Arms Review: The New Nintendo IP Punching Above Its Weight

Arms is a fighting game developed and published by Nintendo. It was released exclusively on the Nintendo Switch in June 2017. MSRB is $60.

Arms is a colorful marriage between a Fighting game and a Boxing game, like Street Fighter II meets Punch-Out!!. I’m not a fan of either genre. I picked up Soul Caliber II on the GameCube back when I was a teenager because I saw Link on the cover, but I quickly put it down. Wii Sports was the most virtual boxing I ever did, which was not very much; in fact, I don’t have much to say about boxing games at all. Fighting games, on the other hand, have layers of strategy that I enjoy dissecting. I like seeing people much better than me compete in tournaments. I don’t exactly have the skill to master of their all of the advanced controls or the frame-perfect timing, but I can eventually acquire some mastery. However, it requires a lot of time and effort for me to become competent enough to truly enjoy a Fighting game. I need a reason to stick around for that long, something to encourage me to put in the work.

It’s not really a surprise, then, that the only Fighting series I’ve enjoyed in the past is Super Smash Bros. – they’re easy to control, and they have Nintendo’s entire cast as the fighting roster. Just knowing that each characters’ moveset is a miniature history lesson is enough to get me to practice. On top of that, Smash has several single player modes with dozens of fighters, stages, and trophies to unlock. I always have something to look forward to. Even if I can’t get much out of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate‘s online multiplayer, there are still plenty of reasons for me to boot the game up anyway. My rubric for a good Fighting game is highly influenced by Smash. How interesting are the characters? How easy is it to learn? What single-player content is there?

In many respects, Arms measures up to that ruler rather well, but in others, it comes up short.

Let’s start with the first question: how interesting are the characters? Being a new IP, all of the fighters are entirely new, and I liked over half of them. The story goes that, in Arms, some individuals began developing long springy arms (hence the name), and naturally people invented a fighting / boxing competition around them. Each character is like a luchador celebrity with a wild outfit and a devoted fanbase surrounding them. If you look closely into the crowd during a match, you can even see dozens of screaming fans donning the same mask that your character wears. The fighters don’t say much, but each is so well designed with distinct animations that you can decipher their personality just by looking at them. And each character is based off of something elastic – whether that’s springs, noodles, or DNA. Yes, you read that right, DNA. Furthermore, the roster is ethnically diverse, a horn that Smash Ultimate can’t toot just yet. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a playable black woman in a Nintendo game before Arms‘ Twintelle. Many people compare Arms‘ cast to Overwatchs, but to me, Overwatch doesn’t have as much thematic cohesion, and no single Overwatch character comes close to Arms‘ Min Min, Kid Cobra, or Dr. Coyle. The art director, Masaaki Ishikawa, deserves a lot of credit for coming up with characters that I quickly fell in love with.

The entire world, in fact, intrigues me. As I play the matches, I can imagine the world at large: the fans on the edge of their seats at home, the stadium stores filled with flags and foam boxing gloves, the kids on the playground pretending to be their favorite fighters. How did these people get these fun (or grotesque, depending on how you see it) appendages to begin with? Some character bios give a bit of their history – Helix was an experiment gone wrong, Mechanica made her own robot suit just because she loved the sport so much – but most of their backstories remain a mystery. It appears that Dr. Coyle is involved in some way, but the lore remains largely vague.

This is where we begin to see Arms‘ shortcomings. They spent so much time building a unique setting populated by quirky personas, but they never wrote any plot to accompany it. I know that most fighting games don’t have story modes, but most fighting games also don’t use a behind-the-shoulder camera or let me swap my characters’ hands around. If they were going to break Fighting game conventions, I wished they had gone all-out and made a story mode that explored some of the world they built. Nintendo could’ve even fixed it with a story-focused DLC campaign, the way they did with Splatoon 2: Octo Expansion, but alas, they never did it.

Let’s move on to my second question for a Fighting game: How easy is it to learn? As a non-competitive gamer, Arms was almost effortless to pick up… although it also required me to approach it differently than other Fighting games. The first alteration are the controls: you need to manage using two arms simultaneously. You can use the Joy-Con’s motion controls with the “Thumbs-Up Grip” punching with one Joy-Con in each hand. It’s surprisingly responsive, and once you get used to it, it’s not a bad way to play. However, I found myself preferring the Pro Controller, where each trigger controls an arm instead. Thankfully Arms gives you options and even lets you remap buttons.

