I’ll be the first to admit, I wasn’t entirely impressed when ARMS made its initial debut back in January. Like many other anxious Nintendo fans, I was expecting for long-dormant IPs to make a triumphant return, and the last thing on my mind was a new franchise, let alone a fighting game. But I have to give credit where credit is due; ‘the big N’ made a bold decision to release ARMS this early into the Switch’s lifecycle, but I have a feeling it will be the right one.
Still, even with Nintendo Directs and Global Testpunches at their disposal, Nintendo has had to fight an uphill battle when it comes to selling ARMS to the public. Fighting games are no stranger to Nintendo’s platforms, but as a new IP, ARMS can’t win over longtime gamers with a roster crammed full of beloved characters spanning the last three decades. On the other hand, more serious players may ignore the game for its apparent simplicity and emphasis on motion controls.
Although it’s billed as a fighting game, ARMS feels like something completely new, mostly because it eschews traditional genre mechanics in favor of something fresh and different. The side-view and 2D stages are replaced by three-dimensional arenas, where players have the freedom to jump, dash, and dodge to their heart’s content.
As the name implies, fights are carried out by using your characters’ comically flexible arms to trade blows with an opponent. Movesets are fairly limited, though; outside of a left and right punch, characters can charge their attacks to deal slightly more damage (as well as inflict harmful status conditions), and grab their opponents in order to slam them to the ground. Blocking and dodging attacks is just as important, and a ‘rush meter’ allows players to unleash a flurry of attacks once it’s filled.
While I take no personal issue with ARMS’ more pared-back approach to fighting mechanics, I’m slightly worried that the game’s skill ceiling is too low to foster competitive play on the level of something like Super Smash Bros. or Pokken Tournament. Because of its limited moveset and lack of a true combo system, the most effective strategy as of now is to play defensively and react to your opponent’s moves as opposed to initiating the first strike. When you consider the rock-paper-scissors’ relationship between punches, grabs and blocking, there’s a good chance that skilled players will be able to rely on waiting until their opponent makes a mistake, then punishing them in return, as opposed to going on the offense.
Of course, there’s also the decisive matter of the game’s controls. Leading up to its release, Nintendo has placed an emphasis on the unique “thumbs-up” control style, which has players holding each Joy-Con upright, not unlike gripping a joystick. Punching works just as you would expect, by simply punching your left and right hand forward (doing both at the same time initiates a grab, and you can also tilt the Joy-Con while punching to curve your attacks). Moving around the battlefield is done by tilting each Joy-Con in the same direction while tilting them towards each other allows you to block. Meanwhile, jumping, dashing and using your special move are all handled by the Joy-Con triggers.
I used the motion controls for my first few hours with the game, although I quickly opted to switch to a more traditional control scheme, which maps jumping and dashing to the A and B face buttons. You can also punch left and right with the X and Y buttons, but I personally felt it was more intuitive to use the left and right triggers in this case. Regardless of the control scheme you choose, you’ll be glad to know that both work well, although the option to recalibrate/re-center the “upright position” on the Joy-Con would have gone a long way. Similarly, there’s no option to remap the controls when using Joy-Con or the Pro Controller, which is an odd design choice, especially for a fighting game.
While there are niggling issues with the game’s core mechanics and control options, ARMS continually impresses with its lovable and imaginative cast of characters. The roster might seem paltry with a meager ten characters, but each fighter has their own identity and personality, not unlike something you’d find in a Saturday morning cartoon. Nintendo also manages to inject some much-needed variety in this regard; not only does each fighter have a unique skill or ability, but you can swap out individual arms on each character, allowing you to mix and match to your heart’s content.
With 30 arms to unlock and choose from, there’s plenty of options to experiment with, as each arm has its own stats (such as damage dealt, status effects, and movement speed). Time will tell when it comes to figuring out which fighters will see more playtime, but early standouts include Twintelle, who can slow down incoming punches, and Ninjara, who can warp around the field with ease.
There’s also a bevy of modes to choose from, outside your standard one-on-one arena fight. The game’s Grand Prix mode is the equivalent of a ladder mode, tasking you (you can bring a friend along as well) with winning ten straight matches to be crowned the ARMS champion. Grand Prix serves as a great tool to learn about the other fighters, and seven different difficulty modes help you gauge your own skill level.
Versus mode has even more options, all of which can be played with anywhere from one to four players:
Fight – Your standard one-on-one mode. Throughout the fight, healing items and bombs will spawn around the arena.
Team Fight – Similar to the standard fight mode, except with teams of two. For added hilarity, friendly fire is turned on.
V-Ball – Nintendo’s take on volleyball, which can be played either one-on-one or two-on-two. Unlike the sport, however, the ball is replaced with an active bomb, which will explode if it takes too long to score a point. Admittedly, it’s a very simple minigame that likely won’t get much playtime, but it’s worth busting out at parties or for new players.
Hoops – ARMS’ version of basketball tasks players with grabbing opponents and shooting (or dunking) them into the net. Much like V-Ball, the novelty wears off quickly, but it’s fun in casual settings.
Skillshot – Standing on opposite sides of a target range, each player is tasked with breaking as many targets as possible in order to rack up the highest score.
1-on-100 – An endurance mode that has you fighting against 100 Helix-like creatures (think Flubber, except as a playable character).
Things get even more interesting when you take the game online (or play via local wireless). Unlike your traditional fighter or shooter, ARMS features a dynamic lobby of sorts, which pools up to 10 systems (for a total of 20 possible players) into a shared lobby. From here, the game begins to match up players into a variety of different matches, ranging from standard 1v1 bouts to chaotic free-for-all battles.
It’s a much more interesting take on online multiplayer compared to other games in the same genre, and Nintendo has packed in a handful of neat interactive touches to the menus that I won’t spoil. There’s even ranked matches for the hardcore player; these are your standard mono-a-mono matches with custom loadouts, but with no healing or other items. As you might expect, winning or losing matches will affect your online ranking, and as a nice touch, you can hop into other modes while you wait for the game to find someone for you to fight.
Regardless of what mode you find yourself playing, you’ll steadily receive in-game currency, which can be spent in the “Get ARMS” mode. Similar to the aforementioned Skillshot mode, you can spend coins to break as many targets as possible within an allotted amount of time (spending more coins grants you more time on the target range). As you break more targets and move onto the next round, new ARMS loadouts will drop onto the stage, which you can punch in order to unlock them. Each new ‘arm piece’ is unlocked for one character only, so it’ll take a good chunk of time for you to unlock all thirty weapons for each of the ten characters. You can also upgrade previously unlocked weapons, should you find yourself with duplicate ‘arm pieces’.
After spending two weeks with ARMS, I’m still slightly skeptical about whether it will be able to maintain long-term appeal. As a fighting game, ARMS demands more than simple button mashing and Joy-Con waggling, but its low skill ceiling isn’t doing it any favors with the hardcore fighting community. But in the here and now, it’s a clear winner, and in many ways, is the kind of game the platform needs in its early stages.
Much like Splatoon, ARMS oozes charm and style, and will undoubtedly win gamers over with its colorful visuals and punchy soundtrack. It might not appeal to one crowd in particular, but it has something for everybody, and that’s perfectly alright with me.
And yes, for those who insist on asking if ARMS has legs? The answer: it sure does.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which was provided to us for review.
ARMS may not appeal to one crowd in particular, but its vibrant visuals, punchy soundtrack and satisfying combat will undoubtedly be a hit with the masses.