Appreciating the Smart Design of Smash Ultimate’s Classic Mode

When I first heard that Super Smash Bros Ultimate would once again have unlockable fighters, I expressed concern that this might be a game mechanic I didn’t really want to deal with. My concern came from the situation in which I anticipated to be playing the game – opening it on or around Christmas day and immediately playing it with family or friends out of the box. Having only eight characters to fight as in Smash Bros seemed silly for a title with over 70 to play as, and I figured the process of unlocking them would be a grind best handled solo. Still, unlockables had been part of the series since its inception, so while I felt that I personally didn’t want to deal with it, I accepted it as inevitable and still awaited the game anxiously.

My situation ended up being a lot different than I anticipated. I did receive Smash Ultimate for Christmas but due to the timing of when I visited family for the holidays, I didn’t open it until almost a week after Christmas was over – well beyond all the get-togethers where I might have played the game with a bunch of people. Excluding the time I got to try out the game with relatives who bought it before me, most of my initial experience with Smash Ultimate has been spent with classic mode unlocking the fighters in the game’s roster. Experiencing the game on my own in this way has changed my thoughts about the way unlocking is handled in Smash Bros.

Classic mode has been a staple in the series in all of the iterations I have played (I can’t speak for the Wii U/3DS Smash Bros). Despite being one of the most familiar modes in the game, classic is also one of the best executed. Smart design decisions were made which took the slog of unlocking fighters and instead converted it into a tutorial for the game and a love letter to the many series which inspired it. Today I want to appreciate the choices made for Smash Ultimate’s classic mode, the clever design decisions which make it a great experience to play.

smash ultimate original roster
Talk about a throwback!

When you first open classic mode, You’ll have only eight characters to start with – the original eight from the very first Super Smash Bros, in fact. This might seem sparse in a game with 74 characters but that’s a pretty smart choice. I’ve played Smash Ultimate with someone who doesn’t know the game and the moment they saw the massive selection of characters to play as, paralysis of choice hit hard. There are so many characters to try out and when you have no idea how any of them work, making a decision can be intimidating. By starting with only the classic eight characters, the game lessens the danger of paralysis of choice. There’s variety there but the number of flavors to choose from becomes much more manageable.

The original characters are a great choice for another reason too – they are some of the easiest to play as. Mario is the true middle character from whom the rest of the characters’ weights and jump heights are balanced. Kirby is the easiest character for starting players due to his multiple jumps and simple moveset. Characters like Link and Pikachu have strong moves that are easy to pick up without having to worry about a steep learning curve. Starting here, a Smash newcomer can get their feet wet and learn the basics of the game with some of the easier characters to use.

So let’s say you choose Kirby to begin your classic mode adventure. You’ll quickly recognize that there’s a theme to his battles: everything is related to food or eating in some way. You battle characters with clear and obvious eating moves like Yoshi, Wario, and Dedede. The items on the stage are predominantly food. Even if you somehow know nothing about Kirby, one press of the B button and the joke makes sense – Kirby’s main power is eating stuff. Of course his classic mode is all about food! It’s a fun reference that puts you up against some quirky characters and makes the classic mode feel like a small, personal adventure for Kirby.

kirby inhale
Eat up, you sweet little puff.

Once you reach the final battle, you find yourself embroiled in a boss battle against a classic Kirby villain, Marx. Now if you’re a series veteran, your layers of appreciation change – you’d normally expect Master Hand here. Classic mode has felt pretty “classic” up to this point but the boss battle is something fresh. Not only is Marx creepy as hell but he has a completely different moveset than the old familiar white glove, meaning this is going to feel strange and different no matter who you are. When you finally defeat the boss, you’re treated to the “shoot the credits” minigame and collect some rewards. Everything seems to be over…and then you get that exciting cut-in informing you that a new challenger is approaching.

Fighting and defeating the challenger at the end of classic mode will add that character to the roster. Now in addition to all the spirits and other little rewards you earned, there’s one more person on the character select screen for you to try out. Kirby is marked with a little medal to let you know his classic mode has been completed – though the roster has gotten bigger, you still essentially have eight characters to play. Now though, you have a pretty decent idea of how Kirby works. If you decide to jump over to Smash mode for some multiplayer shenanigans with your buddies, Kirby’s moves will be familiar to you.

