"Not Just About Selling Amiibo": Arms Single Player Review
Out of the multitude of charges so often brought against Nintendo in the 21st century, one that is most commonly heard is that the company no longer dares to try and introduce new IPs, instead choosing to drive full steam ahead with only established moneymakers at their side. This claim already tends to get the piss taken out of it when it’s inevitably coupled with the argument that they don’t support established franchises, despite the unenviable balancing act that would entail, but the birth of a fresh series on the Wii U with Nintendified online shooter Splatoon certainly got some creative juices flowing if they had previously stagnated, and the ball has continued to roll onto the Switch with another new franchise, the title that spawned a million jokes: Arms.
First things first on playing Arms: you do not have to play with the motion controls. Regardless of how Nintendo has chosen to promote the game as being played with a Joy-Con in each hand and a control scheme birthed from a functional version of Wii Sports’ boxing, you can, in line with the Switch’s philosophy of being able to use the controllers however you want, just stick the Joy-Con on the grip and use buttons, or, even better, use the same buttons on your Pro Controller. The motion controls work fine, nobody can really deny that, but I can imagine showing up to an Arms tournament with a Joy-Con in each hand being a lot like using a Wii Remote and Nunchuk at a Smash Bros. event -- to each his own, you might argue, but you’re gonna get some weird looks at the very least, unfortunately.
The core concept of Arms, aside from the fact that making a dozen new characters will make for a really solid excuse to make more Amiibo, is actually based around creating a pretty serious fighting game that can still be played with Nintendo’s beloved motion controls, but without the sacrifice of oversimplification so as to successfully transplant the controls to living-room shadow boxing. The controls are pared down from a lot of fighting games which use between four and six attack buttons plus others for defense and specials but done so with the intention of making every button and maneuver a vital part of winning a fight. In the traditional control scheme, the Z-trigger buttons (or A and B) control a punch from each arm, while X is used to jump, Y to dash/dodge, and the left-stick button to guard. The latter of these controls is perhaps the only one that really doesn’t translate well with the reaction-based, high-intensity action of your average fight (motion controls have you angle the Joy-Con inwards), but dodging punches rather than blocking usually makes for a decent alternative.
In spite of being eternally and unequivocally awful at fighting games of all kinds, I approached Arms with a lot of optimism, owed mostly to the fact that my only other mild success at fighting games is with another Nintendo franchise, Super Smash Bros. In other words, the less traditional a fighter actually plays, the more confident I am in my ability to grasp it from most angles. Arms, surprisingly enough, plays more like a traditional fighter than even Smash Bros., or at least feels that way due largely to the tunnel-vision perspective it shares with Pokken Tournament and Ultra Street Fighter II. This perspective of having a camera directly facing your opponent plays very well into both the unique offensive and more traditional defensive approach Arms takes to the fighting genre. The most prominent offensive principle is that the press of a button is far from the end of your input on an attack, instead forcing you to follow-through like a golf stroke with placement and angle on every punch, which feels well-understood and fairly natural with a camera angle placed directly behind your character. Defensively, constant movement is a must for the majority of characters and playstyles, and the same camera angle that gives you the best eyes on your opponent for executing a punch also gives the best sense of spatial awareness, allowing players to stick, move, and jump with confidence.
Of course, with any Nintendo IP and especially a Nintendified approach to a popular genre, presentation and style are arguably just as important as gameplay, and luckily, Nintendo themselves offers us a solid barometer by which to judge themselves on new characters and locales -- by picturing them in Super Smash Bros. And I can confidently say that even as naturally as you might assume a fighting tournament might play into the beloved series, Arms is set to become an integral part of the Smash experience in years to come, even if the game itself were to become a one-and-done for one reason or another. Character design makes excellent use of the “elongated arms” motif with some of the best twists on the concept being Twintelle, who keeps her hands placed judgmentally on her hips while whacking people with her hair, and Master Mummy, a tank-style character who looks exactly how you might imagine, dangerous bandages and all, and whose special ability is that he can heal himself while guarding. Each character also has an arena that suits them extremely well aesthetically, such as noodle-house character Min-Min’s arena being shaped like a large bowl that makes for some interesting elevation differences, though some arena designs aren’t quite as clever, with “you can stand on this two-foot table in the middle” coming off as a particularly lame excuse for a mechanic.
