When I was young I would spend an inordinate amount of time on Saturdays wandering between each of the five amusement arcades that adorned the sea front esplanade in the town where I grew up. I’d spend all but the bus fare home within about an hour, but would then happily spend the rest of the day watching everyone else play their games. There really wasn’t much else to do and I became rather good at some games. However, one genre I could never get the hang of was fighting games. I had immense trouble remembering the different combos and for games such as Killer Instinct, things like combo breakers were a mystery. I’ve tried my hand at them in my adult years but while I’m a touch better I still, mainly, suck. However, I’m never one to shy away from a challenge and in the shape of Arms, could Nintendo’s new contender be different?
At their core all fighting games’ moves are split into four categories: blocks, attacks, throws and specials. Most modern fighters then rely on combining all these elements into combos when attacking and as such require lots and lots of practice to be anywhere near good. Just watching professional Smash Bros. or Street Fighter players battle is astonishing in how fast they are on the controls yet still accurate and deliberate in their movements. Arms still requires a deftness and deliberacy to your movements but it’s far more pared down. No matter which method you choose to fight with (motion controls, as a gamepad or using the pro controller) you will no doubt find, as we did, that it's rather straightforward. We mostly played using the motion controls in the “thumbs up” grip. Here, throwing your left or right JoyCon forward punches with your fighter’s corresponding arm. You can charge each punch by pressing L or R and then pressing right trigger will unleash Rush but only when charged. At this point you can unleash a flurry of punches which, if they land, can do quite a lot of damage. Jump and dash are also controlled using the L and R buttons respectively and mostly work. Occasionally, though, we did find ourselves needlessly jumping when we wanted to charge our punches.
In all likelihood most players will adopt a traditional controller for playing Arms. Movement is easier and less cumbersome than it is with the motion controls (where movement is controlled by leaning the JoyCons). It’s also far quicker to launch a throw as the pad controls for punching are B for left and A for right and to throw you press both together. With motion controls you need to throw both JoyCons forward and more often than not our input was interpreted as a left, right jab rather than the throw we wanted. Against AI opponents these deficiencies aren’t as pronounced but if you decide to take things online, motion controls feel like boxing with a hand tied behind your back. When pitted against fellow humans, this lack of precision will, against even average opponents, cost you dear.
Speaking of online play, the approach Arms takes to multiplayer is by far its crowning achievement. You can play ranked matches if you’d like to, but what is far more fun is Party Match. Here you’re thrown into a hopper of sorts and you’ll then be paired off into various modes. You could end up in a 1v1 match, four players against an AI-controlled multi-armed opponent or even a three-player fight with only one victor. In this mode, after each match has finished those players who have finished are tossed back into the smelting pot ready to be set their next challenge. It’s fast, furious and immensely fun. Even though we rarely won a bout it never felt onerous. We’d just pick ourselves up and see what crazy arena or challenge we ended up in next.
Offline there’s local multiplayer where you and a friend can play on one JoyCon each and either take each other on in a traditional match or try one of the challenges on offer. The most fun of these was Hoops a basketball inspired mode. Here the aim is to throw your opponent into the basket. If you do it close by and dunk, you get two points; throw them from distance you get three. Whoever gets to ten points first wins and it can end up being a rather twitchy battle as you try to avoid being grabbed all the while plotting your attack. Another, Skillshot, is very much a crapshoot. In this mode a number of targets will appear between you and your opponent. Rather than trying to punch them you’re trying to hit as many of the targets as possible. Targets are shared between the two combatants and while you can disrupt them from afar doing so often leads to missing out on points. At the end the most points wins so if you’re unlucky and frequently miss targets you’ll often find yourself on the losing end. Finally there’s a V-Ball variant which is even more frustrating than Skillshot as missing the ball and it touching the floor sees it explode and you concede a point.
The challenges roll over into single player with an added challenge of 1vs100. Here you pick the arena and your fighter and take on one hundred AI foes who get harder every ten levels. In addition to these challenge modes is the main Grand Prix. Between you and victory are ten different challengers and not all of them will be faced in a 1v1 (or 2v2 if you play cooperatively with a friend) match. The challenges also make an appearance here and if you’re unlucky enough to encounter Skillshot or V-Ball (the latter especially) then rematches will no doubt be in your future. The presentation is rather fun with a rather colourful commentator offering thoughts ahead of each matchup. It’s quirky and very much Nintendo at its best. It acts as though Arms is the UFC of Nintendo’s world. Watched by millions with its finals getting 100% viewership according to the in-game “facts.”
Whilst the overriding feeling of Arms is that of simplicity there are nuances here for the seasoned fighters to exploit. Each one of the ten characters has three different arm types to choose from. These then have their own pros and cons and all act differently when charged. We often found that, to win, you need to mix things up each round and couldn’t just rest on one pairing of arms. One fighter, Kid Cobra, is very quick so using heavy, and therefore slow, arms were to our detriment, mostly due to the fact that whilst we were waiting for our arms to return he was busy dealing out damage. There are also special moves of sorts. Our favourite fighter Ninjara, for example, can briefly disappear if you dash while jumping. Timed appropriately you can then pounce quickly with a grab or throw a couple of quick sucker punches before jumping and disappearing to repeat the same trick. Arms still promotes the learning of its fighters and each of the arenas but also allows those of us not gifted with twitch reflexes the ability to fight and still look like we know what we’re doing.
Arms is Nintendo at its very best. They’ve taken a genre, made it fun and thrown in the usual Nintendo quirkiness. However, they’ve also managed to make it nuanced enough that fighting game regulars will still get kicks out of learning their fighter to the nth degree. While some of the challenge modes miss the mark there’s so much packed in here and all of them so easily accessible. Docked or undocked, things are wonderfully smooth and as far as we could tell there’s no benefit in one mode or the other. Arms is absolutely wonderful and joins Zelda: BoTW as a must-have for the platform.