It’s no surprise that everyone sits up to take notice when Nintendo launch a new IP. They are arguably amongst the most masterful games developers of all time, and when they turn their hand to something new its virtually a given that it’ll be packed with bright, characterful visuals, and a playful approach to a genre that belies deep and unexpected gameplay experiences. ARMS is all of those things and more, with Nintendo’s latest foray into fighting games making another compelling argument for the Switch.
On the face of it, ARMS is an arena brawler, which generally tasks you with taking one of the ten available fighters and beating the other nine to a pulp in 1-on-1 combat. That is to take away from what Nintendo EPD have crafted here, and there’s enough unique thought in just the opening moments to give you pause. The fighters are equipped with spring-loaded arms, at the end of which are fitted specialised gloves – three of which can be added to your fighter’s loadout – and you launch your punches across the arena with as much similarity to a third-person shooter as to a fighting game.
It’s best played with motion controls, but don’t throw your arms up in horror – that might only initiate a grab anyway – Nintendo have got this right. The Switch, and ARMS, is from the same house that more or less invented motion control, and though memories of the Wii and dreadful waggle-infused third-party games may still lurk in the sharing consciousness of the gaming world, this doesn’t fall into the same traps.
Taking a Joy-Con in each hand, and holding them upright in the “thumbs up” position, you’ll find a fighting system that is at once intuitive and deep, impressively reliable, and occasionally gently physical. As you punch, so too does your fighter, and if you curve your punches you can bring in exaggerated hooks from a variety of angles with which to catch out your opponent. Reaching out with both hands initiates a grab, while the L and R shoulder buttons cover jumping and dashing, both of which are hugely important.
There’s a lot of similarities to real boxing, with a need to control the space, using your punches to hem your opponent and keep them where you want them. Moving both hands together in a direction moves your fighter around the arena, while it’s important to learn that turning your fists inwards blocks – something which you absolutely can’t forget as you advance through the different difficulty levels.
As with many Nintendo games, it works fantastically well. Admittedly, they take a little getting used to, but motion controls soon became my first choice, which isn’t something I often say! Playing with traditional controllers does also work, all the way down to playing with a single Joy-Con held sideways, and there’s a familiarity to the way it functions. Moving around an arena becomes a much more simplistic task with an analogue stick in charge, but you absolutely lose out when it comes to the actual punching.
You also lose the independent motion control for each fist, as you can only change the angle of one or both with the left analogue stick, which also means you can’t move while doing so. Another quirk with traditional controls is that blocking is achieved by clicking in the left analogue stick, and there’s no way to remap it. During the pre-release Testpunch there were plenty of people who felt as though playing with buttons gave an unfair advantage, but there’s a balance to be found between the two, with the edge going to the motion controls.
While the basic controls carry across the entire roster, each of the fighters also has a unique ability which brings another facet to consider in each encounter. There’s shades of Overwatch in this regard, from Master Mummy’s ability to regain health while blocking – eat your heart out Roadhog – to Min Min’s dash kick that can bat away incoming punches, each of the attractive combatants feel as though they’re individual beings. Between finding which one fits your play style, and then matching that up with the right glove loadout, there’s a lot of time to be spent here.
As you progress through the Grand Prix or any of the other available modes, you gain currency with which you can then be used to take on the glove unlocking minigame. This revolves around punching targets and the occasional unlockable which floats by, which in turn helps to fill up each character’s available glove catalogue, three of which can be assigned to their loadout. There’s a lot of cross-over in terms of glove ability, but trying to get the right one for the right fighter is going to take a lot of doing, and a fair share of luck. Some may find it both overly stingy, and unbearably keen on the grind, but it gives the single player game some tangible reward for your progress, and ensures that you’re well-versed in the game’s systems before you really start experimenting.
It’s not all just about fighting, and both the Grand Prix and the online multiplayer ensure that there are enough moments where you can cleanse your palette in the hope that the action never becomes stale. There’s V-Ball – volleyball to the rest of us – and Hoops, which is like basketball if Lebron James was allowed to put Stephen Curry through the net.
Skillshot sees the return of the shooting gallery-esque targets, though you can also punch and throw your opponent while they’re trying to get the targets from the opposite side. There’s also the 1 v 100 horde-esque mode that’s a lot of fun, in a frantic sort of way, and is likely to be the most popular diversion here. To be fair, none of them are exactly life-changing, but they add frivolity and positivity to a package and a genre that can become bogged down in it’s own seriousness.
It does open up one key question, and that’s who ARMS is aimed at. Is it for fighting game fans, motion control fans, party game fans, Nintendo fans? The answer will probably be all of the above, though only time will tell whether the fighting community is going to pick up a motion controlled game in the same way Super Smash Bros. has been. ARMS emphasises the company’s penchant for character and solidity, and on top of which there’s some serious nuance to the combat.
On the harder difficulties ARMS can be pretty brutal, taking real time, practice and patience to work through. The multiplayer options, both on and offline, offer experiences all the way from hilarious staccato flailing through to hugely tactical affairs where combatants look to take every opportunity to block, counter, or stall their opponents attacks in the hope of creating some small window to sneak a punch in. It feels as though Nintendo have nailed the balance between welcoming everyone, and playing to the most committed and skillful, and it’s a remarkable achievement.
Of course, few things in life are perfect, and ramping up the difficulty as you proceed falls on the side of the excruciating at times, while Ninjara and Ribbon Girl with their increased mobility seem distinctly more effective than their more grounded opponents. The music reuses the same core hook on every stage, which can have you veering between joyous recognition and Switch-destroying hatred.
Perhaps most seriously, while the motion controls are very reliable, they’re not ever going to achieve 100% parity with what you’re wanting to do – a potentially major issue for ever being taken seriously by the fighting game community. The precision of traditional controls would obviously be preferred here, which makes the lack of button mapping a disappointing omission given the genre.
Bringing motion controls back with a bang, ARMS can feel surprisingly retro, yet it also fits in perfectly with Nintendo’s modern twist on gaming and the Switch. ARMS exhibits Nintendo’s flair for game design to its fullest, confidently taking a well-known genre and injecting it with colour and character to craft something that’s inimitably their own.