Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the latest installment in the series, and the third title (starting with Brawl), to support online play. With the game’s online features, you can play Quickplay, Online Tourney, and Battle Arenas, where you jump into matches with players all over the world. But taking a tour of the game’s online features is not what we’re here for today, unfortunately.
Smash Ultimate is also the host of some notoriously bad online play quality. Issues include delays in input detection, buffering inputs that players don’t input, and even still frames lasting extremely long times with nothing happening.
It’s gotten to the point where even top players are spreading the message that online is extremely subpar, with the hashtag #FixUltimateOnline. But before we get there, we have to talk about how Ultimate, and how the Switch itself, handles online play.
How Online Works With Ultimate And Other Fighters
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate utilizes a form of netcode commonly known as delay-based netcode. It’s one of two netcode types most commonly used in fighting games, the other being rollback-based netcode. Examples of games that use delay-based netcode include Dragon Ball FighterZ and Granblue Fantasy Versus. A couple of examples of rollback netcode include Killer Instinct and Skullgirls 2nd Encore.
The way delay-based netcode works is that after the two players connect, the game dynamically adjusts the input delay based upon the connection quality of the players, on top of the game’s native input delay. Native input delay, as a side note, is the number of frames the game takes to detect an input from a controller (Smash Ultimate has 6 frames of native delay (source: Polygon)).
Delay based netcode adds frames of input delay on top of those six to seven frames. Even in the most optimal conditions, players are playing with 7 frames and up of delay, which can feel very uncomfortable to play (for context, Ultimate runs at 60fps, so that means 1/10 second of delay or higher).
In contrast, a lot of fighting games have lower native delay than that, like Guilty Gear XRD (with 1-2f delay on PC depending on the screen and fixed 4f on PS4). Skullgirls 2nd Encore has 3.5 frames of input delay (Twitter thread here). Mortal Kombat 11 has 4.4 frames of input delay (seen below. image credit: EventHubs):
In Relation to the Nintendo Switch Itself
The Nintendo Switch itself has two very glaring problems in relation to online play. The first of those issues is that there’s no native broadband support. In order to use a wired ethernet cable with your console, you need:
- The system to be docked (cannot be portable or on Switch Lite)
- An ethernet cable
- A USB Ethernet adapter
That’s just ridiculous in its own right, requiring a $15 add-on to a console just to play at the best available connection quality their house/apartment can offer. Even further so, its direct competitors, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, have built-in ethernet ports on the backs of their consoles, with no $15 add-on needed.
Problem number two lies in the fact that, even with an ethernet cable plugged in, the system seems to have a fixed download speed limit. That tidbit of info is weird in its own right, as the system appears to have a 60MB download speed limit.
In contrast, PCs can get significantly higher values than that, some even breaking into the hundreds of megabytes per second. The upload speed is even weaker, as the highest I’ve managed to get through multiple tests, is a weak 28.2MB upload speed.
Again harking back to other hardware, this time, the PS4, the Switch pales in comparison. On wired connections, the PS4 used for testing got closer to 85MB download and 52MB upload (a value almost twice as strong as Switch). That’s pretty problematic.
The Lag’s No Joke
Back to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, beyond the hardware info. All of the factors listed in the above sections can make the game extremely problematic to play online.
It can get so problematic that games that say they’re two and a half minutes of in-game time, can be over five or six minutes in very laggy instances. Lag can be caused by one or more factors.
Laggy gameplay could be as simple as not having a very great connection with your peer, but that’s a surface-level issue. With how the game’s netcode is, and players tending to play on Wi-Fi more than ethernet, laggy matches come more than people think or expect.
Given that a Wi-Fi user can experience potentially fluctuating network connectivity, match quality can and will suffer. This leads to dropped inputs all over the place, costing players stocks (in-game lives), games, and even sets in some scenarios.
The fluctuating connection also affects characters just as much as players. Characters that can play safe and campy can get away with not too much trouble (like Dark Samus, Richter, and Snake, with their arsenal of projectiles).
However, if you play a technical character, chances are, they’re significantly more difficult or outright unplayable in lag (I say as I cry in the corner as a Ken main dropping confirms all over the place like I have a hole in my pocket).
Game synchronization also suffers from players utilizing Wi-Fi rather than ethernet. When the synchronized game is desynced between players, the game will drop inputs and play them later, to compensate. This gap is known as packet loss, and an interesting subset of information about it can be found here.
Input Delay + Lag = Nightmares
Taking all of the information we’ve compiled thus far, it can lead to extremely laggy, extremely delayed actions. For instance, a character like Bayonetta can start a basic combination with her up-tilt into her up special.
Depending on the network connection, there’s a chance that the combo will use more resources than intended, earlier than intended (such as a jump or air dodge). This also applies if players try to input the combo early to factor for lag, so that’s doubly worse.
This issue isn’t mutually exclusive to Bayonetta mains, either. It can happen to any character, and can again result in lost stocks or matches. Three of the characters that have the input delay problem potentially the worst are Ryu, Ken and Terry.
They have command inputs from their home series (like Ryu and Ken’s iconic Shoryuken, and Terry’s Power Geyser). The problem here is that the player has to move the control stick to input the improved versions of these specials.
