, and it turns out that they used this new collectible as a way to change the entire landscape of the single-player side of the game. Sure, Classic Mode is still there and still great, but if you’re trying to get a lot of practice in with someone in particular, that can only go so far on its own.
I’ve been playing a lot of Smash as Young LInk. No real reason, he’s just a character I found myself settling into really easy. So, when I click over to the Spirit Board, I often default to Young Link. This means that, depending on who I’m fighting, I might suddenly have to figure out how to use him to beat three small, metal Princess Peaches. Or two Villagers who won’t stop mass-spawning items. It’s like giving you a series of equations that all have the same variable, and telling you to solve them all if that variable equals whatever character, spirits and skills you bring into the fight.
That’s what’s genius about Spirits. They take the existing roster of characters and make versions of them that can flip the stage, or put you to sleep, or run away when you get close. There might be eight of them that barely do anything, or one of them that has designs on your firstborn. Maybe you go into a fight with winds so strong that both you and your opponent get blown off the stage in seconds, leaving it all up to whoever can keep their windswept keester onscreen longer.
You don’t go in blind, of course. You know what kind of powers they bring to the table, and you can employ your own spirits to counter some of their effects. But even so, every battle is unique. Each one I play prompts me to think about how I’m playing Young Link, or whoever the flavor of the day is, a little differently. And I think I’m getting better at the game because of it. There are over 1,200 of them, too, so I’m not exactly bound to run out anytime soon.
It also helps that Spirits come and go from the spirit board quickly. There are new challenges popping up on that thing every time I pay it a visit, and every time I fight a Spirit, the board loads back up and oh, hey, there’s something new in a corner that was vacant a minute ago. Let’s go beat up the guy from Pandora’s Tower or whatever, sweet. I got hooked fast on chain-smoking through Spirit fights, because they just keep popping up, and the characters they chose to bring in for them keep intriguing me. Sometimes you see a character and want to fight it just because you think it’s neat that it’s there.
While the Spirit Board is a kind of addicting arcade, the World of Light mode does the same thing through a campaign structure. This is where I’ve found myself trying again and again the most. It sews a huge and complicated map full of Spirits that don’t move, awaiting for you to fight them whenever you’re ready. This means that when you come across one that absolutely decimates you in the a matter of moments, you’re free to keep bashing your head against it as many times, and in as many different ways, as you want.
In World of Light’s case, you’re limited to whatever characters you’ve unlocked so far, and you don’t exactly come across them frequently. I’ve played through most of my time with this mode swapping between Kirby and Sheik, meaning I had to tackle the game’s clever representations of everyone from Rayman to Dr. Wily from the limits of what those characters bring to the table.
The Spirit fights in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are zany. They range from simple to frustrating, from clever to flat-out stupid. And they’re all just fantastic. When a Smash Bros. game comes out, I always feel some bit of drive to get at least good enough to hold my own among friends. This time, the game itself is presenting me with a virtually never-ending stream of reasons to keep getting better and adapting, to pick up new characters or strategies that keep me fresh in the face of a 50-foot Richter on a poison floor, or whatever the game might throw at me next.
Everyone is here, and everyone brings their own challenge.