Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is packed with content, including every fighter that’s ever appeared in a Smash Bros. game and then some. But if you didn’t know any better when firing the game up for the first time, you might wonder where all these characters are since you only are given a selection that’s a fraction of the promised 77. The rest you’re expected to unlock through playing the game either through its single-player World of Light mode or just through playing the game normally and waiting for challengers to appear. This is a massive bummer for many, who wanted access to everything the game has to offer right out of the box. But there’s a bit of magic in the art of unlocking if you’re willing to look for it.
The argument against it is sound. If you bought a game with so much variety in fighters, you’d want to access them right away. But the problem with fighting games is that they’re geared towards multiplayer so much already. There’s no true “progression” to be found in fighting games except to get better at the game itself, already a nebulous measure. There should be a reward based on what you pour into a game, a sort of feedback loop to keep you playing.
And yet when I think about it, I can’t help but feel this isn’t correct for every game. Party dueling game Nidhogg is one example of a type of game that absolutely doesn’t need a feedback loop, but rather thrives at just being something you can jump into. Towerfall: Ascension, a game in the same vein but with bigger scope, is another example of something you just want to jump into and not have to worry about unlocking stuff. The latter’s biggest problem always was that there was stuff to unlock, and it was never that fun to do so thanks to cryptic clues and the limited things you ended up unlocking. Only a few new stages and player skins were up for grabs.
Something like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, though, is such a huge prospect that you can’t help but to want to break it up into pieces. There’s just so much more than the simple gameplay packed into the game. Smash looks to eek out every piece of nostalgia it can, and for that to happen, you can’t rush the experience. Having the seemingly random challengers is a piece of design from another time, sure, but it also undeniably causes your brain to light up when it happens. And single-player modes like World of Light certainly help by giving you more agency over who you unlock as well.
But there’s a more primal feeling that comes with unlocking something. The pure feedback that comes with a notification that something in the game has changed forever cannot be denied. By unlocking something, you’ve forever altered your game, making it a more complete version of itself. It’s like the blip sound that comes with unlocking an achievement, except you get something more tangible to go along with it. I know that’s not enough of a reason for everyone to be excited at the prospect of unlocking things, but it’s enough to keep me enraptured, especially since there’s so much stuff to unlock.
Not only are there characters to unlock, but there’s also Spirits, which are little modifiers that you can apply to your fighter that you can use in specific battle types, but also in the World of Light mode, which gives the game a light RPG flavor. Best of all is the form Spirits take, which draws from Nintendo history even beyond the core cast of characters. There’s a Spirit for Buzz Buzz, a minor character from the beginning of EarthBound, and that’s not even the most obscure you’ll find. Unlocking Spirits makes the process of unlocking as much about discovery as it is the primal hit of making your mark on your game. I have to think that if the internet didn’t exist and people were naturally discovering who is in the game, it would be a much improved experience.
But as it stands, unlocking isn’t for everyone. There’s even an entire field of guides that tries to answer how to unlock every fighter in the fastest way possible. But for those who just want to marinate in the nostalgia and who enjoy the process of unlocking, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has all that in spades.