One criticism that has been levelled at Nintendo over the years is their over reliance on the tent-pole franchises. Mario and Zelda come around every generation but there’s been plenty of voices who have called for more new IP from the big N.
Lately, with the younger generation of developers progressing through the company, we’ve thankfully been seeing just that. They gave us their take on the online multiplayer shooter in the form of Splatoon in 2015, and saw the shiny new franchise garner a tonne of praise from critics and fans alike. Nintendo will be hoping to replicate that success with the latest new entry to their stable; Arms.
Arms tackles the fighting game genre with the same irreverence and out-of-the-box thinking that Splatoon did with shooters. Superficially Wii-boxing on acid, it sees ten fighters (with the promise of more to come in free DLC) equipped with stretchable arms and a variety of different gloves (the titular Arms) with a range of attributes. Throwing punches using motion controls is as intuitive as it was on the Wii, but nowhere near as simplistic. Players can curve their punches by tilting the JoyCon as they punch, or initiate a grab by throwing out both hands simultaneously. Tilting the JoyCons in tandem moves your fighter in the corresponding direction whilst tilting them inwards towards each other allows you to block. The L and R buttons also allow you to dash and jump respectively.
Using motion is intuitive and responsive enough, but serious players will likely opt for a more traditional set-up in the form of the grip or Pro controller. Doing so allows for more defined and reflexive movement, something which is absolutely key to success in Arms. Punches are thrown with the A and B buttons (or ZL and ZR triggers), with grabs activated by pressing them both together. Jumping is done with the X button and dashes with Y. Blocking is accomplished by pressing in the left stick, but this feels a little awkward and inaccessible in the heat of a match. Unfortunately there’s no custom button mapping. Assigning block to one of the triggers, rather than having them doubling up as punch buttons, would’ve made quick blocks and counters much easier.
Minor quibbles with the button layouts aside, matches in Arms are endlessly entertaining. Much of this is down to the sheer variety in the character designs and the Arms available to them. Each of the elastically-appendaged participants have unique attributes and characteristics, as well as certain moves or abilities that are unique to them. Ribbon Girl can jump multiple times for example (something that’s incredibly frustrating when you forget about it, fire off a grab at where you think she’s going to land, and leave yourself wide open to attack), whereas the noodle-armed Min Min can repel attacks with a well-timed mid-air dash, and Master Mummy recovers health when he blocks. Experimentation with every character and familiarising yourself with their particular attributes is essential to success here.
Each of these fighters also has access to three distinct Arms to begin with, all of which have their own idiosyncrasies. Some will plough through opposing punches by virtue of their size, others will allow for an even more radical curve on a punch. By charging up these varying Arms players can also activate elemental damage. Fiery punches will deal extra pain, ice punches will severely limit your opponent’s movement, and electrically charged ones will incapacitate them completely, leaving them open to a grab attack or a heavy pummelling.
Whilst each fighter is limited to three of these Arms from the beginning, players can unlock all 30 for each character and take them online. The sheer variety of opponents this represents means that no two fights are alike and in traditional Nintendo fashion, gameplay becomes incredibly addictive.
Fights are a careful dance, avoiding your opponents attacks and anticipating an opening in which to launch your own. It’s not necessarily the fast paced, tit-for-tat contest you’d expect from something like Smash Bros, more a constantly moving, incredibly tense game of chess as you await your chance to strike. Teasing your opponent with a left hook to drive them into your oncoming shock punch requires an almost telepathic like anticipation and reading of your opponent. Staying one or two moves ahead as you jump around the various stages results in some incredibly satisfying victories.
Speaking of the stages, they’re just as varied and interesting as the characters themselves. Whether it be competing for the higher ground on the grand staircase that comprises the Ninja School level, or taking cover behind the DNA labs’ specimen containers to charge your punches, adapting to your surroundings is almost as crucial as adapting to your opponent. Wherever your fights take place though, you’re always treated to a vibrant and unique location.
You can experience all of this by working your way through the single player ‘Grand Prix’ mode. Ten matches which are occasionally punctuated with one of three mini-games: Skillshot, V-Ball, or Hoops. Skillshot sees you try to break more targets than your opponent opposite, though you can rack up extra points by dealing them some damage too. It gets hilariously chaotic when teamed up for a two on two bout. V-Ball is fairly straightforward volley ball, and in truth, this was probably the weakest of the three, if still fun. The stand-out though is Hoops. Basically designed to teach you how to grab, the objective is to slam-dunk your opponent through a basketball hoop for points. It’s as fun as it is ridiculous, and if you can grab your opponent nearer the perimeter, your fighter will launch them towards the net for an incredibly satisfying three-pointer.
Money earned during Grand Prix allows you to play a variation of the skill shot mini-game that unlocks different Arms for use in both single player, and online multiplayer. The latter’s party mode sees up to 20 different players (10 Switches, two players to each Switch) taking part in randomised matches. These can be one on ones, three way bouts, any of the mini games, a co-operative match to take down a six-fisted, nightmarish fever dream of an enemy, or a two on two competition.
This final mode is the only one I didn’t particularly enjoy. Because you’re tethered to your partner, if they get thrown, you get dragged along with them, and it means that there’s four fighters all throwing punches in close proximity. The camera shifting focus whenever it wants doesn’t help either, and in these bouts the finely tuned balances and strategies, that make Arms’ core gameplay so captivating, go out of the window in favour of complete chaos. No doubt a riot playing locally with friends, but online, with the current lack of voice chat, it can be incredibly frustrating.
If you can beat Grand Prix on level 4 then you can also participate in ranked matches. These bouts take the game down to it’s fundamentals, and was my preferred way of playing. Because the core gameplay is so captivating, these one-on-one, best of three bouts are when Arms is at it’s best. It can’t be overstated just how addictive it is when you start learning to read opponents and rack up the wins.
Make no mistake, Arms is no simplistic brawler. The unique take on the genre, combined with the essential need to learn both your opponent’s and your own strengths and weaknesses make for a tough game. Just unlocking ranked bouts is a challenge. However, investing some time to get used to the mechanics of the game, and learning how best to utilise your chosen fighter, yields incredibly satisfying rewards. Think of it in terms of an album by your favourite band that doesn’t necessarily grip you straight away, but after a few listens to familiarise yourself with it, opens up a whole world of awesomeness.
Although it may seem like a feverish version of Wii Boxing on the outside, Arms demonstrates an incredible amount of depth and a surprising amount of variety given the relatively few game modes and characters on offer from day one. There is a pick-up-and-play aspect to the game, but those who are willing to invest a little more time will find victories much more rewarding, and progress much more forthcoming. That signature Nintendo polish has yielded a fantastic new IP for Switch, and with the studio planning on continued support in the form of new characters, stages, and Arms, the game certainly has plenty of legs. Well worth a purchase.