Before I actually got to sit down and play it, I found it rather difficult to get excited about ARMS. Of course it was great to see Nintendo working on a brand new IP with a unique mechanic and sporting a gorgeous art style, but the heavy focus on motion controls and online multiplayer had me rather concerned. Non-traditional control methods immediately feels like a bad idea for a game that seems to be at least partially targeting the competitive scene, and online functionality has never been Nintendo’s strong suit. Now that I’ve had a chance to get to grips with all ARMS has to offer, I’ve managed to assuage some worries as well as acquire some new ones. But let’s start at the beginning.
ARMS is a fighting game first and foremost, but just like Splatoon is a completely unique take on online shooters, ARMS is unlike any fighting game I’ve ever played. It will probably come as no surprise that there’s little-to-no story setup here. It’s just a fact that certain people in the world of ARMS have really stretchy arms and use them to fight each other for fame and fortune. Oh, and some of them use their hair or mechanical suits. The fights themselves take place in small arenas, with the combatants using their extendable arms and customisable fists to do battle.
A quick note on control methods: Nintendo has been pushing motion controls pretty hard for ARMS. Most of the promotional videos have people playing using the joy-con like they’re playing Wii Sports boxing. I did try this out but found that it was far easier to manage movement, grabbing and punching when using the joy-cons docked in the grip, so I switched to that and didn’t look back. The only problem I found is having to click in the left analog stick to block. It’s extremely counter-intuitive and a bizarre design decision, especially when it could feasibly be assigned to one of the shoulder buttons.
The way the fights work is pretty straightforward. When your enemy’s health drops to zero, you win the round, two wins and the match is yours. There are various other modes where this is not the goal, but that’s how it works for most of the Grand Prix and Ranked Online. There’s also a rush meter which you fill up by punching. When this fills up you can press a button to unleash a flurry of rapid punches that deal a hell of a lot of damage. You can also block, which will mitigate but not entirely negate damage. If you take too many hits while blocking your arms will be temporarily disabled, leaving you at the mercy of your opponent. Pressing both left and right punch buttons (or pushing both joy-con forward at the same time) will perform a grab. This is great if it lands, guaranteeing significant damage, but will also leave you vulnerable. You can also dodge and jump, but for most of the characters, these movements are limited which makes relying on them a bad idea. Bottom line when it comes to ARMS: timing is critical. Knowing when to punch, when to block, when to back off and when to push forward is key to victory. Something else to remember: blocking beats punching, grabbing beats blocking, punching beats grabs.
Each character is as aesthetically pleasing as the next. Spring Man and Ribbon Girl are the most ‘vanilla’ offerings, but you can also play as the stealthy Ninjara, who can blink through the air, Master Mummy, whose huge fists knock smaller ones out of the air, the noodle-armed Ramen Renegade herself, Min Min, who can perform an air kick to block punches and even a green blob man with goggles called Helix. Not only did I want to play each and every character because of the way they look, but also because of their subtle differences in combat. They each have three default ARMS with different advantages and pitfalls, and this is where the game shows off its depth. Through fighting both in single-player and online you will accrue coins which you can spend on different ‘timers’ for the Get Arms mini-game. By hitting targets and ARMS boxes when they show up, you will unlock all the different kinds of ARMS for all the different characters. So, for example, you might unlock Ninjara’s Chakram for Ribbon Girl to use. You’re more likely to acquire ARMS for the character you’ve selected for the mini-game, but other than that it’s up to luck.
The closest thing to a ‘story mode’ is the Grand Prix, where you pick a character and difficulty level (1 through 7) and fight ten battles one after the other. The battles involve every other character and various game modes. Thankfully you can save and quit, meaning you don’t have to commit to doing the whole thing in one session. There’s also no lives, so you can get absolutely destroyed by the AI a million times and not get sent back to the start. Something rather important to note: to unlock Ranked Online mode you must complete one play through of Grand Prix on at least level 4 difficulty or higher. Now obviously the game isn’t out yet so it’s hard to see where I measure up, but I found level 4 difficulty to be crushingly hard at times. It’ll be interesting to see when the game releases how many people struggle to even unlock ranked mode, and whether or not this was deliberate on Nintendo’s part. Who knows, maybe I’m just a scrub.
I was disappointed to find the presentation of the Grand Prix mode to be quite simple: there’s no voice acting, cutscenes, stylised intro movies or anything of the sort. The cast of characters feels a little underused in this regard. Obviously it’s a fighting game so it doesn’t need some dramatic narrative, but having each character’s Grand Prix play out almost exactly the same except for a few lines of text kind of kills any desire to play it again.
By joining an online lobby you and selection of players will be automatically mixed and matched together for various battle types, from 1v1v1, to 2v2 (with each team being tethered together) to a volleyball and basketball mode, to target-breaking and of course the classic 1v1. I didn’t have much luck getting into a ranked match pre-release but played a decent amount of online matches during the Test Punches. There were a couple of laggy matches here and there, but for the most part, the netcode seemed fine and I was put into a near-full lobby every time. It seems Nintendo have finally learned some lessons regarding online multiplayer (I’m choosing to ignore voice chat being tied to a smartphone app).
Despite everything it has to offer, I can’t help but feel ARMS arrives a little bare bones. It’s not a simple matter of pointing out a lack of maps or weapons or characters either, as ARMS certainly isn’t lacking in any of those areas. Instead, it’s missing something to give it a bit more staying power for those who aren’t keen on playing competitively over and over. Mario Kart 8 has the wide variety of courses to race on, single-player or otherwise, and Splatoon has an entire single-player-only campaign. This is a problem a lot of fighting games have, if you can only play so much multiplayer before you get sick of it, the game will only hold your attention for so long. Nintendo has promised free post-launch updates with new stages, fighters and ARMS, which will hopefully give the game some legs (look I held out on using that pun for as long possible OK).
Performance is rock solid and in true Nintendo fashion ARMS has an impressive amount of polish. The characters already seem to have huge followings online, with a ridiculous amount of fan-art being made before the game is even out. It’s easy to see why: they’re both easily identifiable and wonderfully original. The music lives up to the precedent set by Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon, being both jolly and delightfully creative.
ARMS is bright, colourful and overflowing with confidence, the characters feel right at home among Nintendo’s finest and the actual gameplay has a depth and nuance to it that rivals any of the games that headline EVO. ARMS is the first Nintendo IP to be born on the Switch and has all the makings of a successful new franchise. Whether or not it’ll hold your interest for more than a couple of weeks will largely depend on how much fun you have while punching, grabbing and dodging, but with free updates promised, ARMS is hopefully here to stay.
ARMS was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch using an eShop download code provided by Nintendo.