Feature Article

From Splatoon To Sora: The Life And Times Of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

We take a look at Smash Ultimate from its debut to the final trailer, with thoughts from some of the minds behind the reveals.

The final addition to the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate roster has finally entered the arena, as Sora from Kingdom Hearts caps off a massive 89 fighter roster. The road to this final fighter has been an interesting one, highlighted by surprise reveals and iconic trailers that garnered massive reactions from fans throughout the world.

With the roster complete, now is a perfect time to recap the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate trailer timeline, from the first tease to Sora's big debut. We've assembled an all-star roster of our own for this trip down memory lane, offering their unique insights into some of the biggest surprises Smash Bros. had to offer.

The First Tease And E3 2018: Everyone Is Here!

Smash Bros. Ultimate's debut came during the March 8, 2018 Nintendo Direct, capping the presentation with a minute-long teaser centered around the fighting game's first newcomer, Inkling. Despite the brevity of the reveal--and "Ultimate" left out of the logo at the end--Nintendo fans were ready for the next Smash Bros. battle.

That single minute was all fans had to work with until E3 2018, when Nintendo dedicated 25 minutes of its 42-minute Nintendo Direct to Super Smash Bros. on Switch. This lengthy presentation--a blueprint of the "Mr. Sakurai Presents" videos to come--not only unveiled the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate name, but it did so at the end of a trailer announcing "Everyone Is Here!" From series stalwarts like Mario and Pikachu, to returning favorites like Ice Climbers, Solid Snake, and Wolf O'Donnell, every fighter from previous games would be making a comeback.

On top of that surprise, the E3 Direct presentation also announced the concept of "Echo Fighters"--characters who resembled other fighters on the roster. Dark Pit and Lucina were shown as examples of Echo Fighters before a new one was unveiled in Daisy, the Princess of Sarasaland, mimicking Peach's moveset. The presentation ended with the second newcomer announcement of SSBU's lifetime, the fearsome space pirate Ridley from the Metroid franchise, and a release date of December 7, 2018.

Simon Belmont from Castlevania was the first post-E3 Smash surprise.
Simon Belmont from Castlevania was the first post-E3 Smash surprise.

Leading Up To The Ultimate Launch

The six months between E3 and launch were the most eventful in the game's history, as two dedicated broadcasts and a third announcement during a general Nintendo Direct gave Smash fans plenty to chew on.

First was the August 8th Smash Bros. Direct, a half-hour presentation dedicated solely to SSBU. The event was bookended by three newcomers: Castlevania's Simon and Richter Belmont began the festivities--RIP Luigi, poor guy--while Donkey Kong Country's scaly scoundrel King K. Rool was revealed at the video's end. This presentation also expanded the roster of Echo Fighters, with Fire Emblem's Chrom and Dark Samus from Metroid joining the playable ranks as well.

Next was the September 13, 2018 Nintendo Direct, the first full Direct since E3. The penultimate reveal--one that followed a look at the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate-branded Switch console to throw fans off the scent--saw Isabelle from Animal Crossing make her Smash Bros. debut. Her reveal trailer then led to the final announcement of the show, a small teaser video for what would eventually become Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Finally, November 1, 2018 brought the final Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Direct before the game's launch. Speculation ran particularly wild before this presentation thanks to the so-called "Grinch Leak," a picture supposedly leaking seven new SSBU characters. The leak proved false immediately into the Direct, as Pokemon's Incineroar and Ken from Street Fighter were revealed as the final two base roster characters. The Direct also dove into the Spirits mechanic that would replace the franchise's trademark Trophy system, ending with a trailer for the game's story mode World of Light.

Most importantly, however, the final Smash Direct confirmed additional characters would be coming via downloadable content. Five fighters would be included in the Fighters Pass, each bundled with a new stage and music from their franchise. A sixth character, Piranha Plant, was revealed as a free bonus fighter for those who bought the game and registered it on Nintendo's website within two months of launch.

The precursor to Joker's reveal, and a screen no one suspected.
The precursor to Joker's reveal, and a screen no one suspected.

