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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s single-player modes are complicated, but better for it

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Spirits Mode is intimidating, but practice makes perfect

Giant Mega Man fights Greninja in Smash Ultimate Nintendo

For as much fun as it is to play Super Smash Bros. with friends, Nintendo’s most-ambitious-crossover fighting franchise has always had plenty of meat on the bone for the single-player crowd. Sparring with NPCs, training with your main fighter to master their moveset, and punching your way through a gauntlet to fight the horrifying Master Hand: All of these are tests of how good you, the solo player, are.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate continues this nearly 20-year-old tradition, but in dramatic, even unrecognizable fashion.

The Nintendo Switch game’s exclusive single-player section, Spirits Mode, seems like something pulled from another game entirely. Intimidating from the onset, it’s a dense mixture of countdown timers and elemental types and battle conditions. Is Spirits Mode a gachapon-like minigame with shocking difficulty? A beautiful, nonsensical action anime reinterpreted as a board game? Is it where we’ll find out if Luigi is actually dead?

This single-player collection is a mixture of all of the above. If that sounds like confusing, you’re right. But first impressions shouldn’t be trusted. With patience and practice, Spirits Mode becomes another one of Smash Bros.’ great compulsions.

Playing Spirits Mode is the only way to really understand what it is. I’ll do my best with words here: Spirits Mode contains two separate features, Spirit Board and World of Light. I’ll get to Spirit Board in a bit; meanwhile, World of Light is an adventure mode that kicks off with a shocking, emotional cutscene and premise. Everyone in the Smash universe is zapped out of the light world and into the dark, save Kirby, because Kirby is the best. It’s then up to Kirby to retrieve the other fighters’ “spirits” and bring them back into the goodness.

The map in Smash Ultimate’s World of Light mode
World of Light’s beautiful map starts tiny, but grows fast.
Nintendo via Polygon

World of Light is not a story mode in the same way that Smash Bros. Brawl’s Subspace Emissary was. Once that gorgeous opener ends, Kirby drops onto a gigantic map that is almost completely covered in fog. After choosing a difficulty setting, he’s off to fight the dark doppelgängers of his Smash Bros. bros. Example: The first set of these challenges that Kirby completes leads him to a battle against Mario. Each challenge features a different Smash fighter, all possessed and battling under specific conditions. Maybe Yoshi will be super fast in one battle. Maybe Fox will only use his gun in another. Reaching Mario at the end and defeating him frees him from the darkness, and then gives players a choice of which direction to head into next (and whether they want to start playing as Mario instead).

Completing each group of challenges also results in greater visibility of the map, which comes with more pathways to take. And there’s a gigantic skill tree shared across all of the playable characters too, where abilities and buffs can be unlocked throughout the journey. Between that wonderfully large skill customization, the individualized challenges, and the huge, reference-filled world map, World of Light’s stand-outs aren’t as ostentatious as its teaser trailer suggested. But the number of characters to save and the variety of the challenges promises an absurd amount of playtime.

World of Light is essentially a board game designed around collecting fighters, which sounds pretty straightforward — until you start factoring in all the items, called spirits, that you have to collect too. That’s where Smash Bros. Ultimate takes its most dizzying turn away from the solo modes of the past, introducing a completely unique system that demands to be seen, and to be played, in order to comprehend it.

Spirits are collectible characters that, when equipped, add new abilities or change how a battle plays out. These sticker-looking items represent tons of familiar (or not!) characters from more than 30 franchises. In World of Light, they’re essential to combing through the challenges and saving Kirby’s friends; they play a huge part into each fighter’s skillset, can be powered up on their own, and are tied directly into that threadbare plot line. The single-player adventure becomes just as much about these powerful add-ons as it is about your fighting talents, which throws an RPG-like wrench into the typical Smash Bros. setup.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate - Spirit Board
The Spirit Board has a maximum of 10 spirits available at a given time.
Sora Ltd., Bandai Namco Studios/Nintendo via Polygon

Spirit Board goes further with the spirit concept, completely stripping out any semblance of story to focus entirely on these new upgradable items. The Spirit Board is a typical bounty board setup, with a selection of 10 randomly selected spirits available at a given time. You choose the one you want, from Revolver Ocelot to K.K. Slider, and to acquire it, you have to beat it in combat. Some of these spirits’ abilities are a pain for everyone, like dropping bombs all over the arena. But some are huge helps, increasing attack power or granting bonus items.

The creative wrinkle here is that these “spirit” characters aren’t actually in the game. If you’re trying to capture the spirit of Big the Cat, you’re going to have to beat the closest approximation of him the game can create: an extra large purple Incineroar, who’s imbued with the power of the Big the Cat spirit item. This works just like World of Light’s challenges, and actually supplements them: The only purpose of Spirit Board is to win the battle and gain a prize for your collection.

The thing about the Spirit Board battles? They’re “hard as shit,” according to my notes. We managed to only win a single challenge during our demo, as you have just one life for each one. Winning that battle starts a quick, timing-based minigame, where you have to break the spirit free, and it’s mercifully simple. But I think the difficulty most comes from how uncompromising Spirit Board is in demanding that you properly equip yourself for each battle. Super Smash Bros. has never had anything this dense, and Spirit Board piles it all on at once. Fighters whom we’ve learned to rely on purely through their own moves and tricks are now equipped with unfamiliar abilities, and there are thousands of combinations of these items to deal with.

Kirby vs. Wario in Smash Ultimate
Kirby fighting four Warios who only attack with their motorcycles, a result of using the Excitebike spirit.
Nintendo via Polygon

Despite the anxiety it creates at first, Spirits Board’s difficulty turns out to be a very good thing. Understanding why we kept losing — because of not understanding the rock-paper-scissors typing, or not taking our fighters’ moves into consideration when attaching spirits to them — showed us what we needed to do to get better. So, yeah, we only completed one of our Spirit Board challenges, but the half hour it took us to get there was a satisfying, Karate Kid-like training session for the big leagues. Testing our skills against these new opponents, one by one, will be hard. But those victories only get more satisfying, and the knowledge gained from them carries right over into World of Light.

Taking Spirits Mode’s two very different features as a co-dependent pair makes them both much stronger, almost like they make up a single-player game within the larger, multiplayer-focused Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. And that’s a game I’m very much excited to practice with much, much more.

We’ve got a helpful video explainer on the spirits and Spirit Board below, which I recommend; again, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s newfangled features make the most sense in action. The game is out on Dec. 7.