The Super Smash Bros. Series Ranked

I’m not really a big fighting game fan. I simply am not “gud” enough to really go deep in the big franchises like Street Fighter or Tekken. Combos escape me. But the Super Smash Bros. series stands apart. Nintendo’s crossover fighting games are built on a solid, simple foundation that makes them easy to play but hard to master. Super Smash Bros.’ celebration of Nintendo’s legacy, and now a broader video game history, also engages me at a metafictional “museum” level. So I can safely say that the Super Smash Bros. series is one of my favorite in gaming, even as I am still not truly “gud” in a competitive sense. I’ve enjoyed all five of the games, which were released over the 19-year span from 1999 to 2018, and continue to look forward to the incredibly long tail of the DLC support for the latest game in the franchise, SUPER SMASH BROS. ULTIMATE. But I’ve enjoyed them all to a varying degree, even if that degree can be charted in quite the simple way…

NOTE: All games published by Nintendo.

#5 — SUPER SMASH BROS. (1999)

Developer: HAL Laboratory

The first SUPER SMASH BROS., released for the Nintendo 64, was a big deal. The foremost example in the “arena fighting game” subgenre, although maybe not the first, set the template for the rest of the series. Its focus on simple control inputs, built on two attack buttons modified by the four directional inputs, has been modified by movement, hit boxes, and other technical tweaks. But in general, SUPER SMASH BROS. plays like its successors, as it centers on upping the “percentage” of enemies to launch them totally out of bounds. But as I’ll demonstrate, the series improves based on the overall “package.” Every game has increased its number of fighters, and with this first game, there were only 12. SUPER SMASH BROS. also has the minimal number of stages and items, as well as other extras. But the smaller quantity of “stuff” does not mean that SUPER SMASH BROS.’ quality is wholly and negatively impacted. All 12 of the game’s characters feel totally unique and fun to play, and everything surrounding them (the stages, items, and more) already cemented the feeling that SUPER SMASH BROS. and its successive series is a celebration of Nintendo history. At a time when a number of its key franchises were still relatively young or in a relatively uncertain state (Pokemon was brand new, Metroid never appeared on Nintendo 64), Nintendo still proclaimed its video game universes were a special part of the medium’s history. The first SUPER SMASH BROS.’ since discarded elements, like its presentation of its action with a comic book style and the characters as manifestations of plush figures, make it even more interesting in hindsight.

#4 — SUPER SMASH BROS. MELEE (2001)

Developer: HAL Laboratory

So, this might be controversial. But that’s OK. Big Smash Bros. nerds still contend that SUPER SMASH BROS. MELEE is the best in the series, citing the opportunities it gives for complex competitive strats. But for this casual player, that doesn’t matter much; it doesn’t obscure the fact, however, that MELEE is great. The GameCube installment in the series resides in a deep, nostalgic place for me because it was the first Smash Bros. game I played in earnest, although the N64 one was in fact the one I played first. But special notice has to be given to MELEE for how swiftly and deeply it improved on the formula of SUPER SMASH BROS. It expanded the wide array of extras and other modes to play (Adventure is awesome!) while also refining the fighting gameplay. MELEE is often praised for its treatment of movement, and while I find it a bit unwieldy compared to later games in the series, I can’t deny that the game still feels unique after 20 years.

#3 — SUPER SMASH BROS. BRAWL (2008)

Developer: Sora Ltd., Nintendo

By the time of SUPER SMASH BROS. BRAWL, which came a full seven years after MELEE (the biggest gap between Smash games), it was clear that Nintendo was going to dedicate its focus to the series once per console generation. But in the time between the beginning of the GameCube era and the near-middle of the Wii years, a lot had changed for Nintendo. Although MELEE was a vast improvement and significant change from SUPER SMASH BROS., it still essentially resided in the same “psychic space” as the N64 game. What I mean by that is both had to “imagine” some of their characters’ place in the game, such as, in the case of MELEE, Link’s appearance on GameCube ahead of a dedicated Zelda game there (and of course it would look much different than WIND WAKER [2002]). But BRAWL had a lot more to work with seven years later, including a whole host of new franchises that had hit Nintendo’s “casual” systems, the DS and Wii. To match this energy, this installment of the Smash Bros. series also hit a “casual” stride, which was divisive at the time and in hindsight. Part of the reason is because of a literal stride, as BRAWL introduced random tripping. But at the end of the day, I think BRAWL is a more fluid and easily played game than MELEE. Although I said MELEE was the first Smash Bros. I played in earnest, BRAWL was really the one I sank a massive amount of time into, which was augmented in part by its increased array of modes, centered by Subspace Emissary. This full-fledged story mode was also kind of divisive, I’ve found, but it’s simply an exciting, nearly RPG-like experience that was really expanded for ULTIMATE’s World of Light/Spirits mode. BRAWL’s inclusion of both trophies and stickers (the former were around for the previous installment) meant that it could also expand its recognition and celebration of Nintendo lore. But BRAWL was also the first Smash Bros. to go beyond Nintendo; in a huge move, Snake from Metal Gear Solid and Sonic the Hedgehog were included as fighter characters. It had a sizable increase in playable characters as well, moving from MELEE’s 25 to 39. All of these elements made BRAWL not only the most comprehensive package in the series thus far, but also the most enjoyable to play. I have many fond memories of utilizing the tournament feature for hours and hours with friends as I was growing up, and while I can’t deny the nostalgia factor, I can take a step back and recognize SUPER SMASH BROS. BRAWL’s incredible moves forward.

