Nintendo’s Next Hit?
The 3D fighting game ARMS marks Nintendo’s first new major property since the team-based third-person shooter Splatoon. Both games serve as examples of genres that the Big N hasn’t dabbled with much until now. In ARMS’ case, Nintendo has given nearly a dozen colorful fighters stretchy arms. Though this sounds like a gimmicky callback to old “Stretch Armstrong” toys, a large slice of strategy and a helping of the company’s trademark charm go a long way in breathing vigor into this novel arena fighter.
Here is the Video Version for your viewing pleasure!
As in most fighting games, the most basic fight structure pits you against another pugilist in a 3D arena. A jab of either fist sends your respective stretchy arm flying towards your opponent. You can fight using one arm at a time or fire a quick one-two punch. Stretching both arms at the same time grabs your foe and throws them across the ring. Either of you can guard, blocking any potential damage. However, a grab completely bypasses a guard. Conversely, a well-timed punch can knock away your opponent’s grab attempt, creating a weapon triangle of sorts. Winning matches requires a careful balance of responding to the other fighter’s attacks while making powerful advances of your own when the time is right. In this way, ARMS plays out less like the furious frenzy of Wii Boxing and more like the careful reflex-based Punch-Out!!
The intended way to play ARMS is by holding the Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Con controllers in a thumbs-up grip, in which your thumbs hover over the shoulder triggers and the buttons face each other. For the most part, controls are responsive and provide a more immersive experience, allowing you to move around the entire arena by tilting the controllers in your desired direction. Dashing and jumping are mapped to the L and R shoulder buttons, which works perfectly with the thumbs-up grip.
Don’t be deceived by the motion controls; other than special rush attacks, in which you unleash a flurry of fists after filling your “rush gauge,” the game feels nothing like the wagglefests of the good old Wii days. Strategic fighting aside, the motion controls of the Joy-Con are more sophisticated, allowing you to curve your in-game arms as they stretch out. It’s very hard to perfect curving arms, though, as the gyroscope is very sensitive. The learning curve is indeed steep and practice is required, but the potential of what you can achieve with the motion is so high, it’s no surprise that Nintendo recommends it.
For those who are tired of motion controls, Nintendo has included other ways to play. The Switch Pro Controller and Joy-Con Grip provide the most traditional controls, mapping each action to a button. In particular, controlling each arm with its respective shoulder trigger feels natural. I’m less fond of how you have to push the left control stick down to guard; it’s not at all comfortable and hard to reliably activate. I wish there was a way to configure controls, if only for that unintuitive design decision. My guess is that the developers wanted to standardize all traditional controls; and since you can play with a single Joy-Con on its side, sporting far less buttons, we’re left with an unfortunate control scheme for guarding. As much as I prefer using a regular controller, you can only curve one arm at a time with that scheme, putting trained motion users at an advantage – seemingly another result of standardizing controls for single Joy-Con use.
Moving away from technical talk, ARMS is oozing with Nintendo charm. Each of the ten colorful characters have lots of personality and provide a lot of variety. The game’s poster boy, Spring Man, sports a toothpaste-like hairdo and supercharges his punches at low health. Meanwhile, the pop star Ribbon Girl can jump multiple times and dive dash down at her foes. I haven’t been so impressed with a franchise’s starting roster for a fighting game since Super Smash Bros. The characters’ designs speak louder than words, and each player is bound to find one they like, whether the heavy auto-healing Master Mummy, the gelatinous blob Helix, or my personal favorite, the ramen girl Min Min. The fighters are pretty well-balanced and you can theoretically master the game with any character. Although some have inherent advantages, such as Ninjara’s dash teleporting and Twintelle’s ability to slow down punches and float, the metagame is very early and the sky’s the limit for character potential.
The different characters would have been enough for me, but each can equip up to a couple dozen different Weapon Arms – for instance, boxing gloves, triple missiles, and even dragon laser beams. Each one has a base power, weight, and element, such as fire or electricity. By charging your Arms through guarding or holding jump/dash buttons, you can unleash a superpowered attack that can burn, freeze, or stun your opponent. As a result, there are many permutations you can achieve for your customized partner. Want a heavy electric shock for your light character? Done. A wind based whip instead of a fiery one? Easy. The only downside is that you must earn Arms for each character through a break-the-targets minigame that only gives you the chance to earn random Arms. The price to play is steep, costing in-game coins that take long to grind.
The arenas are well-designed, each hosting simple stage hazards related to their host character, such as bouncing platforms surrounding Spring Man’s stage and parked cars littered all over Twintelle’s movie theater lot. A few duds make the game unfairly advantageous for at least one player – such as Kid Cobra’s skate park, which features skateboard platforms offering speed and height to a character, and Ninjara’s staircase arena which randomly gives one player the higher ground.
ARMS comes with quite a few modes, but it has a clear multiplayer bias, which is typical of fighting games. The sole single-player attraction, Grand Prix, is a simple arcade mode that pits you against every other fighter one by one. There isn’t any real story and the lore is mostly relegated to short monologues by the tournament announcer, making the experience feel empty. It should be noted that you must complete difficulty level four (out of seven) to unlock Ranked online mode. It’s a great idea to gate off ranked mode, as the computer opponents in Grand Prix put up a very tough challenge, even in level four!
Ranked online is just as it sounds, letting you face other pros to rise the ranks. Aside from that, there is also local Versus and an online Party mode. Versus has multiple modes: the traditional fight; a 2v2 variant that tethers teammates together, so if one character goes flying, the other follows; and 3- and 4-player free-for-alls. While the battle royales can be fun, they tend to be unfair; some players might just hang back and watch everyone else whittle their health, and others may gang up on a single character. Essentially, it’s hard to keep track of everyone in those matches.
There are also some minigames. V-Ball is a fun take on volleyball, and is surprisingly compatible with the stretchy arms. On the other hand, Hoops is a watered-down version of basketball, in which grabbing your opponent is sufficient for slam dunks. Meanwhile, Skillshot is an effective training mode for target practice, and 1-on-100 tests your mettle against multiple enemies at once.
Party mode, despite its casual-sounding name, is the primary area for online play. You are placed in a lobby and randomly assigned matches with others in the room. They’re usually fights, but you may occasionally play other minigames like V-Ball or participate in a group effort against a single enemy fighter. It’s fun to see others in the lobby and form rivalries with them, sometimes facing them in battle then suddenly teaming up with them in a team match. You can also make friend lobbies with custom rules like prohibiting certain stages or removing random bomb-items. My online experience has been mostly smooth, with only a few occasional hiccups and dropouts, depending on Wi-Fi signal strength. It’s not a surprise, considering the similar online infrastructure to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
The game manages to run consistently smoothly at 60 fps, only dropping in 3- and 4-player splitscreen matches. The wonderfully designed characters and stages stand out both in docked and handheld mode and are a delight to the eyes. Finally, the main theme of ARMS is one of the catchiest songs in recent game memory. Each song is a variant of the theme, and yet it somehow never gets old.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t onboard the ARMS hype train until Nintendo held its Global Testpunch demos. It’s a shame that there is no longer such a demo, since this is a game where you have to try it to understand it. The motion controls may not sound appealing at first, but they provide an effective experience that deviates from the Wii’s typical offerings. As fun as this game is, it’s not for everyone. Either control scheme has its pros and cons. And like any fighting game, replayability is reliant on how deep you get into the mechanics. With its content-light single-player, you’ll be dependent on multiplayer to enjoy the game. If you’re a hardcore fan of Street Fighter, Pokkén Tournament, and the like, don’t pass this up. You’ll be surprised by ARMS’ stretchy potential.