While the speed and intensity of the fights, judged on their own, provide plenty of entertainment value and make for a solid, strategic fighting experience, and the characters often seem very thought out and well-defined, it’s interesting that most of the variety comes from customization as well as Nintendo’s best-laid plans to subvert the core experience by peppering in some different game modes with varying degrees of success. The main sense of single-player replayability in Arms comes from the ”Get Arms” minigame that has players spending in-game currency (earned by winning matches) to buy time on a type of shooting gallery where new arm attachments are given as the prizes -- a similar trope to recent Smash Bros. titles. These attachments make up your options for choosing a pre-match loadout that alters the way your character’s punches travel and land and offers one of the most creative and intriguing elements of strategy in the game. Different arms range from standard-looking boxing gloves with different attributes like ice and electricity, to two and three-pronged spread shots, to straight-up projectile attacks and a few even more unusual ones in-between, making match preparation somewhat two-fold: picking both your character and your loadout, which can be uniform or pack a different attachment on each arm.
The Get Arms minigame is, oddly enough, the most entertaining spin on the base game that Arms offers in this initial installment, as the excitement of nabbing new gear and only having your own skill to worry about is a really nice change of pace that the similar Skillshot match type, which adds the need to be faster and more accurate than your opponent in taking out targets, doesn’t deliver as well, nor does the somewhat pointless, grab-focused basketball game. Volleyball, or “V-Ball,” is the best of the head-to-head minigames, as the absolutely manic pace matches the intensity of a regular fight, but this mode is always over far too quickly, keeping it from being anything but a short distraction. Casual online play is probably the best way to balance out the different modes for an all-around Arms experience, as the lobby system keeps matchups firing and mixes up the styles well, while also maintaining the ratio of traditional fights higher compared to the sub-games. The single player Grand Prix/ladder/championship mode with its set difficulty does something similar by throwing in a game of Skillshot or V-Ball twice per championship, but the way they always go by quicker inevitably makes them feel like an afterthought, whereas online multiplayer seems made for this variety of modes, while also throwing in other multiplayer modes such as team fights and even a boss mode where players gang up on Arms’ resident big bad, Hedlok.
Nintendo’s signature style is understandably all over their newest franchise, from characters and art style to the sincere act of going out of their way to do things differently. And while they’re very seldom perfect at doing anything, the fact is that they quite often do what they want to do far better than anybody else could. Despite feeling like a more typical fighter than the Smash Bros. franchise, Arms succeeds in being even more inclusive for gamers of all types, but in doing that, it, unfortunately, feels like they’ve mistakenly made a game that will hold a lot of players’ attention for a decent amount of time, but won’t have much of a fanbase by this time next year. It’s strange that such a deep game feels like it has a limited lifespan at this point, but even I can say that by the time I felt I had learned a lot of the game’s nuances by putting the work in, I felt I had seen most of what it offered outside of an online setting, and while the online features were good, the game itself isn’t likely to appeal to hardcore fighting game enthusiasts enough to take them away from Ultra Street Fighter II if they have a Switch, or to make them buy a Switch if they don’t. An excellent game all around that does an exceptional job of executing all the ideas it brings to the table, Nintendo has done itself a service by releasing Arms so close to launch to as to make it a must-buy, but ultimately its lasting legacy will depend equally on the success of its sequels, inclusion in Super Smash Bros. (I see at least two characters being playable, one arena, and every character getting their own trophy), and, of course, its ability to sell Amiibo, which will likely be a full set of 12 to collect.