Launch Surprise

After the November Smash Direct, all that was left was the game's launch on December 7, 2018, reaching the date first announced at E3 without any delays. However, the night before the game was set to launch, Nintendo would throw its fans a curveball that would set the tone for every DLC character announced going forward.

The day before the game's launch, December 6, the 2018 Game Awards emanated from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. Before the ceremony's final award was presented, host Geoff Keighley took the stage to explain what was coming next, only to be interrupted by the lights going out in the theater and static appearing on the screen behind him. What happened next shocked the gaming world, Smash Bros. fans chief among them.

Joker from Persona 5--a game that to this day has not appeared on the Switch from a franchise that bore no association with Nintendo--was unveiled as the first downloadable fighter in the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Fighters Pass. Thanks to the direction of the reveal, not confirming the nature of the trailer until Joker's envelope flip, reactions from fans were electric. "You'll never see it coming" indeed.

GameSpot reached out to Atlus for their thoughts on having Joker join the ranks of Smash Bros. in Ultimate, and a representative from Atlus Wests said the company was "honored" to have Joker be the first surprise DLC reveal. "It was really amazing to see the response from not only fans of the Persona series, but also from Smash players across the world," the statement read. "Having Joker and the Persona series included in such an all-star cast has helped introduce the series to a new audience of players."

The First Few Months

Now that the game was in the wild, 2019 focused solely on the Fighters Pass DLC, with every fighter launching between January 2019 and January 2020. The first release, the bonus fighter Piranha Plant, came on January 30, 2019 (after being teased for "sometime in February") giving fans their first new addition to the roster prior to the release of the main post-launch downloadable content.

April 2019 saw Joker's proper reveal, alongside the launch of the game's Version 3.0 patch. The corresponding Version 3.0 video not only explained Joker's moveset in great detail--including his devastating Neutral Special "Gun"--but it also marked the first Mii Fighter Costumes DLC video revealing new costumes for the Mii Fighters. This first reveal showed off new Persona-themed costumes, as well as Sonic the Hedgehog-themed costumes that transformed your fighters into Tails and Knuckles.

The next fighters didn't surface until the E3 2019 Nintendo Direct, which began with the Hero from Dragon Quest being named Challenger Pack 2 in the Fighters Pass. The Hero reveal trailer showed the heroes from Dragon Quests 3, 4, 8, and 11 all coming together to join the fight. As the Direct continued, Smash fans began to think that would be the only piece of news they'd get, but once again Nintendo would subvert expectations.

Toward the end of the Direct a trailer similar to the King K. Rool reveal began to play, only this time the kingly croc was hanging out with Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong in DK's house. Suddenly a golden puzzle piece bounced across the screen, signaling the opening of what was previously considered a forbidden door: Banjo and Kazooie, owned by Microsoft, were officially named Challenger Pack 3. Once again, the Smash fan base was sent into a frenzy.

Heroes And Birds And Bears, Oh My!

The next major milestone for Smash Bros. came in July, which saw the first-ever airing of "Mr. Sakurai Presents," the Smash Bros. director's tutorial series on SSBU's downloadable fighters. In this first video, Sakurai explained Hero's home franchise Dragon Quest, the character's RNG-fueled moveset, the stage and music coming with them, and Hero's release date of July 30. The second Mii Fighter Costumes reveal also debuted, showing off four Dragon Quest-themed costumes for the Miis.

Banjo and Kazooie fans had to wait a little longer, but the bear and bird duo's time finally came during the September 4, 2019 Nintendo Direct. The Direct not only revealed Banjo would come to SSBU that day, but also that "Mr. Sakurai Presents: Banjo and Kazooie" would air directly after the Direct. Just like with Hero, Sakurai detailed Banjo and Kazooie's history, moveset, stage, and musical selections.