The next big adjustment is the behind-the-shoulder camera and its accompanying game design. With a traditional side-view, the focus is on spacing and combos; with the camera in Arms, the focus shifts to aiming well and committing to the right attack. You have three options during a fight: punch, grab, or block. The three work in a rock, paper, scissors triangle – punch beats grab, grab beats block, block beats punch. You need to counter your opponent quick enough as well as carefully consider what offensive move you will take. It’s a streamlined approach to Fighting games, but it still offers enough for players to feint, bait, and otherwise play mind games with their opponents.

You can also jump and dodge, although those moves are more useful for some characters than for others. Each fighter has their own individual stats and abilities, like Master Mummy healing during a guard, or Min Min countering punches with her jump kicks. They’re all different enough that you’ll want to try each character out and see which one is the right fighting style for you. In addition, you can swap out your arms, which all have their own properties. Some are slow but hit hard, some stun the opponent, and some surprise the enemy from the side. Each character starts out with their own pre-built set, but you can also unlock every single arm in the game to experiment with.

In case you’re struggling with the controls or gameplay concepts, Arms offers several training exercises to help you with each part of learning the game. If you need to work on your grabs, or even avoid your opponent’s grabs, then there’s a training routine for those. The game also offers more advanced tips and tricks unique to each character with video demonstrations. This advise for higher-level play is usually something Nintendo neglects, with YouTubers usually filling in that gap. I appreciate that Arms offers such help right within the game.

That leaves us with the last question: How is the single-player content? This area, unfortunately, is the game’s biggest weak point. Like I said before, there’s no story campaign, but Arms still has several other modes. You can play the single player Grand Prix, which is a gauntlet of several arena fights culminating with a “final boss,” much like Smash’s Classic Mode. Like Smash, there are different difficulty levels which give a perfect learning curve for me. Outside of the traditional matches, you can play Team Fight, where you are tethered to another player and have to take out another team. You have a king-of-the-hill mode called Hedlok Scramble, where you and two other players battle for control of an overpowered 6-arm mask. Finally, you have 1-on-100 Mode, a frantic challenge where you have to take out multiple enemies at once. In addition, there are other various Arcade games to play, including a volleyball mode, a basketball mode where you literally grab and dunk the other player, and a competitive target smash mode. They’re all amusing distractions, but Arms still needs a strong story campaign to feel complete.

As mentioned earlier, you can unlock new arms for each character in a target minigame. While the minigame is fun, I found the actual process of unlocking the arms tedious. Every arm you unlock is random, meaning you have no way of planning out what arm you will get next. You can also unlock badges, character portraits, and concept art, but none of it is quite as fun as unlocking the characters, stages, and trophies in Smash.

However, Arms has one massive advantage over any Smash game: fully-functional online multiplayer. Even though it launched in 2017 and never sold super well, Arms still has a healthy online fanbase. I never struggled finding a match in the evenings after work or on the weekends. Team Fight and Hedlok Scramble were outright addictive modes against actual human players. Even more to my surprise, I never encountered a single performance hiccup — not one frame skip, not one moment of lag. Whoever wrote the netcode for Arms deserves an award, and they need to rewrite the netcode for the rest of Nintendo’s online games.

When you log in, you enter a lobby with several other players. I’ve never seen a lobby system like this before. You can watch other matches in real time as you wait, which brings this live spectator side to the online experience. Once you are paired with other players, you’ll be randomly assigned a game mode. Once you finish, you and the other players will scatter and you will link up with the others in the lobby. It feels like a chill get-together with friends where you all take turns playing with each other. I’m still not very good, so I never won many matches, but I have enough fun that I want to keep playing.

Arms meets some of my Fighting game expectations, misses on others, and offers a smooth online experience that I rarely get from any Switch game. I don’t see myself joining the esports community any time soon, but I do see myself playing this game casually and joining in Nintendo’s online events, like I did with Splatoon 2. Arms offers the perfect opportunity for a sequel to flesh out what the first was missing. I sure hope they do it.

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