This method of progressively introducing the roster is strong design in a few different ways. It makes the game more approachable to newcomers by avoiding paralysis of choice. Giving them only easier characters to start with allows the players to learn how the game works without a steep learning curve. Players will likely choose a character they are excited about and familiar with, so they’ll be able to appreciate the references that are made by the enemy selection or the stage themes. Classic mode is short and sweet, and since the reward is a new character, the mode is expanding for a long period of time. These are all great starting points, but there are still more reasons why classic works so well.

smash ultimate intensity
Sakurai loves bringing in mechanisms from his other games, doesn’t he?

In the past, classic mode has had a selection of difficulty settings such as easy, normal, and hard. Once you choose one, you’re stuck – if the first five battles on Hard are doable but you absolutely cannot handle the sixth, then you’re out of luck until you get better at the game. Ultimate’s classic mode takes a different approach. You set a starting difficulty for the game and each battle you win takes that difficulty up a notch based on your performance. If you barely scraped by, the intensity may only increase by .1 or .2. Conversely, if you totally annihilated your opponent, it’s common to see an increase of .6-.8 or even as high as 1.1. If you’re defeated, you can continue by dropping the intensity back down to a lower number. This allows you to finish out a classic mode that you may have started at a number that was a bit unrealistic for you.

This is a great risk-reward system that allows confident players to push themselves while those with less experience or skill can still complete classic mode if they make a mistake. Slowly pumping up the intensity allows you to slowly pump up your skill as you play more and more classic mode runs. In my experience, starting out I often made mistakes as unfamiliar characters that ended up killing me even when my starting intensity was the default setting of 2 – by the time I finished classic mode I could start at 2 intensity with anybody and make it through without any deaths. Constantly pushing me helped me to grow better generally at the game, whether I had talent with a character or not.

There’s one other helpful tool for managing the difficulty of classic mode, and that’s the ability to add a partner. Classic can be played as a two player experience, giving you a human ally to assist you during all of your battles. Many characters run through classic mode alone but may be dealing with multiple opponents at a time. The Ice Climbers, for example, only together count as one character and yet are made to face two opponents almost all the way through their classic mode experience. Having a second player makes things a lot simpler, giving you a better chance of clearing out higher intensities and better odds when you have a chance to unlock a character. It also has the added advantage of allowing an inexperienced Smash player to partner with a veteran, or for two friends, siblings, or paramours to still be able to play together even when all the fighters aren’t unlocked yet.

smash ultimate challenger approaching

Now sometimes when playing through classic, a challenger will approach that cleans your clock. For me, this happened a lot when I played through as characters that I’m quite bad at such as Yoshi, Ness, or the Ice Climbers. When this happens the game lets you know right away that “hey, it’s okay, you’ll get a chance at this again later.” The chance later comes in the form of the Challenger’s Approach, a menu option that appears in Games & More after you’ve played one or two additional successful classic mode runs. Here, you can rematch challengers who have defeated you and choose any character you want, making it so that you can unlock a fighter while using someone you’re actually good as.

This turned out to be a godsend for me. I missed out on quite a few characters during my first encounter with them thanks to playing as someone with whom I have no skill, and a couple more due to silly deaths resulting from stage hazards, items, or using a move in a bad position that threw me off the stage. Whenever I got my tail handed to me, all I had to do was play one or two more classic modes and I’d get the opportunity to choose a character I excel as (usually Corrin) and unlock the character. If you lose at the Challenger’s Approach, that character will appear there again later. You can also only challenge one challenger at a time – if you’ve got a few backed up, you’ll get to face one and then have to come back later to take on more.

This is where I got hooked into a cycle of classic mode battles. I’d play through someone’s story, fail to unlock a character, do a couple more runs to get Challenger’s Approach open, and then unlock the challenger I originally failed to beat. Often while trying to get one challenger accessible again I’d lose to another one, so my mantra became “just one more run” – I would play until either I didn’t have a backlog of characters at Challenger’s Approach or until the battery hit critical on my Switch. The short and sweet nature of classic mode combined with the constant temptation of a new character at the end led me to power through most of it in a couple of sittings. This addictive quality is another sign of smart design – playing classic mode makes you want to play more classic mode.

smash ultimate corrin
Fates may not be my favorite Fire Emblem, but Corrin will likely be my Smash main!

Classic mode has a clever, addictive design that works well for newcomers and for series veterans. It allows you to slowly meet the full roster of the game through short character tutorials that help you get a basic grasp of each character while also gaining general knowledge of the game. It’s a fun experience solo or with a partner and you can set the difficulty to whatever works best for you, with a forgiving structure that makes the game easier if you got a little overzealous at the start. Rewards are given consistently in a way that continuously draws you back in to play more, and failure is a temporary state that simply drives you to keep going so you can do better the next time. And if all that doesn’t make a good game mode, then I don’t know what does!

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