Speaking of music, Banjo and Kazooie's release into Smash marked a notable milestone: Grant Kirkhope, a longtime video game composer and the mind behind the original Banjo-Kazooie soundtrack, became the first and only Western-born composer included on the list of composers for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The gravity of being the only Western representative on a list of gaming's top composers is not lost on Kirkhope, who, when speaking to GameSpot, called it a "definite once in a lifetime" moment. "To be the first western composer to get some music into Smash just seemed crazy to me, not least because all the Japanese composers that usually do the remixes are so good!" Kirkhope continued. "Why did they need me at all?"

Kirkhope also recalls the sequence of events leading up to the Banjo reveal, and how everything sort of fell into place. "The whole series of events leading up to Banjo's inclusion in Smash was like a dream," he said. "From Nintendo first contacting me but not telling me it was Banjo until I signed the NDA, to them saying they wanted me to do a remix of any tune I liked, to then finding out after I'd picked Spiral Mountain that they'd picked it as the stage, to finally them saying that they liked my remix so much that they were going to use it in the announce trailer...I just couldn't believe it."

Terry Bogard brought his brand of fatal fury to Smash Bros in November 2019.
Terry Bogard brought his brand of fatal fury to Smash Bros in November 2019.

All Expectations Shattered

That wasn't all for Smash fans either, as along with confirmation that more DLC was coming after the first Fighters Pass, the September 2019 presentation would galvanize two more fanbases by the end of the day. The biggest surprise came during the Mii Fighters Costume #3 trailer, which revealed Undertale's Sans as a downloadable costume bundled with a brand new version of his iconic battle music "Megalovania." Seeing Undertale included among the other Smash Bros. franchises in any capacity was enough to send fans into hysterics once again.

The other big news came earlier, during the Direct itself, as Terry Bogard from SNK's Fatal Fury was unveiled as Challenger Pack 4. Terry's reveal trailer made many references to The King of Fighters, and it delighted the team at SNK once it aired. As KOF producer Yasayuki Oda told GameSpot, the team felt the trailer was "simply wonderful" and that Oda-san himself thought "Terry's time has finally come."

"No one except me and the supervising team had seen the production process, so everyone was very surprised," Oda-san continued. "Seeing Mr. Sakurai's preferences and attention to detail for all the characters was just amazing."

Terry would receive the "Mr. Sakurai Presents" treatment two months later in November 2019, which also served as a history lesson on SNK fighting games from Fatal Fury to The King of Fighters and more. Sakurai even introduced each of the 20 background fighters in Terry's KOF Stadium stage, while mentioning one that had been noticeably left out. In fact, when we asked Oda-san how he felt about Terry being included in the all-star Smash cast, he referenced that exclusion by answering "Great, but we can't stop thinking 'where is Mai?'"

Unfortunately she also did not appear in the Mii Fighter Costumes #4 trailer, which did include three SNK costumes--Iori, Ryo Sakazaki, and Nakoruru--along with Akira and Jacky from Sega's Virtua Fighter franchise.

The Byleth reveal in January 2020 was a controversial one, as Smash fans had hoped for a bigger name.
The Byleth reveal in January 2020 was a controversial one, as Smash fans had hoped for a bigger name.

First-Party Fighters

By the beginning of 2020, SSBU's future was looking a bit more uncertain. The final character of Fighters Pass 1 was yet to be unveiled, but what then? More DLC fighters had been announced, but Nintendo had not confirmed how many were coming or how long it would take to get them out. That all changed when official Nintendo channels announced a "Mr. Sakurai Presents: ???" presentation for January 16, 2020, which would pull back the curtain on the game's future plans.

First was the final Fighters Pass 1 character, revealed to be Byleth from Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Considering the new "???" approach to the reveal, fans' expectations were much higher and the reaction was not quite as boisterous as previous reveals. The "Mr. Sakurai Presents: Byleth" presentation did deliver some good news though, notably with another Mii Costume/music track combo in Cuphead and "Floral Fury" during the Mii Fighter Costumes #5 video.

The Smash fanbase got the information they really wanted at the end of the presentation: Fighters Pass Volume 2 was coming with six new fighters, and all six were promised by the end of 2021. No other information was given on the six packs, but now Smash fans knew what to expect...until the pandemic threw a wrench into the plans.

