Hands on with World of Light, a Super Smash Bros. campaign finally worth playing
Like a round of punches on a sprinting Fox McCloud, the Super Smash Bros. series' various campaign modes have always been hit and miss. Brawl's memorable Subspace Emissary, where your favourite characters teamed up in cutscenes offering the kind of fanservice Avengers movies now feast on, also forced you to slog through lacklustre side-scrolling stages. Smash on 3DS had the decent but forgettable dungeon crawler Smash Run, while Smash on Wii U had board game Smash Tour - the less said about that the better - and now Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has World of Light - possibly the strongest offering yet.
World of Light is a web of curated battles featuring characters from the farthest reaches of Nintendo's history and beyond, played out over a vast world map. There are multiple paths to follow, randomised events to navigate and an enormous skill tree you'll need to unlock to boss your way through some increasingly difficult dust-ups. Want to unleash a double Final Smash, one of the skill tree's top unlocks? You have some work on your hands first.
The mode's Infinity War-style premise may remind you of Subspace Emissary's similarly apocalyptic setting, but where Brawl only dusted the game's playable fighters, World of Light wipes out every single Nintendo character you've ever held dear (and Birdo) in one Thanos-sized swoop. Waluigi? Gone. Emperor Bulblax? Gone. Bowsette? Hopefully gone too. Instead of simply resurrecting the game's roster, your job in World of Light is to restore hundreds of beloved background characters, each via their own themed battle.
You'll need to res all your favourite heroes as well, of course, and your battles against each of the game's 70-something strong list will add each fighter to your list of available characters. Is this how you unlock the game's roster for all modes, too? Nintendo was coy on this detail, although it's likely there will again be multiple ways to earn access to each character.
But the main meat, here, are the Spirits themselves. It is initially disappointing to not be battling the characters in question - Rabbid Mario himself isn't an unlockable opponent, and neither are Animal Crossing's Sable sisters. Instead, then, your fights for each of their Spirits are respectively against regular Mario decked out in his stars and stripes outfit and wearing the bunny ears item so he jumps extra high, and then a trio of appropriately coloured Sonic the Hedgehogs. But it's surprising how much this does work - and with 70-odd characters, dozens of modifying items, plus Assist Trophies and Pokémon, how far Nintendo can stretch this to come up with a situation for the hundreds of Spirits on offer.
Take the chick-like Little Birdie from Metroid: Other M - Ridley's larval form. Your fight to unlock its Spirit pits you against... a miniature version of Ridley. Or the 3DS Badge Arcade host, whose Spirit can be won by surviving countless versions of its Assist Trophy, which drops grabbing pincers from the top of the screen to scoop you off-stage.
Once defeated, Spirits then act a little like Smash Bros. Brawl's stickers - you can assign them to a fighter to gain various nerfs and buffs which may or may not help in a particular scrap. Pikmin enemy Smoky Progg, for example, lets you start battles holding a spiky Unira item. Animal Crossing stargazer Celeste lets you draw nearby items closer. Zelda: Breath of the Wild's Guardian will boost your melee damage. Spirits come in different rarities which determine whether you can select multiple Spirits to apply at any one time, and can be levelled up through gameplay or via items. Some can even evolve when you level them to 99, the game's max, into even more powerful forms. It's the kind of meta-game tinkering some fans will drop dozens of hours into alone.
During a too-short hands-on session last week, I was allowed to progress only a fraction of the way through World of Light's map. Zoom out and you can see how enormous it is. How many Spirits does it contain? Nintendo isn't yet ready to say much there, either. But the game's reveal trailer showed off how labyrinthine the mode eventually becomes, and suggested that unlocking every nook will require serious questing.
Beyond the map's borders, there are further Spirit battles on offer. A separate mode, Spirit Board, offers yet more curated battles, each with time limits attached. It reminded me of Hitman's Elusive Targets - you get one shot at beating the Spirit, then its bounty notice disappears (although these will, eventually, cycle around again). Not knowing the conditions of a fight before entering it make these a special challenge, while their time-limited nature make them feel particularly moreish. If there are no characters you're interested in unlocking at that point, all you need do is wait a few minutes for the bounties to cycle out for new ones.
Between Spirit Board and World of Light, Nintendo has found a way to make an alternative offering to standard Smash battles that does not dilute or divert from the series' gameplay. These are modes which customise standard battles rather than replace them with something completely different, all the while paying homage to countless more fan favourites. And that's really what Smash Bros. has always been about.