With Switch the single platform it needs to focus on for its latest game, developers Namco Bandai and Sora Ltd. are able to create the most feature rich entry in Super Smash Bros. series yet. Graphically speaking, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the best-looking game in the franchise: its 75-strong cast and many stages get revamped textures and lighting compared to the Wii U release of four years ago. It also succeeds as a sequel to two previous versions, by offering the de facto home console successor to Wii U, and more impressively, a stark upgrade over 3DS' visuals on the handheld side. Over the last week we've pored over the game from every angle, figuring out what makes - and breaks - the game next to these two versions. It's a remarkable achievement, but is it truly the greatest Smash title ever made?
First, let's acknowledge the sheer scope of the project. Weighing in at 14GB, Ultimate contains every character, mode and stage from the series' history - including previous absentees like Ice Climbers and Solid Snake. Notably, the Wii U and 3DS removed Ice Climbers, with HAL's determination to keep roster parity between the two machines. It's understood the 3DS struggled to render two characters per player - a technical limit that meant the home console version also missed out. On Switch? Well, everything is reinstated - though some aspects of the game still make Ice Climbers a tricky proposition. More on that later - but the bottom line is that this version at least gives you that option, along with many more, to play Smash however you like.
But with the new Ultimate, what's changed, and what stays the same? Compared to the Wii U version, there's a big distinction in the method of lighting. Director Masahiro Sakurai and his team could easily have rested on their laurels and handed in a direct port from Wii U to Switch - and for some that would have been enough. But instead, they've gone much further. For a start, its lighting model is drastically overhauled, giving every stage a starker, more vibrant appearance. Both current and last-gen versions run at a native, fixed 1920x1080 on your TV, by the way - but the new lighting gives Switch a brighter, cleaner presentation.
That's not the only change. It also helps that the materials - the stonework across the Hyrule Temple for example - are replaced to bring the most out of Switch's revised lighting model - something that makes sense given its higher 4GB RAM allocation compared to Wii U's 2GB. For that doubling in capacity, you get high-res textures for all the building-sides, though some parts are just left untouched, such as instances of grass mapping. The extent of the visual upgrade varies by the stage, but where attention is paid, Ultimate lives up to its moniker. The Bridge of Eldin shows one of the most radical improvements with higher grade brick materials underfoot, and more trees spreading out to the horizon. It's conceivable that this is the stage Sakurai and his team meant to create, but perhaps didn't have the resources on Wii U to see it through fully.
All of this goes for character detail too. Clothing is revamped, for example. You can see it on the denim dungarees on Mario, the stitching of which gets a big quality increase on Switch. Again, it's amazing to see that cloth now interacts with the sun behind the stage, lighting the backs of his legs. A more divisive case is Donkey Kong. This can be seen as a downgrade on Switch, in that it completely removes the fur shell we had on Wii U - which basically worked as a layering of multiple alpha textures to create a fuzz effect. Without that fur in Ultimate, we're left with a basic texture without any of the pop of his last appearance. It's possible that characteristics of Wii U's GPU setup lent itself to complex, layered effects like this - an element that doesn't translate cleanly to Switch's Tegra chipset. We're back to a more 'classic' take on the character either way, but it's a shame his design has taken a technical step back (and interestingly, a similar 'downgrade' was present on the Switch version of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze).
Dynamic shadows on characters return from Wii U, meaning that every limb casts a crisp point of shade on the ground. It's a big leap over the basic circles used on 3DS, and also compared to the presentation on Nintendo's last home console. On Switch, all geometry has full self-shadowing from characters. It means you get more visible shadows across the background of Hyrule, and from Pit across the ladders in Palutena's Temple. The only sore point here is the actual resolution of the shadows is visibly low. You can't help but notice that some stages - especially larger-scale areas - simply fail to filter the edges, leaving them looking pixelated. Wii U didn't have such a big issue by comparison, and it's definitely a rough point on Switch if you look too closely.
Like many of Nintendo's first party games, there's no anti-aliasing. When docked under a TV, Switch leaves the 1920x1080 image completely raw, but that's really not a bad result. In fact the whole post-process pipeline is kept relatively clean; bloom is applied sparingly on lanterns, while motion blur in gameplay is absent. There is a hint of an extra motion blur effect during one Smash attack - Captain Falcon's, in particular, shows a whole road whipping by with a blur effect added on Switch. Other than that? It's played straight down the line.
So, in review: Switch gets new textures, effects, lighting and fully dynamic shadows - but at a cost to shadow resolution, and those missing fur shaders on Donkey Kong. Then there are the stylistic changes. Aspects of the game's aesthetic - explosions, fire and trailing puffs of smoke - take on a cel-shaded inflection. The inspiration from Breath of the Wild is clear but it's curious to see it mixed with the new, more realistic lighting. It's almost a halfway house between the cel-shaded approach of the 3DS and a more technically progressive path set by the Wii U. Regardless, Smash Bros has always revelled in clashing disparate visual styles together, and this is really no exception.
All of which brings us to the existing 3DS game. As Nintendo's successor in the handheld space, Switch represents one of the biggest visual leaps between sequels we've seen in a long time. A native 400x240 resolution gets bumped up to 1280x720 on Switch's portable screen, a nine times increase in pixels. We're no longer looking at cel-shaded characters, low res textures, or basic circular blobs for shadows. We get the works on Switch. If you'll recall, the vision for the 3DS and Wii U releases was to offer a similar playing experience, whether at home or on the go. This time that's a given; Sakurai and his team committed all their energy to one machine here, and the results are tremendous.