The first hint at Challenger Pack 6--the first of Fighters Pass Volume 2--came during a Nintendo Direct Mini on March 26, 2020. While no specific characters were named, the Direct Mini did indicate the next fighter would be another first-party Nintendo character, this time from the 2017 title Arms. We wouldn't find out that fighter's identity until June 22, 2020, when the next Mr. Sakurai Presents revealed that the new character was ramen-cook-turned-Arms-fighter Min Min.

The Min Min reveal trailer purposefully showed every other character from Arms before unveiling Min Min herself, keeping viewers guessing until the last minute. Sakurai then went through his usual presentation, showing off Min Min's unique moveset, detailing her stage, and revealing which music from Arms would be included. A new Mii Fighter Costumes trailer also debuted as usual, this one including the the first of three Bethesda collaborations in Fallout's Vault Boy.

After Min Min released on June 29, the newswire once again went quiet...until Super Smash Bros. broke social media.

The visual that singlehandedly broke Twitter.
The visual that singlehandedly broke Twitter.

Building New Excitement

The next fighter from Fighters Pass Vol. 2 would not be mentioned by Nintendo until September 30, 2020, when a video presentation was announced for the next day, October 1. Not a single hint or clue was given in the announcement, just a tweet announcing a video followed by a statement by Sakurai himself. This wasn't a Mr. Sakurai Presents video, just an announcement of the character, and speculation ran wild. Many wondered who could be so special that they warranted a video presentation announced out of the blue. By 10:01 AM EST on that October 1st morning, we had our answer.

The trailer opened with known fighters duking it out and Mario getting launched off the stage. Instead of being KO'd Mario plunges into darkness, surrounded by spooky looking eyes. As he turns back to the wall a slight commotion is heard, and suddenly a familiar silhouette breaks a hole in the wall. The forbidden door opened by Banjo and Kazooie at E3 2019 had now been blown off its hinges; Steve and Alex from Minecraft were coming to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

A few days after the initial shock announcement--one that crashed Twitter for the better part of an hour--the "Mr. Sakurai Presents: Steve and Alex" presentation aired on October 3, 2020. Sakurai again followed the familiar format of the videos, walking players through the Minecraft team's unique moveset and showing off their ever-changing stage. The next Mii Fighter Costumes trailer also aired, confirming Bomberman and Travis Touchdown Mii costumes would be offered in the next round of DLC.

Minecraft partnering with Super Smash Bros. was a shock for the ages, but just two months later Nintendo would surprise its fans again, this time with a bit more villainy.

Bringing Smash Despair

The 2020 Game Awards were scheduled two months after Steve and Alex's release, and leading up to the ceremony there was no indication that Nintendo would be involved again. However, a mere 10 hours before the Game Awards were set to begin, Nintendo dropped a bombshell: not only would they have something at the event, it would be the next Super Smash Bros. Ultimate challenger!

As the event began and host Geoff Keighley greeted those tuning in, he introduced the first announcement of the show with a peculiar line: "Everyone is here...or at least, I thought everyone was here. It sounds like we're still expecting someone else to arrive." Smash fans wouldn't have to wait long for their next combatant.

The trailer showed some familiar scenes as the known cast--including some DLC additions like Hero and Banjo--were facing off against the World of Light boss Galeem and its Master Hands. As Galeem charged up an attack it suddenly stopped, turned black, and split apart, having been sliced in half. As Galeem fell away a familiar song began to play, and Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII emerged as the fighter in Challenger Pack 8. The reaction didn't break Twitter like Steve had, but the surprise of Cloud's eternal rival following him into Smash Bros. made for a lot of very happy fans.

One person who delighted in seeing the fans' reaction was Tetsuya Nomura, director of the Final Fantasy series. Speaking to GameSpot, he confirmed that he saw the many reaction videos across social media--"I've been watching reaction videos in general for a while now, and not just for games," he said.