While it makes them unique, the lag also really screws them. Due to the way the game behaves, Ryu and Ken could get fireballs or a Tatsumaki Senpukyaku when they want Shoryukens and their kill confirm can go out the window for it (same applies if Terry is confirming into Burn Knuckle and he gets a Power Dunk).
Hold On, Balance Plays A Part Too?
There’s another super scary part about the matter involving online play, and this wasn’t mentioned earlier. All the way back in November 2018, a month before Ultimate released, a Nintendo Direct was held (full direct here).
In it, Masahiro Sakurai had mentioned that Elite Smash (a mode that pits the best of the best versus each other in online matches), would play a part in deciding balancing changes.
This could mean that a potentially weak character online (but could be strong offline) could be buffed. This goes the other way too, as a strong online character could be nerfed, making offline games even harder to win with them.
Disqualifications and Community Voices
The general distaste for the online play in Smash Ultimate has built up over time, given how long the game’s been out. Eventually, tournaments started to be held online due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Pound 2020 was held last weekend, and that led to Grayson being double disqualified due to lag and bad connection.
(Here’s a brief summary for those who haven’t read it. A Smash Ultimate player was kicked from their Top 32 placing after performing multiple lag tests, and promptly disqualified. However, since the incident, that player has been offered a fully compensated trip to a tournament of their choice when the coronavirus outbreak ends.)
Recently, tournament level players and community figureheads have been voicing their opinions about online play. General reception on that front has been not that great, actually. However, all the talk about lag from above can be summed up immediately in the twitter link below.
An instance of extreme cases of input delay can be seen below:
— SEBA (@Sin6SEBA) April 29, 2020
Content creators and tournament players alike are both talking about and retweeting the campaign, aptly titled #FixUltimateOnline. Some of the notable tweets are included in a video below (credit: Beefy Smash Doods on YouTube).
The Situation Regarding EVO
(DISCLAIMER: If you are reading this article after May 14th, please be aware that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was removed from the EVO 2020 lineup. If you are reading this after the 14th, feel free to skip this section.)
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is planned to be part of EVO 2020 this year. If you’ve been following along with EVO and its cancelation of the Las Vegas event, you’d find out that EVO is taking the fight online. Given what’s been discussed thus far, that’s not going to be a very great event, and can potentially crash and burn. With how this game is, either extremely stringent rules are required, or some regions will have to be restricted from competing.
Given that I’m pretty sure that the second option won’t be happening, the show’s probably going to go on as normal. And something like Grayson being disqualified due to lag is going to become a massive problem. It can also be ignored and angry players will come as a result.
If there’s anything positive that can come from the potential disaster waiting to happen, it could happen at Nintendo. They could see how bad EVO gets, and that would get them to start fixing online too. Or, you know, they could just keep being Nintendo and just not care.
Ideas to Maybe Fix Online
Now, fixing a game’s latent problems with online play isn’t super easy. Sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint what the actual problems are that make the game work. That said, a few suggestions could be in order, seeing as how most of the 1,300 hours of Smash Ultimate I’ve played have been online.
Change the netcode model, for starters. The current delay-based model is pretty bad overall, and some of the game’s biggest problems (like inputs being buffered all over the place) are centralized there. Switching it to a rollback-based model, with some work, is most certainly possible.
Hell, back in 2015, Mortal Kombat X released with delay-based netcode, and even that switched its model to rollback later. Before that fix, the game’s delay-based netcode was laughably bad, and after the fix, it became a solid fighting game experience online in its own right.
Another possible solution is to reduce the native input delay. Going under the hood to lessen the game’s native input delay could be one big step in the right direction. Street Fighter V: Champion Edition had one such update, where the game’s native input delay was reduced. Before that October 2018 update, the game had the same level of input delay as Smash Ultimate (6 frames).
As such, the team at Capcom optimized the game and now it runs between 4 and 5 frame delay, which is certainly an improvement. The original data can be found here, and an article about the October ’18 update can be found here (credits: @WydD on Twitter and EventHubs).
The Overall Bigger Picture
Overall, the grander scale of things is a strange amount of variables contributing to the bigger picture. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s general gameplay delay is already below average in comparison to other titles, but then comes everything else. Bad netplay quality, additional add-ons for the best available netplay, and limited download speeds are the tip of the iceberg.
There’s also players and professionals alike giving information and feedback about the problem. Even its direct competition in the fighting game genre is outdoing it from an online play standpoint. However, there ARE ways to fix it. And it’s not too late in the game’s life cycle to give the game a big netplay overhaul, because all it will do is good for the game.
However, whether these things will go into full play is purely the decision of Nintendo and Nintendo alone. The #FixUltimateOnline trend is still going strong and seems to not have any signs of completely disappearing. Hopefully, the developers at Nintendo will listen, and things will start to change for the overall better in Ultimate.
What do you think of the whole #FixUltimateOnline situation? Do you think that the game could be updated to be overall better online? What would you suggest to fix the game? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
You’ve seen that we’ve mentioned netcode a lot in this article. If you’re interested in how that works even further, you can read our article about netcode here.