Updated Oct 6th, 2021
With the October 5th reveal of Kingdom Hearts’ Sora as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s final DLC addition, that entry in the Smash franchise will come to something resembling a conclusion—nearly three years following its release. Plenty of weight will be put on this final reveal, as Ultimate’s roster is already (to use the technical term) absolutely bonkers. Undoubtedly there will be both excitement and wailing, regardless of what character actually does make the cut. That might miss some of the points, however—because what is even more noteworthy than who is that this will truly be the end this time. Enjoy this feeling, because we’ll never be here again.
Super Smash Bros. has been a mainstay of a certain side of gaming culture since it first arrived on the N64 and it isn’t hard to see why. At the time, nothing existed quite like it: a bizarre and floaty brawling game that starred Mario and Pikachu and all kinds of characters. It fit in perfectly among the N64’s experimental and occasionally clunky titles. Just as the classic intro indicated, the manic and childlike energy of slamming toys together makes for a good game. That’s not really what the series is anymore, though. Now, like so many other games, Smash is a competitive and casual live service with the kind of exposure that is capable of crippling a social media network with a single announcement.
Things have been this way for Smash for a while, and a part of that is due to the fact that the franchise has been in something resembling perpetual development for nearly a decade. Ultimate actually began pre-development in tandem with the DLC development for the previous titles for Wii U and 3DS. Partner studios that helped those games along stuck around, making the development possible and it was a miracle that they did because due to the passing of Satoru Iwata, director Masahiro Sakurai was compelled to make the best possible version of the game for Iwata’s final contribution to gaming—the still-secret Nintendo Switch.
While fans were still reeling from the addition of Bayonetta to the Wii U/3DS versions, production was kicking off. Sure, these were two separate titles, different enough to definitely justify the price tag on Ultimate, but put in perspective, many of these developers have spent the same amount of time working on Smash that I’ve been out of high school.
Smash on Wii U/3DS also established the idea of a Smash fighter reveal being an event unto itself. In the past, you’d have to find a computer and check the Smash Dojo every day to see who’d make the cut, but now fighter reveals came with fully animated trailers, clever catchphrases, and placement in ad space reserved only for the heaviest hitters Nintendo trots out. The reveals themselves have evolved into their own meme format, in between fakes being convincing enough to send entire fandoms spiraling. For many, these reveals are the main attraction now, just as you could make the case that Nintendo fans like watching Direct presentations more than they like playing games. It’s not too hard to see why—speculation across social media and YouTube is not unlike cinematic universe tracking. There’s tons of debate on the how’s and why’s, and this site’s just as guilty in that as everyone else. It’s fun to do, usually.
The flip side to this excitement is also often the cause of it. Due to the Wii U version and then Ultimate’s ballooned cast (which also determines stages, music, guest appearances, and more), Super Smash Bros. as a series has become less of the inspiration for a new genre as it is a digital hall of fame for gaming’s greatest. Making it into Smash used to be noteworthy, but over the past years, a new addition is seen as a true legitimization if not even more.
The aforementioned Bayonetta addition served as the capstone to the character’s growing popularity out of a niche underperforming new IP, Cloud Strife’s arrival felt like a symbolic burial of the hatchet between Square Enix and Nintendo, and representation from Microsoft-owned Minecraft and Banjo-Kazooie opened a once thought impossible future for the so-called console war. All of these were while Sakurai was pulling strings to get every previously implemented character into the roster and supposedly expecting the game to still run at all. Making Smash isn’t so much game development as it is black magic.
Such a design is truly untenable. The message from the outset of the moniker “ultimate” has been a repeated reminder from Sakurai himself—this is only ever going to happen once. Expecting consistent and perfect balance between nearly 90 characters in a single game of this scale isn’t just unreasonable, it’s inconceivable, and frankly, it’s just as inconceivable that all of this has been done without considerable human cost.
Concerns about Sakurai’s health have run abound as far back as the development of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and while he insists he’s taking better care nowadays, that doesn’t inherently mean the rest of the team is, and it’s not like we still don’t see the man himself playing two controllers at once despite no longer being able to work at a keyboard for long.
That work has other consequences as well. While the community often does show concern for the team’s wellbeing and a desire to see Sakurai finally take a damn break, it also has helped to create the insurmountable wall Ultimate somehow managed to do. Character additions again become the crux of this issue. Almost entirely gone are fun hypotheticals or a desire to play as a favorite character personally, and in its place are community flame wars tied to the record-keeping of entire genres depicted in the Smash roster in between an attempt to try to meme Shrek in one more time. The end of DLC for Ultimate should hopefully put this particularly to bed, but it will likely forever change the perception of how games like this should be designed going forward—and that is in part due to Sakurai’s attempt to keep everyone happy by including million to one-shots. Once you’ve actually managed to make Banjo in Smash, where exactly can you draw the line?
Smash has also changed the environment around it, both directly and indirectly. What was once a fun oddity of the occasional Link or Spawn appearance has become a cottage industry in the fighting game genre. It’s nearly impossible now to spit and not hit a fighting game that has multiple non-canon (and often advertisement-based) combatants. It’s not just fighting games either. A straight line could be drawn between the day Sonic the Hedgehog was revealed for Brawl and the day Superman arrived on Fortnite Island. The same day as the final character reveal, Nick All Star Brawl is launching: designed by former Smash modders and specifically targeted at that game’s competitive audience.
Interestingly, Nick All-Star offers up at least one way forward – a much more narrowed focus. Despite wearing the skin of childhood cartoons, a majority of Nick All-Star Brawl has been laser-focused on a set of fans that do have legitimate criticisms about Ultimate’s design and using that positive word of mouth to grow more naturally. The roster is trimmed far down and does not feature who would be your first or even second choice for character representations—but the designs are true to what the developers want to implement and it shows immediately. Smash still has these elements, but that game feels weighed down by the sheer weight of it all compared to this newly licensed fighter—which is itself impressive given the license it is.
Super Smash Bros. is one of the very few franchises that Nintendo always ensures an appearance on its hardware, so when the Switch does eventually give way to what’s next, there will be another Smash game. However, it will not be like the Smash games we’ve had before, it can’t be. The weight of the expectations that have been set met, and missed must be shed. That is inevitably what Ultimate is: the end of an era.