Last night I was playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate online and trying to improve my Corrin (a Fire Emblem character) game when it happened. A Donkey Kong was floating above me, just out of my reach, and I prepared to strike as they landed. The timing needed to be precise, but the game froze for a full five seconds. When it smoothed out, Donkey Kong was on the other side of the stage and my poor Corrin was punching at air.
That’s the sorry state of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate right now—it’s an almost perfect game, everything I ever wanted out of the series, with a terrible online mode. The lag problem is bad but it’s not the only issue. Those who want to compete online have to navigate obtuse systems and wait in line for their preferred match, only to end up in a game type they didn’t want. It’s a shame, because Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is best the franchise has ever been.
Nintendo is, and always has been, bad at online games. The first warning bell for Smash Bros. sounded when game director Masahiro Sakurai asked fans to buy an extra piece of equipment if they wanted a stable connection. “We’d appreciate if you’d make your connection as stable as possible,” Sakurai said in a November 1 Nintendo Direct. “A wired LAN cable is recommended.”
The official Nintendo LAN adapter for the Switch runs $30 and is currently sold out on Amazon. The Switch doesn’t come with a built in ethernet port and the dongle converts a USB port into one, allowing gamers to play the Switch on a wired connection. None of the Gamestops in my area have it in stock and Best Buy had no idea what I was talking about when I called. LAN adapters aren’t complicated and various retailers do sell adapters that will work just fine with a Switch, but many of those models are sold out too. Wireless connections in Smash are so poor and laggy that several threads on /r/smashbros detail the benefits of the wired connection and implore players to buy one. I play a lot of games online, some of them over a wireless connection, and I’ve never experienced lag the way I do in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. I also can't remember a game developer letting me know before launch that I would need a wired connection in order to properly enjoy its online modes. Of the 30 or so matches I’ve played, not a single one passed without a lag spike or freeze.
Even something as simple as getting into a game in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a chore. Currently players can create or join online lobbies called Battle Arenas where the host sets the rules or use quick play to find a match fast. Quickplay works, but you never know what the rules for the match will be before you join. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has a lot of variation in its rule set. Some players like one-on-one matches with a stock of three lives each. Other people like a four player free-for-all with a time limit and lots of weird and wacky items. Still others want to play team matches on specific levels.
Smash players looking for a specific kind of setup must declare what they’re looking for then enter the matchmaking service. I’d typically look for one-on-one games, with no items, and simple maps. Almost every time, I’d wait about five minutes then end up in a game with none of my preferred rules.
The best way to find the kind of game you want is to browse through the battle arenas and hope for something similar, but battle arena matches don’t count towards Global Smash Power. (GSP) GSP is a number Smash Bros. assigns to players to describe their skill level. Win more matches and your GSP goes up. Get a big enough GSP and a new tier unlocks—Elite Battles—a version of quickplay that pits good Smash Bros. players against each other. Currently, the community has no idea what GSP number a player needs to enter Elite Battles or how wins and losses effect GSP.
Co-op play is also weird. If I have a friend over, we can use couch co-op to run quickplay battles and gain GSP. There’s currently no way to do the same with an online friend. Right now, I can’t set up quickplay matches with my online buddy. The only way to guarantee team games with friends is to set up a battle arena and wait for others to join. It’s not a big deal, but it’s weird that Nintendo lets couch co-op enter quickplay, but not remote co-op.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate feels like a game from a different era, back before game developers figured out the proper ways to reduce lag and optimize matchmaking. It’s polished and packed with gameplay modes, characters, and hundreds of nods to gaming’s past. It’s a wonderful, fun, brightly colored romp and one of the best fighting games I’ve ever played. It deserves a better online experience.