Monday, January 14, 2019

GTMTM '18: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the Norton Anthology of Videogames

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

In my experience, if you were born before 1989,  you played Mario Kart on SNES and Nintendo 64 growing up, and had intense Mario Kart tournaments with your roommates in college. If you were born in 1989 or later, however, the most important Nintendo party game of your life was Super Smash Bros., and in college you either played the original again or crossed over to Super Smash Bro. Melee (or Brawl if you were less competitive).

However, as I said in my last post, I didn't grow up with videogames like most people my age, so while I played my fair share of Super Smash Bros. at friends' houses, the first version I actually owned myself and could play regularly was Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, which I bought in 2015 after I finally gave up and traded in my PlayStation Vita to GameStop.

I was so excited to finally own a Smash Bros. for myself and be able to sink real time into it so I could actually compete with my friends when we got together. I dove in and ran through all the single-player content the game had to offer, ready to learn and finally get it so that I could really compete.

Didn't happen. Even after putting a good number of hours in, when we got a group of friends together and booted up Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, I would still get destroyed, to a level that clearly showed that I still didn't really get the basics of actual PvP Smash. It was extremely frustrating, and when I bought a Wii U, I passed on Smash Bros. entirely because I was resigned to just never understanding it.

So, fast-forward to 2018, and Ultimate is releasing. I pre-ordered the game, but almost out of obligation. I didn't expect to love it, but I knew more of my friends would be playing this than almost any other game out there on any platform, and I wanted to play along. So I didn't even really pay attention to the announcements or anything, just placed my pre-order and waited for the cartridge to show up so I could try it out.

The day finally came, and all I can say is wow, was I wrong about this one.

In the year with God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, a new peak in my love for Overwatch, and so many other great games, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is very likely the game I put the second-most hours into in 2018--and it came out in December. (The first is Marvel's Spider-Man thanks to the 3 DLCs that came out and my boys asking me to play it all the time.) This game is finally the Smash Bros. that grabbed me and really taught me how to play. I finally get it. I finally love it like so many people my age have loved it since we were 10 years old.

What was different about this Smash Bros. that finally hooked me? The main difference for me was the new single-player experience, World of Light, and the whole Spirits system. I've learned a lot about managing and tracking my time playing games, so it's very rare at this point that a game surprises me with how much time I've put into it. But when I had finished my 100% run of World of Light and the final screen showed my playtime, I was doubly surprised that it showed I had already put 30 hours into just the single-player campaign, on top of other hours with friends.

And even then, little did I know that I was only just getting started. When my friend sent me a Snapchat message showing he had acquired 1298 of the 1299 spirits in the game, I was still so fired up about Smash Bros. after finishing World of Light that I decided I would go for it too, and so now I've probably put another 30 hours into it, and I'm still not done (but I'm very close--just have to finish getting all those pesky fighter spirits).

What I love most about this Smash Bros. and World of Light and the Spirits system specifically is the endless creativity and love that clearly went into it. When I was an English major in my undergrad, the early classes of the major were all just covering large chunks of history and the literature that came from it. For all of these classes, we had to purchase and lug around the applicable Norton Anthology of English (or American) Literature. Each of these books was obnoxiously thick, with dangerously thin pages and rudely small font. But you got quite the bang for your buck, and I was always impressed with how much of the English language's most famous and influential literature was able to be combined into that one package.

Smash Bros. has always been about celebrating multiple game franchises all at once, but Smash Bros. Ultimate takes things to the next level, to the point that all I could while I was playing World of Light was that this is the first Norton Anthology of Videogames. Previous installments in the series have had abundant references to all of the dozens of franchises and characters that were represented in the game, but Ultimate really takes it to the next level with the Spirits.

Every single one of the 629 primary spirits and 24 master spirits--as well 547 of the 549 support spirits--has a specific, curated battle to unlock that spirit. These spirit battles are all clever combinations of characters and elements that did make it into Smash Bros. Ultimate used to represent as closely as possible the characters and elements that didn't make it into the game. Let me highlight just a couple of my favorite examples so you know what I mean:

In the Pokemon games, Farfetch'd is a bird that carries a stick. So in Smash Ultimate, Farfetch'd is...a bird, carrying a stick. The great part is that they even select a color variant of Falco that matches Farfetch'd best, as well as a stage with a background vaguely reminiscent of old Pokemon games.

