Nintendo has an uphill battle when it comes to convincing people it can do competitive play right — both in general terms with online play and in the eSports arena. They’ve traditionally shied away from it, but with the explosion of Splatoon and the writing on the wall from nearly every other publisher, it made sense to start laying that foundation.
The funny thing is Arms, which came out of nowhere, does have the makings of competitive fighter with legs. It’ll just need some updates to become the best it can be.
Arms (Nintendo Switch)
Released: June 16, 2017
Any notion that Arms was going to be a gimmicky motion-controlled flail-fest dissolved the minute I picked up the Joy-Con for the first time.
Not only did Nintendo manage to actually make the punching motions feel smooth and responsive, but they also cleverly incorporated the concept of using the analog sticks to throw hooks for some control methods, leading to a comfortable crossroads of tactile and waggle. Every potential mode of play is fantastic actually, including the Switch tablet in handheld form, which just speaks to how versatile Nintendo’s little tablet console thing is (you can even opt for a single Joy-Con if you want).
Part of that immediate sense of satisfaction is because of the simplicity of every action. The variety of actual “arms” (consisting of the typical boxing fist in addition to projectiles and hybrids) is astounding, as are the familiar fighting game foundations of dashing, guarding, supers, and throws. After several hours you’ll start to pick up the rest, like parrying, air dashing, countering, and charged attacks. Combatants also have unique abilities like teleports instead of dashes, aerial counters, hovering, or an AI companion. There’s even a wakeup game meta with directional recovery rolls. I didn’t expect half of this.
Arms has a ceiling that’s a little lower than a lot of other fighters, but there’s still plenty of nuances to study, most notably in the titular arm selection and the cast. Arenas also bring their own hurdles to leap over, like columns you might need to hook around or use defensively, or a level that has a slight dip in the middle that impacts punch height. Bigger fighters have armor and their arms generally have priority over smaller ones but they move slower — that sort of thing. Fighters mostly seem balanced, but I think Ninjara is going to see a lot of action because of how much the teleport is ingrained in moment to moment play.
So the fundamentals are there, but right now Arms is a little hard to recommend if you’re forking over your cash on day one. There’s Grand Prix (which is a very basic 10-round arcade mode and not narrative-centric), versus (standard battles, volleyball, basketball, break the target, and 1-on-100), and online play (ranked or unranked, with concessions for two players on the same console for the latter).
The tiny little interludes in the Grand Prix simply aren’t enough to warrant playing through more than once, and at the end of a week of testing I mainly just gravitated towards 1v1, 2v2, and the occasional break-the-target round. The sports gametypes are an absolute disappointment, especially basketball, which basically drills down to “throw each other: the mode.” Arms works best as a 1v1 affair, but there is a delightfully old-school feel to fighting 2v2, like the ghost of Power Stone is walking among us.
The kicker is that Arms‘ currency, the only meta system at play, feels really stingy. Completing a single match can net as little as two Arms coins (with exceptions for grinding out full arcade completions), and you need 30 to buy into the lowest tier of a minigame to earn new crates. I suppose I could be “thankful” they aren’t tied to microtransactions, but it’s slow going all the same when it comes to making meaningful long-term progression. Content updates should help alleviate that lull when playing solo, but I can’t predict the future.
There’s a lot of personality on the surface in Arms (mainly I love that title theme song), and I hope Nintendo continues to build on it as planned. It works as a fighter, I just wish there was more to do in this debut entry — both pragmatically in terms of modes and on an emotional level, as I haven’t really connected with its universe yet despite its raw sense of style.