Like Splatoon before it, ARMS is an unconventional take on a genre Nintendo doesn’t typically dabble in (fighting games), wherein stretchy combatants pummel each other with their titular appendages in this new 3D arena fighter. Featuring a veritable cast of colorful characters and zany arm types, it’s all lovably introduced in that trademark Nintendo feel. But does it succeed as an actual fighter?
Let me be clear on one thing: I am hardly a fountain of knowledge when it comes to the inner workings of fighting games. I am, for instance, a massive fan of Nintendo’s own Super Smash Bros. series, but I cannot so much as discern what makes Melee offensive or Brawl defensive. I can hardly remember button combinations in Street Fighter or Marvel vs. Capcom, finding it much more comfortable to simply mash buttons and hope my foe ends up a bloody pulp. While I am able to spot immediate bad apples within the genre (J-Stars Victory VS+, another 3D fighter), the process of gradually deciphering a fighter’s depth is largely unknown and befuddling to me, and readers searching for a “competitive” analysis of ARMS may best look elsewhere.
Having said all that, I can claim ARMS is, indeed, fun. In a game designed solely around punching, it’s rather engaging in how much it takes advantage of the concept. You’re not just curving the direction of your punches and the like, as you have to take into consideration the ARMS you’ve equipped, be they shock gloves and boomerangs and missiles and, yes, even mechanical birds. While experimentation is a key part of any fighting game, you especially feel that with ARMS as you’re constantly equipping and selecting arms of your choice; for example, would Mechanica be best left alone with Revolver, Homie and Whammer, or could Slapamander be a worthy spice to shake her game up? You’re not just experimenting with the character themselves; you’re constantly changing how they play, and I can’t quite think of anything else like it.
In that sense, ARMS is hardly pick-up-and-play in the vein of Smash and Splatoon; it’s a game that requires dedication to fully enjoy. While ARMS does provide Smash-esque concessions in the form of (optional) items and basic inputs, zoning and mindgames are part of the admission fee, so it’s not a game you can simply turn your brain off and enjoy. You need to figure out how to best handle the Byte & Barq duo just as much as you need to perceive the uses of Helix’s Blorb arm and navigate around the cars in the Cinema Deux stage.
Thankfully, such a wacky concept isn’t always serious business. In true Nintendo form, mini-games and the like make for some crazy hijinks, such as Skillshot (compete with your opponent to see who can break the most targets; check out how you can attack your foes!) or Hoops (slamdunk your own rival into the hoop!). Meanwhile, stages are a mix of the practical to the silly: Spring Stadium’s surrounding springboards provide minimum advantage, whereas Snake Park takes a page from the Smash Bros. book of framing the gameplay within a different context (in this case, smacking each other while riding hoverboards). The latter’s received some harsh criticism, but I personally can’t get enough of how different it is: it’s strictly for party purposes, but I dig the goofy strategies (and hijinks) I’ve been unleashing there.
However, things get a bit shaky from here. Controls will largely be a matter of preference, but contrary to popular opinion, I found myself fighting against the motion Joy-Con controls. Granted, I started out with the handheld controls, but it was a pain to simply move via tilting the Joy-Cons, and that’s not even getting into the actual maneuvers. While it’s fun simulating the battle itself by thrusting the Joy-Cons (and getting the extra workout!), I’ve found it’s easier to stick with traditional controls. Simulating is fun, but it’s easier to keep track of the gameplay when you’re not adhering to gimmicks.
The CPU is also a cause for concern. Yes, input-reads are hardly new to fighting games, but I can hardly think of any other fighter with such unbearable light-speed reflexes. Most every input is read immediately by the computer, and so much of your CPU bouts boil down to either luck or somehow reading the CPU’s actions itself. (again, a Herculean feat for a non-fighting gamer like myself) It’s a shame that this pervasive problem infects such a wildly different fighter to this degree, and I imagine it’s turned off many newcomers. One may suggest going online and battle real opponents instead, but given the bizarre decision to gate Ranked online matches behind clearing Level 4 of Grand Prix, the frustration only multiplies tenfold, especially since it’s not even among the hardest difficulties!
Training Mode, too, is a bust. Rather than just customizing CPU levels and whatnot within the actual session, you have to select from the menu such options like “Beginner punches” to “Intermediate punches” to even “Anti-jump practice”. It’s simply an unhelpful mess all around: I find myself asking why there’s a mode entirely dedicated to guard breaking as opposed to just setting CPU settings to “block,” and that’s just one example. There’s simply no reason to divide all these mechanics into their separate tutorials, as you’re not able to grasp the game’s full in-and-outs like in any other fighter. Compounding upon that is that you aren’t able to immediately test your new arm settings after you’ve rearranged your arsenal for any one fighter; you have to hop all the way over to Versus to see if they work out.
The above problems strike me as a game that’s not fully confident in what it sets out to do, and I think that’s what cements the “barebones” complaints hurled at it. It’s not necessarily there aren’t things to do, but with everything kinda working against you, you don’t feel compelled to really try anything out. Again, this is a growing epidemic among fighting games, but as this is Nintendo’s genuine effort to reach out to devoted fighting fans, it’s disheartening that it only just manages to satisfy that niche. Gamers like myself need to steel our resolve to stick with it, and while I think I can deal with it, not everyone will.
ARMS is a product I imagine Nintendo themselves is still figuring out; as it is, it’s still fun, but its success remains to be seen with Nintendo’s support of the title. If you’re interested in testing the potential of the next big Nintendo game, give it a whirl. And if doesn’t work out, hey, we still have Smash Bros.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: Switch; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Nintendo; Players: 1-4 ; Released: June 16, 2017; ESRB: E for Everyone ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of ARMS.