In the Street Fighter series, Blanka is a "feral man from the Brazilian jungle with green skin and the ability to generate electricity" (which, what?). Blanka didn't make it into Smash Ultimate, but you know what? We got a green Donkey Kong and an item that gives your character spinny electricity jumps. Put 'em together and boom, Blanka in Smash. This one also highlights one of my favorite parts of the whole Street Fighter section of World of Light: in an additional homage to that series, all battles in this section are stamina battles (where fighters are trying to reduce each other's total stamina with their hits, rather than the traditional Smash scenario of adding damage percentage to each other until someone flies off the screen), jump power is universally reduced, and all stages are a single platform. With just a couple smart little tweaks, suddenly Smash actually feels like Street Fighter, too.

This is perhaps one of the most impressive of all of them to me. In Pac-Man, when you eat one of the large dots in the corners, you temporarily flip the roles of yourself and the four antagonist ghosts, and for a brief moment you are able to hunt and eat them. When this happens, the ghosts all turn a blue color with an upset-looking pixel grimace across their faces. So, in Smash, this moment gets representation as a spirit battle against four copies of a blue Mr. Game and Watch. The battle is timed, meaning you have to defeat all enemies before the time runs out, and those blue Mr. Game and Watch fellas are actually doing their best to avoid you. This battle takes place on a stage that is segmented into lines and floors in a way that is also vaguely reminiscent of the winding labyrinth of the original Pac-Man. If you play this scenario as Pac-Man (who's a playable fighter in the game, of course), you are playing something that could very well be how it feels to play a modern reinvention of Pac-Man. So many little details of the original are kept in tact, all using little rules and elements of this anthology of videogames combined in clever ways.

I read a book on neuroscience this year, and it discussed at length the unique ability of the human brain to form purely mental concepts that combine unlikely bedfellows into understandable categories in the brain. One go-to example for such mental concepts in the book was "Things That Can Prevent Insect Stings," which combines into one concept everything from a house to insect repellent to a full suit of armor. As much as it is anything else, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate feels like a celebration of this uniquely human ability. It feels like that scene in Apollo 13 where a guy comes into a room full of engineers and dumps a bunch of random crap on the table and says, "We gotta find a way to make this fit into the hole for this, using nothing but that." (Sorry for the decades-old reference, but this is Smash Bros. we're talking about, and we were talking about Pac-Man and Mr. Game and Watch up there just a second ago, so it seems fitting.)

And I loved every minute of it. I didn't fully understand well over half of the references, but even when I didn't, I could enjoy the ways the designers were making an experience from some by-gone game for me using a bunch of bits and pieces from all kinds of other games smashed together. The creativity and passion felt endless, and none of the spirit battles felt phoned in to me. They all had wonderful little touches to appreciate. For a game that starts from the very, very basic premise of "What if videogames played king of the hill?", Smash Bros. has consistently for the last two decades found ever more impressive ways to take that premise to the absolute creative extremes. With Ultimate, they've outdone themselves by miles.

The best part of it, too, is that all that exploring and smirking at clever combinations finally taught me a thing or two about how to play Smash Bros. Did you know you can dodge in place? Well, I sure didn't before this one, and I had to learn how to do it to pass a particularly tough spirit battle. (My one main criticism of Smash is just that: it does very, very little to teach new players anything but the very bare minimum of the controls. It could do with a whole tutorial mode, rather than just tutorials about how to find its lame tutorials. (For anyone struggling, by the way, this video by Smash 4 grand champion ZeRo worked wonders for me.)

Now, when I play Smash with my friends, I actually win sometimes. And even when I don't, at least I can appreciate how they outplayed me, instead of just shrugging in confusion. Similar to my experience with Celeste, I feel like Smash Ultimate helped me finally break into a part of gaming that I had always had to stand a little outside of, and I'm grateful for that.

I've enjoyed every minute of the ridiculous amounts of Smash Ultimate that I have played so far, and only plan on putting in more time for the foreseeable future. Not since Rocket League have I been so motivated to keep honing my ability at a game. I can't get enough. Truth be told, the hours I put here are why my Red Dead Redemption 2 review is a little incomplete. Since Smash came out, I've been so enraptured that it's been hard to find time to go back to Red Dead. But I soon as I finish getting all those spirits.

(Thanks for reading! This is the eighth post in my "Games That Mattered to Me in 2018" series, posted one a day between January 7 and January 16, 2019. Go here to see the rest of the series.)


  1. My past Smash experience is totally opposite of you, out in tons of hours for all games except 4. I'm so glad you love this game, we should play a billion times together!

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