ARMS Review: Super, Smash Execution
After the success of Splatoon in 2015, Nintendo is releasing another brand new IP with ARMS. From the creators of Mario Kart, ARMS represents another quintessentially Nintendo take on an established genre, with the developer’s trademark penchant for quirky takes on established genre norms, visual flair, emphasis on extremely strong character designs, accessible and yet shockingly deep gameplay, and trademark polish.
As a fighter, ARMS is a bit hard to explain to people. The closest point of comparison would be Sega’s Virtual On, but even so, there are a fair few differences. ARMS is essentially a 3D arena fighter, one which places emphasis on mobility and arena traversal as much as it does the actual trading of punches. Said trading of punches is presented here with a signature Nintendo twist, as the eponymous arms that the fighters have are essentially extendable, spring like limbs. This is more than just a visual choice, and factors into the actual gameplay, too- players can attempt to get hits in from a distance, and in ARMS‘s best new mechanic, players can curve punches, introducing an all new metagame of feinting the opponent and trying to catch them off guard, as well as the ability to swerve, block, and grab with your punches.
The stages themselves feature dynamic elements, including destructible pieces that players can leverage to their advantage. That, along with the option to have some random items on in casual and unranked modes, can give ARMS the kind of appeal that fellow Nintendo fighter Smash Bros. is known to have. Indeed, in a lot of ways, with its emphasis on mobility and the actual stages, in addition to the characters themselves, ARMS feels a lot like the spirit (if nothing else) of Smash Bros. realized in a 3D space.
“In a lot of ways, with its emphasis on mobility and the actual stages, in addition to the characters themselves, ARMS feels a lot like the spirit (if nothing else) of Smash Bros. realized in a 3D space.”
But for all the talk about ARMS‘s emphasis on stages and movement, ultimately its the characters and their abilities that truly take the centerstage in the game. ARMS comes with 10 fighters at launch, each shockingly different from the other, each well defined in terms of abilities and relative strengths and weaknesses. Within the confines of ARMS, no matter what kind of playstyle you favor, you will find a character suited to it. Slow and heavy characters who hit hard, fast, agile characters who lack the punch, but compensate for it with their ability to get more hits in, characters with special abilities and nuanced high level tech, there is a character for every kind of play style present in ARMS.
Adding even more variability and differentiation to the mix is the fact that the actual ARMS on each of these characters can be swapped out, and mixed and matched. You can have a loadout of up to six different ARMS for a character at a time (though you can switch out your loadout at any time, and you can unlock countless more ARMS for each character), and you can mix and match different ARMS on different, well, arms, in every match. In fact, you are encouraged to not have the same kind of ARM on both arms- each ARM has unique traits and abilities, from weight to elemental type to special effects, which can factor in significantly in gameplay – for instance, a heavy ARM can counter a blow from a lighter one and block all damage, a fire type ARM can set your foe on fire if it connects while charged, and an ARM could literally be an extendable gun that you can use to take aim and fire from a distance. Having two different kinds of ARMS on at a time, then, gives you wider coverage for offence and defence.
It’s a shocking amount of depth, but it never actually feels overwhelming. The game intuitively communicates these ideas to the player, and after just a game or two, you begin to grasp the nuances of movements, curved punches, grabs, and differing ARMS and their impact on fights. Thankfully, there is also an excellent tutorial in the game that walks players through all the mechanics- and really, as tutorials in fighting games go, I’ve probably rarely seen one better than this one. The mechanics and idea of ARMS are instantly communicated to the player, and they should have no trouble picking up on what the game wants them to do at all.
“It’s a shocking amount of depth, but it never actually feels overwhelming. The game intuitively communicates these ideas to the player, and after just a game or two, you begin to grasp the nuances of movements, curved punches, grabs, and differing ARMS and their impact on fights.”
The trouble comes with the game’s controls, which are… eccentric. Now, to be very clear, ARMS‘s controls work, and they work exceptionally well, and this includes the motion controls as well- and indeed, once they click for you, it’s hard to see any other way the game’s controls could have been structured. The problem is, it takes a while for you to ‘get’ them to begin with.
There are two ways to play ARMS – well, really, there are four control schemes, but ultimately, three of them are equivalent: you can play with motion controls, or with traditional controls. If you attempt to play with traditional controls, you will find yourself fighting instinct for a good while, because how the controls work can be a bit hard to get a handle on at first. The two upper face buttons are used for jumping and dashing, the lower ones correspond to a punch from an arm each (you can also use a corresponding trigger for this), the bumpers are used to activate your flurry, and, in a decision that is extremely hard to understand, blocking is mapped to pressing the left stick. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that controls cannot be remapped.
