More than any other video game company in the world, Nintendo has a huge stable of established franchises and characters that are beloved by millions of gamers. That’s why it’s always exciting when they branch out and design new games with fresh ideas to create new intellectual properties. When ARMS first debuted back in January at the official Nintendo Switch unveiling, I heard many people question why Nintendo didn’t just slap the Punch-Out!! title on it or include famous Nintendo characters. I was (and am) glad that the company is tying new gameplay mechanics with new creations because it’s important to grow the brand by bringing new people to the table. Who knows, maybe in ten years Spring Man will be a household name? Sorry Capcom, you had your chance!
From the first second I saw ARMS, I was impressed with its lineup of stylized characters. From the bright yellow title screen to the colorful stages and thoughtfully designed cast of fighters, this is one slick package. Combine that with some catchy music and sprinkle in some backstory for each character, and you’re on your way to creating a memorable game loved by players of all ages. The over-the-top fighters immediately stick in your head, with simple names that match their fighting styles and aesthetics to a tee. From Spring Mans’s curly hair to Ninjara’s stealth dash, it’s clear that the character designs and move sets were perfectly aligned to create a cast of memorable fighters.
Compared to a traditional fighting game, ARMS admittedly comes up a bit short on the roster. There are only ten playable characters at the outset, which could dampen some people’s enthusiasm for the game. While it’s true that a larger cast of characters would have been preferable, after putting some extensive time into the game I feel that there’s just enough variety and nuances here to keep players busy for quite some time. You see, in addition to each character’s special attributes (Ribbon Girl can jump 3 or 4 times in the air before needing to return to the ground for example), you’ll be busy earning credits to unlock new ARMS (weapons) that you can then customize your fighters with. Many of these will have special elemental properties that could make the difference between winning and losing in a close match. You could add electricity to your arsenal to temporarily slow your opponent or add some fire for extra burning damage. You’ll be able to choose which weapons you want to use before the match begins, and each of your hands can have one of three different weapons. This creates a level of customization not often seen in fighting games, and in that regard the lower number of playable characters is sort of forgiven thanks to the vast number of ways you can enhance each fighter.
If you’re unfamiliar with ARMS, you might be surprised to hear that this arena combat game is a mix of: traditional fighters (jump, block, dash), boxing (you must successfully land punches to deal damage), shooters (you must anticipate where your rival will be as you launch your ARMS) and – if you’re playing with the Joy-Cons – a sprinkling of the classic Sega arcade game Virtual On. The game eschews the typical 2D viewpoint and instead opts for a behind-the-shoulder camera that allows for a full 3D space in which to move around and fight. When playing solo or online, this works fantastically as you have the entire screen to look at. If you’re playing 2 to 4 players on one screen, the system must split the views and this can become much less enjoyable. Try playing 3 or 4 players on the Switch’s small screen and it’s almost impossible to see what’s going on. This is a drawback of the game’s design, but if you have multiple Switch consoles you can each have your own screen and this works much better.
One of the biggest drawbacks of the early days of fighting games was that the single player experience could become old fairly quickly. This genre always excels when there is some lively competition. Thankfully ARMS has an online mode so you’ll always have someone to challenge. In Party Match up to 20 people can connect in lobbies for a variety of match-ups. You’ll have your traditional 1-on-1 fights, but you’ll be randomly selected to partake in other events as well, such as: 2-on-2 team battle, V-Ball (where you try to detonate the ball on your opponent’s side of the net), and Hoops (where you try and body slam your rivals into the basketball hoop). You never quite know what’s next, but as you continue to win rounds you’ll earn more credits that you can use to unlock new ARMS via loot crates. If you unlock an identical weapon you already have, it will level up and be more powerful than before.
Any good fighting game is only as good as its controls, and here ARMS does a good job at trying to offer something for every player. When I first began playing I primarily used the suggested “Thumbs Up” dual Joy-Con style. Here you hold a Joy-Con in each hand with the analog stick facing inward and your thumbs resting on the L and R buttons at the top of the controllers. You simply punch forward with each arm to throw your ARMS hurtling at your opponent. Slight twists of the wrists will allow you to curve your punches to land some devastating blows. Pressing the R shoulder button with your right thumb will let you jump up into the air and pressing the L shoulder button with your left thumb allows you to dash. Holding down the L or R buttons will allow you to charge your punches up, which will add the elemental power to them and deal more damage to your rival. Extending both Joy-Cons out at the same time will throw both punches and allow you try and grab your opponent to throw them to the ground. This control scheme works great for these moves, but it’s a bit trickier when trying to move your character around the stage. To do this you must move both Joy-Cons together either right, left, forward, or back and that will allow your fighter to move in that direction. This seemed clumsy at times and although I eventually got better, it just wasn’t as precise as I’d have liked.
I play the majority of my Switch games at home on the TV, so naturally I use the Pro Controller for most of them. I decided to give that a whirl with ARMS. At first I wasn’t doing that well against online opponents. However, once I went back and played some solo Grand Prix mode (where you have to successfully beat 10 opponents in a row), I really got into the groove of using the analog stick and button combinations to move around the screen with more grace than I had been able to achieve with the Joy-Cons. One downside is that you can only control the hook of your throws one at a time instead of simultaneously like you can with the Joy-Cons. However, this isn’t as bad as it might seem because very often it can be suicide to throw both of your punches at the same time, as it leave you open for attack. Once I played for a few hours I really fell into a cadence and developed a routine where I could anticipate attacks and throw out one ARM to block them and then immediately throw the other out and land my own attack. This worked extremely well with the Pro Controller. Moving around the screen, dashing and jumping, just seemed a bit more smooth with traditional buttons and sticks, so I’m leaning a bit toward that camp, but I completely understand those that like the motion controls better.
ARMS is taking the same approach to content that Splatoon did back on the Wii U. The developers are creating new fighters and stages (and probably modes) that will appear over the course of the next year. In just a couple weeks of launch they already added in a LAN option and in a few weeks you’ll be able to play as Max Brass. With free content still coming over the next twelve months, the game should fill out quite nicely. While I do think there’s enough content here to merit a purchase right now, some might find it a tad anemic.
I’m not the biggest fighting game fan out there. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve had immense enjoyment back in the ‘90s when the world got caught up in games like Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and Killer Instinct. However, over the years my tastes have changed so I’m a much more casual fighting game fan than I used to be. Having said that, there’s a ton of fun to be had with ARMS. The game’s visuals are crisp and colorful, the characters are instantly likable, and the music is simply fantastic. There are some really fun stages to play and the ability to fully customize your weapons and unlock new ones becomes addicting. However, with fighting games launching with rosters of 30 or more characters and just as many stages, ARMS definitely suffers in the quantity department at launch. This should be remedied throughout the year and into next, but some may find the light amount of content to be inexcusable. If that’s the case, I highly recommend sitting it out for now and waiting to see what eventually gets added to the experience. I enjoyed the content that’s here, and it’s a fun way to kick off summer!