Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is out and if critics have anything to say, it is one of the best entries of the entire series. A culmination of all the things people love about the series, all in one package. Everything has been amplified (except the online system) from the story mode to the most amount of playable characters in the series to date! While most of these additions are positive (trust me, most of it is amazing) there is one aspect that, while it is better than it ever was, how it comes to be is perhaps one of the most drawn out and frustrating processes ever when it comes to game design—unlocking the characters.

Every Super Smash Bros. game has featured unlocking characters as part of its game design. In pirevious entries this would take the shape as something special, a reward for doing well or doing something just right. In the case of the original Super Smash Bros. you could unlock up to 4 characters in the following ways:

  • Jigglypuff
    • Unlocked by beating the single-player mode on any difficulty
  • Captain Falcon
    • Unlocked by beating the single-player mode on any difficulty under 20 minutes
  • Luigi
    • Unlocked by beating the single-player mode on any difficulty with all other characters
  • NES
    • Unlocked by beating single-player mode with three lives on normal

In each of these cases, the characters are unlocked through a specific method and are treated as a reward. This same pattern can be seen throughout the rest of the Super Smash Bros. series with Melee having 11 characters to unlock, 14 in Brawl, and 16 in the 3DS and Wii U release of the game. Looking at this pattern, you can see a slow increase in the amount of character that is unlocked has occurred. But even with that increase, the method of unlocking the characters has remained largely the same—as a reward. Beating single-player a certain way, completing a challenge, or simply playing a mode for a certain amount of hours will unlock all different characters and is typically surprise. For Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Nintendo has opted to take this to its extreme and rather than place a few characters behind certain unlockable achievements, it has decided to place nearly all of the 74 unlockable characters—except 8—behind some sort of wall to unlock. 

It is an incredibly frustrating design.

By changing the function of unlocking characters from a reward to a task, it changes the entire theming of the process from enjoyable to something you must simply get through. Regardless of the method you take to unlock all the characters, there are problems either way.

World of Light

World of Light is essentially Super Smash Bros. Ultimate‘s main single-player mode. You start off as Kirby and must traverse the world fighting different spirits that are embodied in distinct ways through existing characters, such as Rabbid Kong being a white Donkey Kong with bunny ears. Throughout this journey you will eventually come across playable characters that you can fight, and upon beating them, can unlock those characters to play in the World of Light mode. If a character is unlocked this way, then it also becomes available in all the other modes throughout the game. The issue with all these unlockable characters is pre-determined by the board itself. To unlock Marth, he is in the same spot on playthrough 1 and playthrough 2, 3, 4, 5 ,6, etc. His position never changes and if you hope to unlock additional characters to play online or other game modes via World of Light, you need to continue forward. Sadly, if the character you want to play is towards the end, you have a long way ahead of you.

This wouldn’t be a problem if characters could be unlocked to play in others modes via another method, but when it comes to the World of Light, this is the only way.

The Other Method

Outside of World of Light, the other method to unlocking characters is by simply playing…with a caveat. It is only through playing other single-player modes outside of World of Light that will give you the chance to unlock additional characters at a rate of one new character every 10 minutes whether you win or lose the previous battle. With the system being set up in such a way, a slew of problems from a design perspective pop up. Consider for a moment that the player is attempting to test a new character out by playing a few rounds against the computer. Suddenly after the fight is over, a new challenger appears, and they are forced to fight this new character to unlock them. On the surface, this isn’t much of an issue, but consider it from the player’s perspective. You have a character you are not skilled at or possibly not even familiar with in the slightest and are now forced to take part in a losing fight and will undoubtedly need to fight the same character again to unlock them. It creates a system that while characters are available to be unlocked, the player shouldn’t stray too far from their familiar fighters. 

Further Effects

The negative effects above are strictly limited to each individual situation, combined and considered from the game as a whole, we see additional problems with these two methods. Perhaps the most important negative effect birthed from this process to unlock characters is enjoyment. By unlocking characters with only these two methods, and starting with only a roster of 8 characters, the game is severely limiting the enjoyment for those who can’t play as the characters they enjoy. Take for example if your favorite character to play as in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is Luigi. Currently, there are only two methods to unlock Luigi, play far enough in World of Light to unlock him (he is quite far) or attempt to unlock him via playing every 10 minutes in other single player modes. Either prospect isn’t exactly great and compared to previous titles in the series, is far more momentous or luck-based than any other. The enjoyment the player could potentially have playing the game has now diminished as their character of choice is unavailable out of the gate. 

This problem continues from a design perspective as now you are requiring certain actions from the player for them to enjoy the game. If the player was hoping to jump into online immediately after playing, they would be met with a roster of only eight fighters, all of which could potentially be ones they have no care in playing. For the player to enjoy the most out of the game, they need to go seek out their character they are hoping to play as by continuing to play single-player. Depending on the desire that one has when it comes to those modes, this can be a real slog or be seen as an inconvenience. This forces the player to play the game a certain way rather than allowing them to enjoy how they wish, removing part of the choice the player would normally have if more or all characters are unlocked. If they want to play online as Bayonetta, they simply can’t. Friends coming over to all play? Better hurry up and try to unlock some characters as they will only be able to choose from eight. 

Something as simple as unlocking characters typically wouldn’t have or be such a large effect on the enjoyment of the game, but there is a line crossed with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate that pushes it to an extent that it has lasting effects on the game design. For Nintendo to place so much behind a massive time sink, and effectively forcing players to play a certain way to enjoy the game at their highest potential, it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth as they go through the process when all they really want to do is play the game the way they want to right from the start. Instead, they are forced to trudg through the process to finally unlock all of the real fun they can have.