So yes, you spend the first few games fighting with the controls, or with your inherent wiring of how controls in a game, in a fighting game, are supposed to work. However, once they click, they really click- and hours later, I have not even once had any issues with ARMS‘s controls. They are logical and sensible for how the game is laid out. It just takes a while for you to unlearn your pre-conceived notions, first.
“ARMS‘s controls work, and they work exceptionally well, and this includes the motion controls as well- and indeed, once they click for you, it’s hard to see any other way the game’s controls could have been structured. The problem is, it takes a while for you to ‘get’ them to begin with. “
Of course, ARMS has been marketed primarily with its motion controls, and, surprisingly enough, they work, and they work well. This is not the kind of crude, rudimentary, ‘waggle’ that substituted for precise and fine motion controls back in the Wii era, and just flailing like you are playing Wii Boxing will not get you far. Rather, these are precise, fine motion controls that require you to master them just as well as button based controls would, and more importantly, that work and respond with the same fidelity that button based controls do. Holding a Joycon in each hand, everything, from movement to the actual punches, is handled by motion. It, again, can take a while to get a handle on things–especially since even the way that ARMS expects you to hold the Joycons is different from other games–but once it works, it’s really hard to imagine it working any other way, to the extent that you may even be reticent to switch to regular controls. I know it took me a while to wean myself off of the motion controls, and go for regular ones.
ARMS not just has a shocking amount of nuance and depth to its mechanics, balance, and controls, however- it also has a surprising amount of content and longevity. Players are treated to a Grand Prix mode, which is ARMS‘s equivalent of an Arcade mode in a classic fighter, which can be played on up to seven difficulty levels, as well as a huge amount of other modes- 1v1 fights, 2v2 fights, free for alls, an ARMS take on volleyball, an ARMS take on basketball, an ARMS take on target practice, a mode where you take on 100 enemies one after another, local multiplayer with friends (on the same system, on multiple systems connected via wireless, or on multiple systems connected via LAN), online multiplayer with friends, online unranked matches, and online ranked matches. For most of these modes, you even have the option to mess around with the settings to keep things fresh- there are item toggles, you can set the timer, you can set the number of rounds, victory conditions, health and handicaps, and more. There is also the fact that everything you do in ARMS nets you in game credits (which you can only gain in game- no microtransactions, thankfully), which are, in turn, used to unlock more ARMS, which creates the alluring prospect of playing even more. You will not be at a shortage of things to do in ARMS.
And, of course, capping all of this ridiculous breadth and depth is your trademark Nintendo polish. The game looks gorgeous, with some incredible lighting and texture work, and some highly attractive colors popping on the screen. Each character is distinct, and communicates their personality based just on how they look. This is accompanied by some pretty good music, too, including the game’s rousing main theme. ARMS also acts as an incredible showcase for HD rumble, with each punch being communicated to you extremely well with Nintendo’s granularly discernible tactile feedback. You can sense the direction, texture, and impact of your punches, especially when you are playing with motion controls. It’s extremely well done.
“The truly shocking thing here is just how well realized the online functionality is.”
However, the truly shocking thing here is just how well realized the online functionality is. Matchmaking is extremely slick, there is absolutely no lag whatsoever, and the game has an extremely thoughtful feature, where it lets you initiate a search for a ranked match, and then lets you play other modes while the game finds you a player to square off against. This means you’re not just stuck waiting in the lobby. It’s a shockingly prescient feature from Nintendo.
There’s not a whole lot to complain about in ARMS. For a first outing of a new IP, it’s surprising how much they got right the first time around. The controls can take a while to get used to, and it sucks that there is no remapping, but ultimately, when they click, they really click. Meanwhile, there is a legitimate case to be made that ARMS does not have enough different stages or fighters (although given how differentiated each of them are, it wouldn’t necessarily hold water)- but even there, with free DLC promising free new fighters, maps, and ARMS, Nintendo has you covered. Switch owners really have very little reason to miss this one. In ARMS, players will find the same texture of game design that has made Mario Kart and Smash Bros. so beloved and enduring worldwide. For a brand new multiplayer game, there can be no higher praise than that.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
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