What about portable play, and how does the experience hold up? The good news here is that Switch's visuals are broadly identical, whether docked or played as a handheld. You're dropping the resolution from 1080p down to 720p to match the display, but all of the textures, effects and even model quality stay exactly the same. There is one other reduction in quality when moving from docked to mobile play: using Smash Ultimate's replay mode to run the exact same battles side-by-side, Switch shows that the shadow resolution on characters is reduced. It's rougher, but on balance, it's hardly going to notice on the smaller screen.
For all the visual improvements over Wii U, seeing Switch run this at a locked 60fps is a welcome sight. We ran the game through our tools anyway just to check the game's not skipping a beat and sure enough, when playing docked, it's a straight 60fps line with v-sync as you'd expect. Whether that's 1v1 games, or more daring four-player brawls, it's just about perfect. That's with the exception of single frame drops when a final Smash attack kicks off. It's rare, and doesn't actually affect the flow of play.
Upping the ante with eight-player battles. there's little sign of Switch buckling in docked play. This runs flawlessly with every player using a different character, items at medium, and taxing open stages like Corneria. Again there is the potential for one-off hiccups after initiating a special move, but that's the worst of it. Smash Ultimate comfortably hands in 60fps and it marks one of few games to support this many players and control combinations. It's a great result
So let's return to the Ice Climbers challenge. In theory, this is where we'll find the real stress-test: an eight-man battle with everyone selecting Ice Climbers gives us 16 players on-screen. On a GPU-taxing stage like Fountain of Dreams - with that reflection underfoot - clearly Switch starts having troubles here. Obviously, with their omission from the game, there's no telling how Wii U would have handled this combination, but with Switch docked under a TV we're seeing frame-rates run between 45 to 60fps. In fact, at the very worst point, performance can even throttle right down to the 30fps mark. It's worth stressing that this is the absolute worst case scenario. All players are on-screen, and it appears excessive alpha effects are the cause.
Eight Ice Climbers is an exceptional case. Given that lateral movement isn't too aggressive with the camera so drawn back, it doesn't stand out as much as it might in a 1v1, for example. Regardless, it's not exactly ideal, and confirms that Ice Climbers really is the Smash series' worst enemy when it comes to performance. It also puts into perspective the struggle Sakurai and co might have had on Wii U and 3DS, and why this duo never made the cut. Still, even with this extreme result when pushed, I'm glad we at least get the option to play as such a classic character. And of course, once the game whittles down to the final four or so, we're back to clear sailing again at 60fps.
With all that said about Switch's docked play, what about playing as a portable? In a side-by-side test, there's nothing in this. 60fps is again the mainstay for every moment of action on Switch. It's perfect even with four-player battles, on larger stages like the Gaur Plains. I couldn't resist testing eight-player battles again, with the Ice Climbers stress-test. Capturing matching replays on docked and portable, there's a surprise here: the portable mode handles the exact same rendering load at a slightly higher frame-rate - by around two to three frames per second.
So what's going on? Well, by running the same sequence back in each mode, clearly both struggle. Even so, the cutback in shadows while running Switch as a portable, plus its resolution reduction to 720p, gives it more headroom for stress points. Even factoring in the lower GPU clocks when running Switch away from the dock, it still gives us more wiggle room to cope with taxing situations - if only by a bit. So yes - portable runs marginally smoother. It's not enough to salvage 60fps with all Ice Climbers on-screen, but as a benchmark, it's interesting to see.
I'll end with a final note on general performance, and input lag in particular. Getting the game to update at 60fps - or 16.7ms per frame - is hugely important to the competitive crowd. However, based on tests conducted by YouTube channel GigaBoots, there's still a lot of latency in Smash Ultimate to contend with here. As it transpires, playing Smash Ultimate with a GameCube controller adapter gives the lowest input latency possible on Switch, at 98.3ms input lag on average. The surprise is, this is still higher than the Wii U version at 77.1ms, and also 3DS at a much lower 61.1ms.
What does that mean then? Well, it's over two frames of lag more than the last handheld version, and based on this evidence, it's the least responsive Smash title to date. Will it affect your enjoyment of the game? Well it depends on your expectation going in. It's a long way away from the N64 original or Melee - still the two most responsive titles in the series - and competitive play may involve some adjustment. It's likely that the layering of more visual effects in Ultimate has added to the rendering pipeline, which stacks these extra milliseconds of lag on. For all the improvements in that area, there does appear to have been a trade.
As an Ultimate package, there is one big omission then: a mode which strips the experience back for the lowest-latency controls. Perhaps it's idealistic, but even including Melee - as a secret unlock, running just as it did on GameCube - would have been enough to please the hardcore crowd. For the sheer level of control, the low input lag, and the purity of the combat mechanics, Melee will always have the hearts of the competitive fighting scene for that reason. Regardless, what Smash Bros. Ultimate achieves is still remarkable in its own right. It's going to get a lot of mileage over the years as the most comprehensive, and fully-featured version - and on those terms it's still a huge success.
In Super Smash Bros. Ultimate we have one of the best Smash titles ever made, and another brilliant addition to the Switch library. The ability to run it docked or portably with every type of controller imaginable with up to eight players makes this a perfect match for Nintendo's vision of a truly versatile console. All of this runs at 60fps, with extreme exceptions, the Sakurai and his team can justifiably treat this as a series peak. It's a culmination of years of effort in character and stage design, every one affectionately finding a place on its menus. As a technical showcase for Switch there's nothing quite like it. For all its differences to previous versions, Ultimate is a high watermark for the developer that will be difficult to surpass.
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