"I think Sephiroth was pretty unexpected, so it was fun to see how surprised people were," Nomura explained. "Considering he was the second Final Fantasy VII character to be added to the game, I was somewhat unsure if it was okay for him to take up one of those precious slots in the roster. I was relieved to see that people responded positively to his announcement."

"Mr. Sakurai Presents: Sephiroth" followed one week later, profiling the villain's full moveset, the stage set in the Northern Crater, and nine more songs from Final Fantasy VII--something previously thought as a pipe dream in itself. A new Mii Fighter Costumes trailer also aired, revealing FFVII-themed costumes based on characters Barret, Tifa, and Aerith, along with a Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars' Geno-themed costume, removing a oft-requested character from contention for the three final slots.

Special art by the Tekken team to commemorate Kazuya's debut in Smash Bros.
Special art by the Tekken team to commemorate Kazuya's debut in Smash Bros.

The Final Stretch

2021 would bring the remaining three characters to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and the festivities began with the February 17, 2021 Nintendo Direct. What seemed like a trailer for more Xenoblade Chronicles 2 content quickly swerved to Pyra and Mythra being named the next DLC fighter(s) for Smash Bros., complete with a cheeky reference to how Rex wasn't going to join her. The living sword was fully detailed in "Mr. Sakurai Presents: Pyra and Mythra" on March 4, 2021, digging into the character's ability to switch between the two characters at will. The Mii Fighter Costumes trailer that aired with Pyra and Mythra was a Capcom-themed affair, bringing Monster Hunter costumes as well as one for Arthur from Ghosts 'n Goblins.

News for the next new character went cold again until the E3 2021 Nintendo Direct on June 15. After a brief intro, the screen faded to a jagged cliffside overlooking a lava pit, with a mysterious figure dropping a defeated Ganondorf over the side. The figure was revealed to be Tekken's Kazuya Mishima, who was officially named the penultimate Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character.

The reveal trailer was a delight to the Tekken team at Bandai Namco, as producer Michael Murray explained. "[Tekken creator Katsuhiro] Harada-san, [Tekken 7 game director] Nakatsu-san, and I all thought the trailer was excellent," Murray told Gamespot. "One night when Sakurai-san was in a meeting with us, the idea of throwing various characters off a cliff or into a volcano came up, as the Mishimas are famous for. This is something Sakurai-san himself brought up and we all excitedly talked about the possibilities, but I thought the idea would probably be scrapped for a more conventional one. However, I was quite surprised when Sakurai-san really seemed to be interested in actually making it happen."

"Mr. Sakurai Presents: Kazuya" then aired on June 28, 2021, with Sakurai showing off Kazuya's extensive moveset. Murray was amazed at how well Kazuya's moveset translated to Smash Bros., crediting Sakurai's famous attention to detail, but adding that the Tekken team was "still impressed with how much thought went into eliminating the hurdles to translating Kazuya's gameplay."

"Wavedashing, electric wind god fists, 10-hit combos, and many of Kazuya's most iconic moves--all the things that make the character unique somehow made it into the game," Murray said. "We really felt the respect for the character in the way that he was handled." Murray also revealed that Nakatsu was a bit jealous of the destruction in the Mishima Dojo stage, saying "I could already see [Nakatsu] wanted to one-up [Sakurai] as soon as he got the chance."

The Mii Fighter Costumes trailer accompanying Kazuya, however, did not bring as much joy to some fans as Kazuya did to his creators. The four costumes revealed--Lloyd Irving from Tales of Symphonia, the Dragonborn from The Elder Scrolls, Dante from Devil May Cry, and retro darling Shantae--removed four top fan requests from the pool of potential final characters. That said, there were still plenty of options for that last slot, and the reveal was fast approaching.

A handshake six years in the making.
A handshake six years in the making.

Simple And Clean

When Nintendo announced their annual fall Nintendo Direct for September 23, 2021, fans were convinced the last Smash character would be part of the show. At the 9:08 mark, host Yoshiaki Koizumi addressed those fans with some interesting news: They'd have to wait a little longer. The final Mr. Sakurai Presents was confirmed for October 5, and a post from Nintendo's official Twitter account later confirmed that this would be the final Super Smash Bros. Ultimate presentation. The end of an era was upon the Smash community, and fans were left wondering who was worthy of being the final addition to this historic game.

