It is hard not to empathize with the developers of ARMS. They are helming the start of a brand new franchise for Nintendo, a studio that is often criticized for just resting on its laurels. It’s also a unique fighting game that tries to appeal both to a casual party crowd as well as the hardcore competitive fighting game community. In essence, it is the exact same position Splatoon faced on the Wii U in 2015.
That’s a lot of balls to juggle, some of which the game drops during its performance, but there is still a lot to love about this odd duck of a game.
The entire premise of ARMS is in the title. Each character in the game has extendable arms, which they use to launch long-range punches at each other in pitched battles. And apparently in the game’s world, these battles are so unbelievably entertaining it quickly became the biggest competitive sport in the entire world.
It’s a thin premise for a fighting game, but the shear mileage Nintendo gets out of it is ingenious. Mixing together the look, sound and feel of competitive and performative sports events, think Wrestlemania meets the Super Bowl, with the fact that every fighter has springs, ribbons, belts, ramen noodles, etc. for arms makes for a striking visual palette.
It also helps that the actual striking is very satisfying. I’ve written before about how the motion controls feel great and responsive and that is still the case here. Holding both Joy Cons like dual joysticks straight out of Virtua-On, you block by crossing the controls, hit the shoulder buttons to dash and jump, and thrust out the left or right controller to punch.
It is here that the gameplay absolutely shines with considerable depth. The gimmick is that you can actually guide and hook your punches, turning each match into an acrobatic mind game where timing and placement are key. Do you throw a hook with a follow-up punch or do you hold off so you can counter your opponent’s next punch? Do you go for a throw and leave yourself vulnerable to punishment or do you keep chipping away with small and quick attacks? ARMS also includes special weapon attachments you apply to your left and right hands, each one with their own elemental ability, like the extra damage of fire or the debilitating shock of electricity, and their own special quirk like the hook-centric chakrams. These attachments you can swap out between each round and it helps add a much needed strategic layer to the combat. It even prevents matches from boiling down to who can hit first by some of the attachments being weighted differently. Light weapons move faster but are easily repelled with a follow-up punch while something heavier moves slower but can’t be stopped.
But what is equally amazing about this gameplay is that it doesn’t rely completely on the Joy Con motion controls. There is a completely solid control scheme for every one of the Switch’s control layouts, all of which are quite intuitive. There is a noticeable increase in precision both in punch control and movement speed with the analog set up, but when push comes to shove this game makes it clear it invites both kind of players to have fun.
Stretched and Pulled
If there are some shortcomings with balancing all of this variety, it’s in the various characters themselves. In a fighting game that places a lot of emphasis on reaction and mobility, fighters like Min Min and Twintelle have a distinct and tangible advantage over everyone else in the roster. The former can cancel punches with kicks she performs while dodging, while the other basically gets the ability to slow down incoming attacks before dodging out of the way. Both make it far easy to react and control the battlefield. Compared to the more sedentary abilities of Master Mummy to heal over time while he’s blocking or Helix’s ability to stretch and morph his body into unusual shapes, it creates a noticeable gameplay imbalance for a game that relies so much on movement and placement. Doubly so considering the small roster of ten fighters.
There are also some baffling barriers in the way of unlocking new weapons. Every match you win in ARMS earns you some in-game credits, which are used to in the game’s store. Except instead of it being a simple shop where you can just buy the new attachments, it’s instead locked behind a mini-game. Pay up for some time in a shooting gallery where you launch punches at targets to get a high-score, and occasionally a target containing a new weapon will show up. Hit it and it’s yours. The issue I have with this mini-game is twofold. First, the arcade like structure doesn’t really factor into what kind of weapon you get and just comes off as a bit of harmless fluff turned into a road block. Second, the rate at which you earn credits is incredibly slow. Finishing the game’s single-player Grand Prix mode will net you about enough to hit the target range for just enough time to get one new weapon if you’re lucky. There is some solace in the fact that Nintendo didn’t use this as an opportunity to fill the game with microtransactions, but it’s still a slow drip feed.
This all comes to one crucial misstep: ARMS isn’t exactly brimming with content. The aforementioned Grand Prix mode is a simple arcade offering where you face off in ten matches against the computer and it mostly plays out the same regardless of which fighter you pick.
The online modes fare a bit better but not by much. Entering into online play puts you in a lobby with several other players, and matchmaking happens randomly; with both players and modes. These modes include a simple one-on-one match, two-on-two, three player free-for-all, a volleyball mini-game where players stop a ticking time bomb in a beach ball from hitting the ground, a target smash mode, and a basketball style mode where you have to grab and dunk your opponent.
The problem with these modes is that all of them feel shallow and underwhelming. The best by default is the volleyball mode which takes into account the unusual angles punches can come from, the two-on-two and free for all modes are too chaotic and busy to be any fun, and the worst is the basketball mode since it boils down to “first to get thrown loses.”
There is also very little customization options. You can create a lobby for friends and host local matches with any of your other friends with Switches, but you can’t exactly curate who plays what against whom.
There is a more formal Ranked Match mode for the dedicated, but even that comes with a condition. To unlock it, you have to finish Grand Prix on a certain difficulty.
ARMS tries to do several things at once and only barely manages. There’s a great foundation with the gameplay that makes it great for both casual parties and fighting game junkies looking for something new. But the shallow mini-games and lack of customization options leave a lot to be desired for those looking for some quick fun and the competitive meta can do with some needed balance tweaks. On top of other questionable creative decisions, the final product is a lot like the franchise mascot Spring Man: a gangly yet spry pile of energy that has it where it counts but could use a bit more meat on its bones.