Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes.
Format: Nintendo Switch
Released: June 16, 2017
I seriously hate this game. Not because I think it’s a bad game, mind you. In fact, I was actually quite surprised by Nintendo’s latest foray into the competitive multiplayer scene. For a game I originally wrote off as “Rock-Em, Sock-Em Robots meets Splatoon”, ARMS is an incredibly fun experience bursting with colour, personality, and a fist-pumping soundtrack. But it’s also an experience that I find myself hating after every session I have with it. It would take barely an hour of playtime before the game’s default motion controls would leave me worn out and sore, reminding me I’m ever closer to becoming fat and old.
But in all seriousness, I absolutely love the game’s deceptively shallow fighting system. At first glance, ARMS is a rather simplistic 3D fighter, almost to the point of looking like a beefed up version of Wii Sports Boxing made for the Switch. You can use your stretchable arms to punch, as well as grab and throw your opponent for extra damage. You’ll also have to dash, jump and block to avoid your enemy’s blows as you wait for your “Rush” meter to build up so you can unleash a powerful barrage of punches. All of which can be executed easily whether you’re playing with a pro controller, or the game’s shockingly accurate and intuitive motion controls.
However, it was after my first few matches that I realised that wildly throwing punches isn’t the key to victory. Instead, fighting in ARMS has more of a “rock, paper, scissors” element to it, in which every action you can perform has an equally effective counter. Blocking will reduce the damage of punches, but leave you wide open to grabs, which in turn can be negated by well-aimed punches. As a result, matches become tense, yet thrilling brawls as you and your opponent try to strategically outwit one another.
And that’s not even taking into account the game’s surprisingly deep customisation mechanics that involve mixing and matching both the ten playable characters and the weapons, or “Arms”, they can use. Each character comes with their own unique abilities that determine their playstyle, which will need to be learned in order to figure out which one is right for you. Some have abilities that make them agile fighters, such as the noodle armed MinMin, who can deflect punches when dashing in the air. While others have abilities that make them dangerous brawlers, like the undead bruiser, Master Mummy, who can not only take a barrage of punches without flinching, but is also able to heal himself while blocking.
But if you want to get the most out your character’s attacks, you’ll also need to equip them with the right Arms, which all come with their own attack types, weights, and elemental attributes. Some will throw simple punches, while others will act like laser cannons or guns that fire out projectiles for extra reach. Some are quick and light, while others are slow but deal out heavy blows. And if you block for long enough, you can even “charge” them in order to deal out elemental effects, such as paralysing electrical shocks, or Blooper-like ink splashes that cover your opponent’s screen for a short period of time.
Unfortunately, while you have access to all thirty of the game’s Arms from the start, they’ll all be locked to a certain character in sets of three. The only way to unlock the other Arms for each character is by collecting “Prize Money”, which is slowly drip-fed to you as you play the game’s various modes. Once you’ve earned enough Prize Money, you can cash it in for a specific amount of time in a shooting gallery that will reward you with Arms depending on your performance. And while I certainly think this is an interesting system that rewards lengthy play sessions, it does make task of finding the right Arms for your favourite character feel unnecessarily padded. Especially when you consider that the Arms you’re given, as well as the characters who they will unlock for, are completely randomised.
Thankfully, ARMS has a variety of game modes to choose from to make the grind for Prize Money a little easier to cope with. On the offline side of things, you have the ten-round Grand Prix campaign, which showcases every character and arena in the game. It serves as a fantastic starting point for beginners, but also a great place for expert players to hone their skills thanks to the mode’s scaling difficulty that ranges between “fairly easy” and “how is this humanly possible to beat!?”. For sillier diversions outside of the intense one-on-one matches, there’s also V-Ball, Hoops, and Skill Shot: sports minigames that see you and your opponent, be they AI or friend via local multiplayer, trying to rack up the most points before time expires.
But the mode that I think really shows off the best of what ARMS has to offer has to be the online Party Match. Here, groups of up to twenty players are placed into an amoeboidesque lobby area which constantly sorts and shuffles everyone into different match types. And since the lobby compensates for odd-numbered groups of people by placing them in three-person free-for-all battles, I always found the wait time between matches to be delightfully short. One moment I was playing a two-on-two match of V-ball, then barely twenty seconds later, I was dropped into a three-on-one boss battle against a high-difficulty AI opponent.
Even more impressive is how this mode makes an effort to keep the lobby balanced for players of varying skill levels. Players who win too many matches in a row will find themselves handicapped in the next round, starting a match with only 75% health, which will then continue to decrease with every round they win. But to ensure that the player doesn’t feel like they’re being punished for doing well, the game will also offer bigger prize money bonuses if they manage to pull off a win, balancing the greater challenge with an equal reward. Meanwhile, players who lose too many matches will start their next fight with a full Rush gauge to give them an extra fighting chance without making them feel like they’ve been given an embarrassing “golden Tanuki suit” because the game feels bad for them.
Unfortunately, as much as I praise ARMS, I don’t think it’s anywhere close to a perfect game. First of all, there’s not very much in the way of launch content. Beyond unlocking Arms, there wasn’t really anything that gave me that rather necessary sense of “one more match” bingeing. ARMS is certainly fun enough to keep coming back to, but when the current rewards for playing is just unlocking the ability to equip MinMin’s Arms on Ribbon Girl, my usual playtime would usually only last for about an hour apiece. But perhaps this opinion will change when Nintendo starts implementing its planned free content updates.
And while I totally admit that this is going to sound rather nit-picky, I really wish that ARMS had some kind of story beyond the vague and brief character descriptions you see in Grand Prix mode. At the very least, I would have enjoyed something to give backstory to the game’s characters, or an in-game explanation as to why this is a world in which some people are given the ability to use strange, extendable arms, while others aren’t. Obviously, I’m not expecting some epic storyline in a game about beating up people with springy arms, but even Splatoon was able to chuck in a bit of flavour text about how its world worked via hidden collectables.
Despite these problems, however, I still think ARMS is another charming new IP from Nintendo that serves as a wonderful addition to the Switch’s early days with even more content to come. With a colourful presentation and simple fighting mechanics with a startling amount of depth, ARMS is definitely worth a look at for Switch owners. But only time will tell if the game’s eventual content updates will give it the same staying power that Splatoon had.
A fun and quirky fighter that will benefit from upcoming content.
Writer: Tristan Venables
Editor: Joseph Diskett