After two more weeks of speculation, potential leaks, and official invitations to let imaginations run wild, "The Final Mr. Sakurai Presents For Super Smash Bros. Ultimate" had begun. To increase the tension, Sakurai decided to begin with the final Mii Fighter Costumes trailer, which took one more possibility off the table when Doom Slayer's costume was shown. Finally, the wait was over, and the reveal had begun in earnest.

The trailer began with a callback to the March 2018 tease, a fiery symbol appearing in Inkling's eyes. Darkness followed, turning everyone into statues except for Mario, who walked toward a small flickering ember. Mario grabbed the fire, threw it into the air, and after a few seconds a very familiar symbol appeared, followed by a blade in the shape of a key. Sora from Kingdom Hearts--who was later confirmed as the number one choice from the Smash Bros. Ballot in 2015--was finally here.

Once again, reactions to the reveal were full of excitement, and this time the positive reaction had Disney's full attention, as VP of Disney and Pixar Games Luigi Priore also told Gamespot. According to Priore, the company knew that Sora being part of Smash Bros. was something fans had wanted for a long time, and the team was excited to deliver it. "Knowing the passion of Kingdom Hearts fans, we were not surprised [by the reaction], but we were thrilled," Priore said. "It's been incredible watching all the videos and commentary online."

Priore continued: "Part of our new approach to creating games with our partners is to bring our characters to our fans in new ways, and to say yes to things which might have seemed impossible before. This most recent collaboration started from a chance encounter between Mr. Sakurai and a member of our Disney Games team at an awards event, and from there it was quickly apparent that we were both very excited about making this happen."

Priore said that Disney has been working with Nomura and Square Enix on "all aspects of Sora's design" since the beginning of Kingdom Hearts--calling Sora an "incredibly important character" to the Disney team--but did say "we were confident that Mr. Sakurai's team would do a wonderful job bringing the character to life." Priore also called the distinction of being the final Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character as "an honor," while also noting an interesting fact: "Sora was one of the first ever characters to cross over between different Disney worlds, and one of the first crossover characters ever," he said, "so we think it's quite fitting that Sora is the final character to cross over into Smash."

As for Tetsuya Nomura--who is also the director of the Kingdom Hearts series--the reactions were worth the extra plans the teams had to make around the reveal. "With Sora, we were thinking that the news would create buzz, so we prepared some other Kingdom Hearts related announcements to coincide with that day," Nomura said to GameSpot. "We knew that putting out any sort of message ahead of time could draw suspicion, so we were lying low prior to the announcement."

Although Nomura expected Sora's inclusion to garner praise, "the fan reaction exceeded even what I'd imagined, so I was extremely happy." He also says that Sora's handshake with Mario at the end of the trailer "was an element we were insistent about including, so I hope fans noticed and enjoyed it."

When GameSpot asked how it feels to have three of the characters he helped make included in the Smash Bros. roster, the feat was not lost on Nomura. "It's truly an honor that Cloud, Sephiroth, and now Sora--not just one or two of the characters I helped make, but three of them--have been invited into a world that features such an impressive group of characters," he said. "I had been hoping to repay Mario and friends someday, as I've greatly enjoyed so many of their games, so this opportunity has made me so happy."

"In fact, nothing makes me happier than seeing the fans' joy towards the three of them, and I hope that Mr. Iwata would be pleased with their inclusion, too," he concluded.

Requests for comments to Nintendo, Xbox, Reggie Fils-Aime, and Geoff Keighley for this story were politely declined.

Jason Fanelli on Google+

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Jason Fanelli

Jason Fanelli is a games writing vet of 15 years with bylines at The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, MMORPG.com, Game Informer, and more. He also produces and hosts the Cheesesteaks and Controllers podcast for Fox Sports Radio in Philadelphia. Ever see that viral Nintendo 64 Eagles jersey from 2014? That's Jason.

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