When it arrives in December, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate will feature over 60 playable characters from the franchise's 20-year history. While this caters to both the nostalgia-minded and completionist alike, it has the potential to be a nightmare for anyone looking to host competitive events.
As the Smash cast has grown over the years, so too has the number of characters that need to be unlocked before they become playable. The original Super Smash Bros., which launched for the Nintendo 64 in 1999, featured an initial roster of eight with four more accessible through separate means.
2001's Super Smash Bros. Melee upped the ante, including 14 primary characters with an additional 11 waiting to be unlocked, and the numbers have only grown as the series progressed.
This can be a fun distraction for the casual player, but the relationship competitors have with these games is a little different. Playing at a high level means becoming intimately familiar with every character in the roster; even if you don't play as them, you'll play against them.
The time spent unlocking cast members means less time practising, an issue that compounds severely for high-level tournament organisers. But where most fighting games have removed this process by making every character playable from the start, Super Smash Bros. remains an outlier by requiring lengthy unlocking procedures.
Gaming Generations is one of the biggest sources of hardware and software rental for major fighting game tournaments, and as such, the responsibility of unlocking content often falls to them.
Its president Evan Mau told Compete that while it's enough to simply transfer Super Smash Bros. Melee save data from one GameCube to another, doing the same in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is "unreliable." This means every setup used at a competitive event needs to go through the painstaking routine of unlocking the rest of the playable cast.
"We unlocked characters on every Wii U console (around 100) the legit way," Mau said, noting that it could take upwards of an hour per console. By matching the original's initial cast with twelve base fighters, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate will pose an even greater challenge by forcing them to unlock at least 50 characters on each Nintendo Switch system, though it's still unknown how this process will work.
Mau noted that they have been discussing the issue internally "almost daily" since the game was announced at E3 earlier this month and are "assuming the worst."
As usual, there's a simple solution to this problem, but the ball is entirely in Nintendo's court. By implementing a tournament or event mode, the developers would make it possible for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate players to unlock every character in versus competition without spoiling the system they designed for the rest of the game.
And there's precedent for this sort of thing; Switch cousins Pokkén Tournament and ARMS, both of which feature an expansive range of unlockable content, allow players to enter a simple series of button presses to access a limited competitive mode in which every character is available to use.
"It's a daunting task," Esports Arena Las Vegas esports manager and tournament organiser Bassem "Bear" Dahdouh told me. "As I prepare for the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate release, the sheer amount of unlocking of fighters — along with stages that would be assumed tournament legal — is going to take a toll. The main problem is for folks that source community setups that are not guaranteed to have every fighter unlocked."
In lieu of a solution similar to Pokkén Tournament and ARMS, Bear's plan is simple: host a Super Smash Bros. Ultimate free play event at launch, essentially enlisting the community to aid in the unlock process ahead of the tournament he intends to host the day after the game is released.
"I'm hoping it won't take that long to unlock everything," he added. "I'm more worried about the stages, as there was a bit of a process of unlocking a few legal stages in Supers Smash Bros. for Wii U."
There's still a ton of mystery surrounding Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, owing mostly to its far-off December 7 release date. Tournament organisers aren't sure what the character unlocking process will be like, only that a massive section of the roster will be hidden behind an artificial barrier.
We've reached out to Nintendo about the possibility of including some sort of event mode to make things easier for the competitive scene, but they have yet to respond. With no official solution in sight, the Smash community is ready to do things the same way they always have: on their own and with plenty of hard work.