#2 — SUPER SMASH BROS. FOR NINTENDO 3DS AND WII U (2014)

Developer: Bandai Namco, Sora Ltd.

This was the most difficult placement; BRAWL nearly overtook it. The strangeness about SUPER SMASH BROS. FOR NINTENDO 3DS AND WII U, “SMASH 4” as it’s colloquially known, was clear right away with its terrible name. But the general moniker actually refers to two separate games, as Smash Bros. went handheld for the first time. SMASH 4 is probably the most overlooked game in the series, besides the first game, because it was relegated to the Wii U and in a strange form on the 3DS; Smash Bros. is simply hard to play, for me, on the admittedly great handheld. But the two versions aren’t the same. SMASH 3DS has different modes and some different stages than its Wii U counterpart, and each focus on handheld Nintendo history and home console legacy, respectively. The Wii U version is what I’ve played the most, and perhaps because the SMASH 4 experience was somewhat split between two versions and platforms, it nearly doesn’t feel like the full package it could have been. Sadly, SMASH 4 didn’t contain a story or tournament mode, my favorite experiences (besides the straight ahead smashing of versus play) of BRAWL, and its board-game-ish Smash Tour is an interesting idea that could be quite frustrating at times. Ultimately, though, SMASH 4 is really fun to play. Noted for its fusion of the fast, competitive focus of MELEE with the slower, casual nature of BRAWL, SMASH 4 also expanded its fighter roster to 58, seven of which were DLC characters, including surprise fighters like Cloud from FINAL FANTASY VII (1997) and Bayonetta. Having put a lot of time into SMASH WII U specifically, I can safely say it’s one of the best games for the platform, being beaten out only by MARIO KART 8 (2014). Its improved game feel and assortment of new characters, stages, and trophies still make SUPER SMASH BROS. FOR WII U (and sure, NINTENDO 3DS) feel like an escalation of previous installments in the series, even as it took some experiences away.

#1 — SUPER SMASH BROS. ULTIMATE (2018)

Developer: Bandai Namco, Sora Ltd.

Nintendo pretty quickly made an incredible statement for Super Smash Bros. at the beginning of the Switch era: ULTIMATE, the fifth and most recent game in the series, carries not only all the fighters and stages from previous games, but also new ones. The new story mode is augmented by literally hundreds of equippable “spirits,” characters and items that record Nintendo and gaming history, which supplanted the trophies of the rest of the series. And that story mode is incredibly long and cleverly plays with the previous games’ Event mode (which is excised from ULTIMATE), approximating fights with characters from the Nintendo universe by applying different effects and costumes to the playable fighters the game does have. And tournament mode is back, online play is stronger, and a robust DLC plan, at the time of this writing, is extending three years past release and introducing bonkers new characters to the Smash Bros. roster. ULTIMATE has just surprised time after time in terms of that package I’m always talking about, to say nothing about its refinement of SMASH 4’s newfound fusion of competitive and casual gameplay. As has been made clear with my chronological ranking, Nintendo has improved on the Super Smash Bros. formula with each subsequent release. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that each game in the series makes the ones before it obsolete, at each point in time, I would always prefer playing the newest one. That’s not just because I’m after that new new, but as I’ve illustrated, because director Masahiro Sakurai, the key figure behind Smash Bros.’ success, finds a way to up the ante in a truly satisfying way. And while the Super Smash Bros. games are unified in their central gameplay experience and focus on metafictional history, each of the five games do feel unique. And SUPER SMASH BROS. ULTIMATE is unique in this all-time great series simply by having the most to enjoy and being the most fun to play.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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