The Arm of War
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
As 2017 rolls on it becomes more and more apparent that something has shifted within Nintendo.
While the big N have always marched to the beat of their own drum, the release of the Switch console has ushered in an era of unbridled experimentation. Breath of the Wild radically changed the Zelda formula, Splatoon 2 looks to be continuing its subversion of shooters, and now with ARMS Nintendo offer up a pure yet wholly original fighting game. It’s charming, fast paced and incredibly easy to play, but whether or not it has franchise potential remains to be seen.
A brief tutorial introduces you to a set of mechanics which appear on the surface to be more casual than deep, harkening back to the Wii Sports era of Nintendo. However, the initial temptation to simply button mash (or swing your arms wildly)
through each fight should be ignored— doing so while playing on a lower difficulty or with other, equally excitable people can work, but does a complete disservice to a surprisingly deep set of mechanics. Once you begin to understand how ARMS should be played, the entire game shifts. Fights become a tactical war of the wills, each punch a carefully chosen strike against intelligent adversaries. It’s a slow burn of progression which will only become noticeable when you start taking ARMS’ caveat seriously.
ARMS requires intensely deliberate play, balancing both offensive and defensive measures. The spring-loaded punches you throw are slow but impactful and can be curved mid-stream, utilising momentum to shift targets last second. Opposing attacks can be deflected out of the air with a well-placed punch of your own, while the grab move sees the use of both arms in an attempt to grapple your opponent and toss them against the ground. There is also a block function, supercharged attacks and the standard variety of quick dodges and jumps. It’s a robust set of moves which relies heavily on your comfortability with the controller and your chosen method of playing the game.
Nintendo, as they are known to do, is almost exclusively promoting the use of motion controls to play ARMS. Holding a Joy-Con in each hand (with a strangely instinctual thumbs up grip), you are able to curve your punches with great fidelity, though the movement of your character becomes more troublesome as moving left to right is delighted to a lean the Joy-Cons with varied levels of success or accuracy. Alternatively, the Pro Controller allows for better handling of jumps and dodges but with less nuanced punches and an awkwardly mapped block (clicking in the left stick is just plain odd for this move). Neither options are entirely intuitive, especially considering the lack of button mapping options, but the Pro Controller provides a more comfortable play experience in the long term.
Experimenting and finding your own rhythm is all part of the fun, and finally finding a pace that suits you brought out in me the same kind of competitive streak usually reserved for Mario Kart. Toward the end of one particularly tense match, I found myself springing off the couch and screaming obscenities as my opponent bested me. It was a damn good time and a state in which I often found myself while playing ARMS.
The usually enthralling flow of combat can occasionally get buried under overloaded arenas.
The balance of a fight is drastically shifted by randomised power ups that appear via zones that heal or boost special moves, as well as explosive balls which can damage or stun fighters. ARMS is at its best when focusing on the purity of its combat, so these variables can feel antithetical to that core, while arena-specific obstacles like glass columns or bouncy walls fit in neatly. Multiplayer matches, meanwhile, can very quickly devolve into chaotic free-for-alls— with eight sets of arms flying around the screen at once it’s easy to lose track of where your punch was meant to land.
ARMS offers up several different play modes, though some are much more compelling than others.
Grand Prix is a campaign of sorts, as your selected fighter goes up against ten opponents before taking on the world champion. These fights, all the way up to the final face-off against the exalted Max Brass, are a thrilling tour of the world of ARMS, with a significant but fair difficulty curve. Core fighting aside, there is a distinct lack of texture to much of the world surrounding the league— and I’m not just talking about the horrific cutout people in the crowd. The exuberant commentator from the game’s trailers is reduced to abstract sounds from a text box, and without extensive character dialogue or cutscenes to fill in the blanks, ARMS starts to wear thin.
Along with standard arcade versus modes, there is a small selection of other match types available, though most of them are forgettable at best. Wacky takes on basketball and volleyball, as well as a competitive shooting gallery and survival mode amount to little more than minigame fodder that does little to inspire multiple replays or any entertainment beyond the very short-term.
Conversely, online play is robust and offers an assortment of difficulty options to appease all kinds of players. Party Match drops you (or you and friend) into a casual lobby through which you can play any of the available modes with other players around the globe. Games are quick to start, and between matches, players are treated to a lovely lobby screen where they can watch miniature versions of each match play out in real time, assuming the servers keep up with the action. In addition to these, ARMS also offers a Ranked Match mode that allows the more competitive set to search for others interested in higher-level play.
Winning a match in any mode rewards you with in-game currency, used to purchase a chance at a new set of arms. Unlocking more arms for fighters is essentially a carnival game in which you pay up front for a shot at random loot crates, each containing one set of arms. These arms are entirely randomised, so even if I take Kid Cobra (one of the playable characters) into the mini game I could wind up only unlocking arms for Ribbon Girl. The range of arms available is impressive; there’s everything from swift-action boomerangs, to giant fists loaded with individual explosives for each finger, and all require finesse to use well. Unfortunately, you only have the option to unlock arms you’ve already seen on other characters, which while fun to experiment with in different combinations, leaves little surprises as the game wears on.
ARMS opts for a show-don’t-tell approach to its narrative and overarching lore, which leaves the majority of the heavy lifting to character design. Fortunately, this works out well as the small but varied roster of fighters available is immensely charming. In a game short on surprises, discovering each of these fighters provides some much-needed variety, with each one adding another layer of goofy fun to the world. Mechanically, the roster leans into established fighting game tropes, featuring well-rounded humanoids, weighty brutes, and so on.
Nintendo has done an exceptionally good job at crafting this strange, welcoming universe, providing some of their best artistic work to date. From the moment the game starts, it’s brimming with a bright, infectious enthusiasm that never ceases over the many modes. Much of this charm and its consistency can be traced to the outstanding soundtrack, with the main theme that shows up throughout the game in seemingly endless remixes. Combined with a playful yet absolute commitment to the bit, ARMS will find a place in the hearts of many.
Just don’t expect much of an explanation as to what in the Hell is going on with their arms.
Nintendo has openly stated that they plan on long-term support for their latest creation; at the time of writing this ARMS has already seen its first major update, bringing with it a new fighter and updates to online competitive play. Committing these resources seems to be a logical bet on Nintendo’s part, as ARMS has the makings of something incredible, with sophisticated gameplay heightened by stylish design and boundless charm. While the price of admission may seem steep for such a lean offering, it is well worth the price and yet another fine addition to the Switch’s increasingly impressive library.
Oh, and good luck getting this out of your head: