The launch of ARMS is an odd moment. After Nintendo Directs, trailers, two Global testpunches and even an official tournament, the game case sitting on shop shelves felt like just another step in a long process. By the same token, we already know the game being played now won’t be the game people are playing in a year’s time. Nintendo have promised rolling updates with characters, maps, features and tweaks.
All that being said, this is the cartridge people are being asked to spend £50 and it’s worth talking about. At its core, ARMS is a fighting game. It uses the alphabet familiar to players of the genre – a triangle of attack/ block/ grab, light medium and heavy moves, spacing and pacing and facing – but translates it into something very different.
With an over-the-shoulder third person perspective and the eponymous extendable arms, the fights aren’t quite like anything else. At range, they can feel more like a slow-paced shooter, while up close the more traditional fighting mechanics are obvious. When additional fighters are thrown into the mix, it’s difficult not to be reminded of Dark Souls PVP or For Honour.
The game can be played, as was initially shown, like an expansion of Wii Sports’ boxing. The two Joy Con act as surrogates for punching fists, and can be steered like a tank to manoeuvre characters. Alternately, a single Joy Con, two in a grip or a Pro Controller can be used in a more traditional configuration, movement on the analogue stick and attacks mapped to buttons.
While the motion controls do allow for more intuitive control for punches, they are anything but intuitive for traversal. Pad controls are the inverse. Punching with buttons is obviously familiar, but in that moment after a punch movement control is swapped for a brief after-steer. This is an odd feeling initially, and marks ARMS as a more tactical game, where throwing punches without caution is never recommended.
The controls are as slick as Nintendo fans might expect. That said, there are a few niggles. With pad controls, blocking is mapped to pressing in the left stick. This often just doesn't feel as reliable as a trigger or button. On the other side, an option to move with the stick while using motion punches would be welcome. Nothing game-breaking, but something is left to be desired. Hopefully some more control options will be patched in at a later date.
Without complex combos or inputs, players very quickly move onto the interesting parts of fighting games. ARMS is about timing attacks and blocks, reading the other player and positioning oneself. Early on, jumping a lot and overdoing the grab attack can afford cheap wins. As a player learns to follow a hopping opponent and time punches to intercept grab attacks or punish careless landings, other aspects come to the fore. Dodging is essential, as is knowing where both your arms are so as to be able to throw out a defensive punch or pull into a block.
On top of these universal basics, unique abilities and attributes make each character, and all the many combinations of arms they can equip, feel completely different. There is scope for a huge array of playstyles, none of which are invalid, which will hopefully only expand as players’ tease out the game’s secrets.
At the moment it is too early to tell if there is a tier list of characters and attacks, whether either control method is any more effective than the others, or if there’s a right way to play. The depth to these questions’ answers will be the real measure of ARMS’ worth as the weeks and months tick by.
Thankfully, the game provides a healthy environment for such a multiplayer community to develop. The multiplayer option available from the start is a party game- a lobby room randomly assigns players to scraps, with bonus events mixed in to break up the one-on-one scraps. As well as team fights, triple threats and fatal fourways, with all the confusion and pitfalls familiar to wrestling fans, are some more creative gamemodes which act as stealth tutorials.
V-Ball is a volleyball minigame, a throwback to classic games of Tekken Ball, which forces players to master timing punches and juggling combos. Hoops is an even weirder minigame, a basketball shootout where players try to throw eachother throw the net. If throws feel overpowered in the main game, they are literally required here. Finally there’s skillshot, the least fun one long-term but a useful test of punch accuracy.
Sometimes these modes can feel a little too heavy in the mix, simply getting in the way of the meaty fighting action players paid admission for. Thankfully, quite unlike Splatoon, ARMS launches with a pretty fully-featured friend lobby. Rooms can be created and adjusted with a good deal of flexibility, and jumping into a friend’s game is easy.
Of course, all of this is child’s play. Like any fighter, ARMS lives and dies by ranked one-on-one fights. When all their friends have packed it in, and all the singleplayer content has been exhausted, this will be what die-hard fighting game fans keep returning to. Only time will tell if the matchmaking, and the playerbase itself, can maintain a convincing scene. Many fighting games fail in providing good match-ups, and with the Switch being a new console with a more humble install base, this could be a real problem. One-sided matches are never fun, dull for the winner and infuriating for the loser.
Getting to ranked play requires meeting singleplayer criteria, and this is where ARMS is weakest. It makes sense to ascertain a basic skill level, but the challenge presented is quite far removed from actual play against humans.
There’s no complex campaign a la Injustice, but a classic arcade mode grand prix. It mixes things up with a couple of rounds from the party mode minigames, but the bulk of it is one-on-one fighting with a climactic boss battle. There are seven difficulty options. Level one is a breeze, while level four is required to unlock ranked.
The jump in difficulty is exceptional. Accusations of input-reading and artificial difficulty are rife online. It’s worth noting that after bouncing off level four once, playing through levels two and three before returning saw this player’s reactions improve enough that the once-insurmountable challenge became feasible.
Certainly, the highly mechanical opponents are simply an ever-increasing set of reaction times and aggression levels, with no real sophistication to their tactics or style. At the same time, it is entirely possible for human players to react that quickly with practice. Other supposed cheats, with attacks whiffing and opponents switching from punching to blocking too rapidly, feel less objectionable as one familiarises with the invulnerability frames, timings and details of play.
Though there is little in the way of cutscenes or walls of text, the characters and their stories are wonderful. Snippets of dialogue, factoids, animations and environmental details bring them to life wonderfully. A cheesy superhero, singers and film stars, a tragic undead mummy and even robots all have buckets of charm. Despite their shared love of face coverings and extendable arms, the cast are diverse, unique and brilliantly weird.
The look is that classically timeless Nintendo. Bright, colourful and cartoonish but with impressive detail and technicality, this modern HD Nintendo feels like it will never age. From the wool and leather in characters' costumes to clever touches like the fans in the background wearing the merch of their favourite fighters, what initially seems shallow slowly reveals impressive depth. This applies as much to the cast and their world as it does the fighting system and range of modes, unlockables and options.
All of that is without mentioning the sound. As well as the whooshes and thumps of combat, and the snippets of characters, the music is outstanding. With a unique chanting, sports night feel, it brings to mind summer fun, championships, the Rocky films and the introductions of professional wrestlers. Somehow, reworking the same basic tune into each level works much better than that would imply.
As a brightly-coloured new IP tackling a genre Nintendo have traditionally shied away from, comparisons to Splatoon aren’t entirely unfounded. Does it really make sense to group things based on the common thread that they’re unique? If the comparison really does need to be made, I don’t think ARMS’ central concept is as revolutionary, nor is the aesthetic so effective at capturing a scene. It’s a great game, but Splatoon is a lifestyle, instantly standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Nintendo’s pantheon of great characters.
Will ARMS live on in the manner of Splatoon or Mario Kart? Will it captivate audiences and obsess players like Street Fighter? It is, of course, far too early to tell. What can be said is that it makes for a fun weekend and a laugh between friends, which is not a bad place to start at all.