Getting Smashed

So they tell me the online gameplay for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is broken. It’s all laggy and stuff, with lots of frame drops and what-have-you.

Uh… okay?

I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but there’s a couple of things for me to unpack here. The first of the things, is that I’ve actually had very little trouble with the online game. I’ve fought almost exclusively in 1-on-1 stock matches with no items and no final smashes, and I have a wired connection for my Switch in docked mode. Maybe if I’d been trying to play 8-player Smash with all items on, I’d be complaining, too. I don’t know. The other reason I’ve not been bothered by the supposedly poor state of Smash Ultimate‘s online game is: I’ve barely played any online at all, compared to the amount of time I’ve played in single-player mode.

Just to backtrack for a little context: my three favorite Nintendo franchises are The Legend of Zelda, Splatoon, and Super Smash Bros., all three of which are now on the Switch. I’ve put a gazillion hours into each of them, and the two Smash games I played the most prior to Ultimate are Gamecube’s Smash Melee, and the 3DS’ Smash for 3DS. Melee had no online functionality, obviously, and … for 3DS had online that was befitting of the Nintendo 3DS. I’ve played the poop out of both of those games… and I point out, neither had a “Subspace Emissary” or “World of Light”, the story-driven single-player campaigns of Smash Brawl and Ultimate, respectively. Nope. In Melee and 3DS, I played hundreds of hours of single-player Smash matches, usually in the game’s most basic mode, sometimes of the All-Star and Classic variations, and occasionally in the the 3DS’ weirdo “Smash Run” mode (although Nintendo’s occasional efforts to turn Smash into a 2D platformer, as in “Smash Run” and “The Subspace Emissary,” never quite worked.)

My first exposure to the Smash Bros. franchise was watching the demo mode for the original Nintendo 64 game in the window of Electronics Boutique, the precursor to EB Games, at Roosevelt Field Mall in Long Island, NY. I stood and stared as Yoshi and Samus punched and shot each other on an MC Escher interpretation of Peach’s castle. It was a fighting game, but the character models were too small, and there was too much platforming involved, weapons kept appearing out of midair, the damage percentages were going UP, and every once in awhile one character would punch the other off-screen. It was one of the most bizarre games I’d ever seen. After getting my hands on a rental copy a few months later… well, it was still bizarre, but at least I began to understand how to play.

Smash 64, as the original game is often retrospectively referred to, was a bizarre Nintendo funhouse version of sumo wrestling, where the basic objective of knocking your opponent out of the arena remains, but the manner by which you do it is a hallucinatory fever dream. Smash Bros. is a franchise where an electric mouse whacks an astronaut fox over the head with an oversized mallet, and it’s just another day at the office.

As it turned out, Smash 64 was little more than a tech demo for Super Smash Bros. Melee, the franchise offering for the Nintendo Gamecube. Still not online-capable, Melee refined the systems upon which modern iterations of the franchise still work. Melee established Smash as a super-casual fighter that was also insanely technical and precise if you cared to dig deep enough into its mechanics, achieving the rarified air of being both a party game and a hyper-competitive one at the same time. Melee remains so popular to this day that Nintendo famously reprints GameCube-style controllers to go along with every new release in the Super Smash Bros. franchise.

If it wasn’t my favorite game on the GameCube (Rogue Leader, Metroid Prime, and Zelda: Wind Waker are also strong contenders) Melee was definitely my most-played. Melee debuted in my early 20’s, a time in life when I would still occasionally have groups of friends over for long multi-player sessions but still largely played solo. As such, most of my time with Melee was spent fighting the CPU. I owned Brawl but underplayed it, I played the hell out of Smash for 3DS and largely ignored Smash for Wii U, and now it would seem I’m going to dump a lot of that same Melee time into Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

There are other IPs I love nearly as much as I love the World of Nintendo: Marvel’s superheroes, Star Wars, Harry Potter… uh, Calvin and Hobbes. And while I’d love to play fighting games featuring any of those characters using Smash‘s simply complex mechanics, pare of the joy of Smash is its role as a lovesong to video games, and if you throw Luke Skywalker or Wolverine into the mix, its place as the definite ode to gaming as a medium fades away. Since Brawl, non-Nintendo characters have been added to the Smash Bros. mix, staring famously with Sonic the Hedgehog in the ultimate burying of the 16-bit hatchet, and having since expanded to include Pac-Man, Ryu and Ken, and Cloud Strife, among others. Smash is a now a who’s who of gaming (and a “who’s that?” of Fire Emblem characters.)

So yes: I suppose people are having trouble with Smash Ultimate‘s online modes so far. Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe are nearly flawless online experiences, so I’m sure Nintendo will soon patch out the rough spots in Ultimate‘s delivery, as well. But ultimately, the online support is only a small bit of what this franchise has to offer. Smash is made for on-the-couch multiplayer, and it’s Nintendo’s welcome mat to its competitors, a once-a-generation chance for everyone to stop fighting silly console wars and look around to realize: you know what? Video games are pretty cool.

Smash if you’ve got ’em.