Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Hands-On Review: A Joyous, Chaotic Crossover

Super Smash Bros Ultimate shouldn't be possible.

This is a game in which Mario can beat up Sonic and Pac-Man, while the iconic city skylines of Final Fantasy VII loom in the background. It's also a game in which Simon from Castlevania and Solid Snake from Metal Gear can take on a horde of Pokémon. And weirdest of all, it's a game in which you can make your Donkey Kong stronger by infusing him with the spirits of a bunch of obscure Street Fighter and Mega Man characters.

Nintendo's new all-star fighting game is a dizzying, joyous buffet of fan service, offering more characters, content and pure crossover craziness than just about anything the genre has to offer. It's without question the biggest thing to hit the Nintendo Switch in 2018, and it's shaping up to be the system's most essential game since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild when it arrives on Dec. 7.

The ultimate brawl

I spent about 3 hours with a near-final build of Ultimate, which features a whopping 74 characters (more if you count the "echo fighters"), 100-plus stages, and more modes and options than I may ever know what to do with.

As I found in my previous hands-on sessions with the game, Smash Ultimate's fighting feels as delightful as ever. The action is fast, fluid and easy to pick up, but with enough nuance to satisfy hardcore players. The game's candy-like color palette and incredibly detailed stages looked vibrant, and fights ran smoothly no matter how much chaos was happening on screen. My favorite small touch is the way the game now zooms in on the action during big knockout blows, something that had me audibly cheering every time.

With a staggering amount of customizable rules, Ultimate gives you complete freedom to engage in insane eight-player brawls with a variety of wacky items or to stage intense, competitive one-on-one contests on flat playing fields. I was particularly fond of the game's new Final Smash Meter option, which allowed my opponents and me to more frequently launch our ridiculous, screen-filling super moves at one another.

I had a blast with the newest additions to Ultimate's roster. Wrestler Pokemon Incineroar is a surprisingly mobile bruiser who hits hard with lariats, grapples and dive kicks. Castlevania hero Simon is a solid all-arounder who reminds me of Zelda's Link, thanks to a myriad of weapon attacks. Those include throwable axes, bombs, boomerangs and, of course, his trusty long-range whip.

Donkey Kong baddie King K. Rool is slow and powerful and can shoot cannonballs while wearing a pirate hat, while Isabelle is an even more trollish version of Animal Crossing's Villager, who can hurl opponents across the arena with her fishing rod. And as a seasoned Ryu player and big Street Fighter fan, I appreciated the subtle differences in his best bud Ken's faster speed and distinct attack animations.

These new fighters speak to the sheer variety of Ultimate's massive roster, which packs Nintendo staples like Mario and Donkey Kong, deeper cuts like R.O.B. and Ike from Fire Emblem, and a ton of guest stars that include Final Fantasy's Cloud and action heroine Bayonetta. If you have a fondness for just about any video game released in the last 30 years, you'll likely find someone to latch onto.

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It's all about the Spirits

There's a ton to do in Smash Ultimate when you're not beating up your friends in multiplayer mode, especially thanks to the biggest, most overwhelming and potentially most polarizing addition to the game: Spirits.

With the Spirits system, you can customize your fighter by infusing them with the souls of other characters from a variety of beloved franchises. For example, the spirit of Mega Man's Dr. Wily might boost your defensive abilities, while Metal Gear's Revolver Ocelot might give you a special weapon to start each match. You can unlock, level up and use Spirits in a variety of game modes, creating a rich, RPG-like layer of progression and customization that no Smash game has seen before.

Spirits are at the heart of the new Adventure mode, which sees Kirby, of all characters, setting off to save the souls of his possessed friends. Nintendo cleverly uses Spirits to let you fight against characters who aren't technically in the game. For example, a giant, red Mega Man serves as a stand-in for his enemy Guts Man, while a pink Bayonetta with an aptitude for kicking is used to represent Street Fighter's Juri.

Adventure mode and the Spirits system in general are staggeringly deep. The game's main Spirit types comprise a rock-paper-scissors triangle of Attack, Shield and Grab, so you'll have to switch up your loadout based on which character you're fighting (as I learned the many times I lost when not properly equipped). On top of earning currency for leveling up your Spirits, you'll also get tokens that go toward upgrading a skill tree to make all of your fighters more powerful. Again, this really is a fighting game RPG.

The Spirits system is also just another great example of the fan-service frenzy that is Smash Ultimate. I nearly squealed when seeing deep-cut characters from Capcom and Sega games show up as Spirits, and I can't wait to see what other obscure favorites I can unlock in the final game.

Outside of Adventure mode, you can fight and unlock Spirits in stand-alone Spirit Battles, as well as use your Spirits in multiplayer matches. The system may overwhelm some, and I get the sense that competitive Smashers will want nothing to do with it, but Spirits adds an insane level of depth to the Smash experience — especially for folks who plan on playing solo.

A million ways to Smash

Naturally, the Spirit Battle is just one of a near-endless amount of ways you can spend your time in Smash Ultimate. The game's arcade-style Classic Mode is back, this time delivering unique, themed battles for every character in the game. When playing as Mario, I had to take out all of the Koopa Kids on Peach's Castle before engaging in a climactic battle with Bowser in which he morphed into his gigantic Giga form halfway through.

Ultimate promises a ton of different online options for folks with a Switch Online account, including the ability to search for opponents based on preferred rules, rank or location. You'll be able to team up with a friend locally and go online, and you'll be able to spectate matches and send opponents messages. That's on top of support for offline battles of up to eight players, whether you're all playing on a single console or across multiple Switches via wireless play.

And I've only scratched the surface of Ultimate, which also packs a myriad of minigames and challenges as well as a massive music library. You can even listen to these tunes on your commute with your system in sleep mode.

Bottom line

There was a single moment that drove home what makes Super Smash Bros. Ultimate so special to me.

While playing as Mario (dressed up in his Super Mario Maker outfit, of course) and fighting Link on Breath of the Wild's Great Plateau Tower, I summoned an assist trophy that had Virtua Fighter 1's Akira, in all his blocky '90s glory, come out and land the finishing blow. This is the kind of ridiculous crossover scenario I'd make up in my head as a kid, and it's the kind of thing that happens all the time in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

The latest Smash is the truest definition of fan service I've ever seen in a video game, and it's also simply a great brawler that feels perfectly tuned for both casual and competitive play. While I'll need to spend some time with the final product to render a full verdict, I already get the sense that Smash Ultimate is the series' best installment and the best reason yet to own a Switch.

Credit: Nintendo

Michael Andronico

Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.