Let’s start with the music, because it’s the first thing you’ll come across when booting up Arms, Nintendo’s all-new Switch exclusive. Caixa and surdo drums burst into a rhythm met by a bright chorus being sung through the widest of smiles. It’s a tune I haven’t been able to stop humming ever since first hearing it, an infectious little samba that sets up the cartoonish capoeira that is Arms’ combat – a heady dance of swirling limbs and dazzling colour as players duke it out. Not since Mario Kart 8’s joyous cover version of the series’ original theme tune has a title screen done such a wonderful job of starting you off in the best possible way. Let’s do this, it sings. Let’s play!
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo
- Platform: Reviewed on Switch
- Availability: Out June 16th on Switch
Mario Kart 8’s also as good a place to start as any, actually, given how Arms is what many of the team behind 2014’s exquisite racer did next. This is nominally a fighting game, but if so then it is to the likes of Street Fighter or Tekken what Mario Kart is to Forza or Gran Turismo. It’s a potent distillation, with a few of Nintendo’s own ingredients thrown in for good measure: you take part in one-on-one fights in busy arenas, exchanging blows via your comically extended limbs in a series of simple, brutal fights where you don’t have to worry about the fussiness of special inputs. In Arms, it’s straight down to the business end of things.
New Arms are unlocked in a mini-game where you knock down targets, the coins you unlock during regular play giving you more time.
It’s tempting to say there’s never been anything quite like the overstated pugilism of Arms, but in truth there has – in part, at least. There’s a pinch of Punch-Out!!, Genyo Takeda’s rhythm-infused brawler, in the close quarters camera and the heavy emphasis on timing, just as there’s a little Cyber Troopers Virtual-On or Gundam Versus in the merry jig of its combat and the importance it places on the arenas themselves. Similarities abound, but perhaps the best way of understanding it is thus: it’s Nintendo does fighting games, a high concept that should tell you all you really need to know.
It’s a very good fighting game, too. Arms breaks down the fundamentals and builds them up again as it sees fit, and as novel as some of the execution might seem there’s also plenty that’s familiar in the mix. You have lights, mediums and heavies in the form of the Arms themselves, mechanised and oversized fists that all come with wildly varying powers. There are boxing gloves infused with electricity, Phoenix birds that dart across a stage and Chakrams that curve deviously as they’re thrown. A heavy Arm will punch through a lighter one though it’ll be slower, while a throw breaks a guard but can itself be broken by a well-timed punch. It’s a lot like any other fighting game you’ll have played, in short – there are specials and there are dodges and counters and cancels – yet from those essentials, Arms blossoms into its own thing.
Arms, arguably Nintendo’s first first-party game to support the Switch and the Switch only, looks glorious, running at a smooth 60fps both docked and in handheld.
Encounters are about effective spacing and acute observation, waiting for opportunities to open up and dealing out as much punishment as possible with freshly charged punches when they eventually do. Arms’ stages play beautifully into this; with one per fighter, there’s a decent amount of variety too. A fight on the steps up to a Ninja College where gaining the high ground is all-important; a scrap in the streets outside a Hollywood cinema where each parked car can be leaped from for an aerial advantage; a nightclub where the floor raises and lowers as the match goes on. Each stage has almost as much character as the fighters themselves.
As a fighting game there’s obviously a heavy emphasis on multiplayer, and Arms is well served. You can connect two Switch consoles and play locally – though be warned, you’ll also need two copies of the game – or play split-screen on a single unit. There are even four-player options, though given their scrappiness they seem more a novelty than a necessity. Online benefits from a cute lobby system that visualises your opponents (a neat evolution of Mario Kart 8’s own characterful lobbies), while Ranked play will search out a match while you busy yourself elsewhere in Arms’ various modes. Another word of warning, though – to unlock Ranked play you’ll need to complete the Arms Grand Prix at level four or higher. No mean feat, though it at least gives you the groundwork so that you can hold your own.
Almost. It turns out Nintendo’s pretty good at making characters, and while the roster of ten fighters might seem limited in comparison to other games there’s not a dud to be found. Characters have their own abilities and attributes and prove to be a diverse bunch: silver screen star Twintelle, who uses her luxuriant hair to deal damage, can slow down inbound punches; Min Min, whose arms are made of coiling ramen noodles, can kick away punches as she dodges; Byte & Bark, a robotic pair of policeman and dog, work in tandem to whittle away at their opponents; Ribbon Girl has the benefit of added aerial abilities, leaping four times while in the air. It’s impossible to pick a favourite when there’s so much variety, and more importantly they all look absolutely splendid. There’s something of Overwatch to Arms’ aesthetic, though maybe that’s because there’s something of Nintendo to Overwatch’s look – and besides, Blizzard and Nintendo have always shared common ground.
Can Arms offer the same sort of depth? Perhaps not – just yet, at least – but with some 30 Arms across the 10 characters currently featured, there’s at least going to be a buoyant meta that’ll only grow over time. You might just be too caught up in the frenzy of each fight to care too much, anyway, and a good match-up in Arms is unlike anything else. Lead with a dragon laser and send them smack into your fully-charged megawatt that’s lying in wait, a sparking sea mine that fizzes your opponent into brief stasis. It’s the sweet science turned into a delirious ballet.
There is, of course, the spectre of motion controls hanging over it. Arms does feel like it was designed around them, the soft delay built into each punch thrown the perfect cushion for your own inputs – but they can be side-stepped completely, and there’s not much to choose between using a standard controller or dual Joy-Cons; one offers more precision, while the other a little more freedom, allowing you to curl punches in opposing directions. For high level play motion controls may well prove essential, though right now they both methods seem to sit happily together both online and off.
Charging punches is key to success, something you can do by either guarding for a short while or through a quick dash.
Perhaps their very presence will prevent Arms from reaching the audience it deserves, and it’s not the only caveat here. This is taking the Splatoon model, not only in applying some Nintendo magic to an established genre but also in offering a fairly meagre package from the off as a foundation for what’s to come. There’s really not much to do for the solo player beyond the Arms Grand Prix – a series of fights against the entire roster as well as a couple of special guests – and some throwaway mini-games. To buy into Arms right now is to have faith that Nintendo will stick to its promise to deliver free characters and modes as the months go by.
Given how Splatoon managed to build upon its skimpy initial offering (albeit one that was available at a lower price, it’s worth remembering, unlike this), there’s every reason to believe that Nintendo will come good. Regardless, though, it’s worth making the jump right now. Arms hits home, a glorious sucker punch from a Nintendo that’s now more confident than ever to move away from its staples and spring a surprise. This is a mad, brilliant dance of a game, and one whose tune I suspect we’ll be humming along to for some time yet.