It wasn't long ago that Nintendo surprised the world with its funky new game for Nintendo Switch: ARMS. The development team behind Mario Kart presents a completely different multiplayer outing with this colorful fighting game wherein every competitor is graced with extendable arms. It's a delightful concept reflective of Nintendo's signature whimsy, but does it have a leg to stand on?
You'll find a host of familiar fighting game mechanics in ARMS, including shields, grabs, jumps, and dashes, alongside ARMS' signature feature: extendable punches with customizable fists called "ARMS."
There are thirty different ARMS, all of which can be applied to any fighter for an unthinkable variety of match-ups. The Slapamander flicks across the stage like a whip and leaves opponents charred. The Coolerang flies in an outwards arc and returns to the user, freezing those it hits on the way. The Megaton hurtles across the stage, overpowering any fists in its path. And when you've charged your "Rush Gauge," you can unleash these ARMS' super-powered attacks.
Each such punch, you'll learn, is a commitment; it takes time for your ARMS to travel across the stage and back. During this time, your fighter is unable to perform any actions that require both arms, such as grabbing or blocking, and you're left vulnerable to damage.
What seems simple enough so far is surprisingly complex in the 3D fighting space. To land a punch, it matters whether you use your left arm or your right. It matters too whether you send the punch out from the left, right, or center. And it matters, from there, which direction you curve the arm as it flies toward your opponent. Each of these decisions matters deeply.
The result is that it's quite difficult to make your punches and grabs land on your opponent, and that's what makes it interesting: because each punch is a commitment, every miss shoves the door wide open for your opponent to punish your mistake. These windows of opportunity are where I've found the majority of action lies. And while that may turn ARMS into a game of sitting and waiting on your opponent's move, it cleverly encourages aggressive play-styles by slightly filling the rush gauge as a reward for each punch—whether it misses or not. You can also play more aggressively by landing hits on your opponents' ARMS, causing them to break over time, rather than landing direct damage.
If it sounds complicated, it is, and there are still more mechanics than I've described. It's an extraordinary number of variables to any given fight, and thus a steep learning curve for anyone seeking to master the game. It feels phenomenal and rewarding to be in control of a match, and yet utterly disempowering to get beat on with no idea for recourse.
Such frustration is often caused by the game's control schemes, none of which I've found particularly compelling.
ARMS is primarily designed for motion controls, of which the implementation is quite sound. You hold one of Nintendo Switch's Joy-Con controllers in each hand and control the vast majority of your fighter's actions by mimicking the gesture in real life.
When it works, it's wonderfully immersive; many players from the game's free "testpunch" already swear by it. Glorious though those moments may be, I've found them few and far between. The majority of my time with motions controls has been plagued by one issue after another: it may punch when I grab, or guard when I move, or act when I do nothing at all. Numerous times the Joy-Cons have succumbed to a delay where my inputs will idle for as long as ten seconds before the game catches up on everything it missed all at once. The worst of these issues are likely a result of my play environment more so than ARMS itself, but it is the first time I've had significant technical issues with Nintendo's Joy-Cons.
Button controls are a worthy alternative, though not without their own sacrifices. Motion controls allow players to widen the coverage of a grab by twisting their arms outward, whereas button controls offer no solution. Button controls also use the left joystick to control both a player's movement and the curvature of their arms, linking these two separate mechanics into one.
Guarding is particularly unpleasant with button controls—it's done with a click of the left joystick and leads to cramps during long play sessions—which begs the question why ARMS doesn't offer customizable controls. It's a standard feature in many fighting games that ARMS, to its own detriment, completely ignores.
ARMS features ten playable characters with special abilities that afford each one a unique approach to the fight. Ribbon Girl can jump multiple times to dance around opponents in midair, while the heavy Master Mummy can slowly restore health using his shield. The stealthy Ninjara can warp short distances around the stage, while Twintelle can hover in the air and slow her opponents' punches. They've squeezed as much variety as possible from a relatively small number of characters, and when you start mixing and matching these abilities with the game's many ARMS, you could spend hours mastering any given setup.
Unfortunately the characters themselves fall far short of the potential established by their vibrant, playful designs and brilliantly-animated personalities. This is more true for some than others (the delightful and bizarre green glob of goo, Helix, stands out). Their appeal is often compared to games like Overwatch, but perhaps generously so.
Whereas a game like Overwatch uses voice lines to expand on a character's individuality, ARMS takes a lesser approach by vocalizing simple phrases loosely associated with a character's design. Upon victory you may hear Spring Man shout, "Woohoo spring!" or Ribbon Girl say, "Ribbon ribbon." Twintelle often quips "Two to tango," half a sentence made even stranger after a three-player match. They're lazily conceived and poorly delivered, and it sticks out terribly in 2017. It's a shame, as this is an area where a little work would have gone a long way.
ARMS features a handful of game modes you can play alone or with a number of friends. Beyond the standard battle mode, you can play free-for-alls and team battles with up to four players. It also features its own spin on volleyball, basketball, and a shooting gallery as a fun way to hone skills with friends.
After a match you can find ARMS' fun replay feature and re-watch the match exactly as it unfolded. Nintendo makes it easy on players to skip to a given round of the match and fast-forward to find all the best moments, and it offers a variety of camera angles great for spectating. It's a good way to analyze games for self-improvement or simply watch for the fun of it. It's so tempting to find pivotal moments of a match to watch in slow motion, but unfortunately the slo-mo feature is extremely choppy and just unpleasant to watch. The biggest caveat, however, is that there's no way to save replays for later.
If you find yourself alone (or just have no friends), you can play these modes against CPUs or head to a lobby where you can play a mixup of these games with players around the world. Connecting is seamless, and a bustling lobby will waste no time moving you from one match into the next. Its ranked battle system is just as smooth, even letting players enjoy offline game modes while passively searching for a battle partner.
The main single-player mode is the Grand Prix, which is a simple ten-match tour through the game's roster, sprinkled with two minigames for a change of pace. Its seven difficulty settings can get immensely challenging, making it an excellent way to familiarize yourself with any character's play style. At any time you can save your progress and quit, returning to the Grand Prix where you left off.
You and a friend can also approach the Grand Prix as a doubles tournament, though the setup is less than ideal. In any of ARMS' two-on-two matches, both characters are tethered to each other by rope, which prevents you from moving beyond a short distance apart and makes you fall victim to any grabs successfully executed on your teammate. Be it in the Grand Prix, local battles, or online lobbies, I find this setup far less fun than it is frustrating.
The Verdict: Just Barely Packs the Punch
ARMS is quite good—but it's not quite great. It introduces Nintendo fans to a lineup of new characters, stages, and game modes that turn its inventive gameplay into a full-fledged experience worthy of Nintendo's name. Despite a slew of issues and missed opportunities with its features, there's an incredible new game at ARMS' core. But the rich layers of strategic complexity and their steep learning curve are too sadly compromised by its unreliable control schemes.
With a few patches on top of the additional content Nintendo has already promised, ARMS will shine bright as a multiplayer icon on Nintendo Switch, and a strong start to what I hope becomes a running series.
ARMS was reviewed with a free download code provided to Gamnesia by Nintendo.