You’ve explored Hyrule and raced your friends in karts. Now its time to beat people silly with Slinky fists.
Arms is a big deal for Nintendo. Its Switch console is an early success, but it needs more hit games if it wants to keep that momentum going. Following the launch title The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and last month’s Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, this is Nintendo’s third big software release for its new system. Many could have guessed that those games would be hits, but Arms could be the surprise success story of the Switch’s early days thanks to its unique, fist-flinging gameplay.
Unlike Zelda and Mario Kart, Arms doesn’t have a big franchise name to back it up. It is an original game, something that’s become rare for a company like Nintendo that likes to depend on its established brands. But as we saw with Splatoon for the Wii U back in 2015, these new franchise gambles can pay off. That ink-splattering team-based shooter was Nintendo’s first notable new franchise in years, and Splatoon 2 is coming out for the Switch on July 21.
So, is Arms the next Splatoon? It’s just as offbeat, featuring a cast of colorful characters, like a robot dog-and-cop duo and tea-loving movie star that fights with her giant pigtails. And, just like Splatoon, it’s mostly a multiplayer affair. Most of your time with Arms will be spent fighting against friends around the couch or strangers online.
But Splatoon succeeded because it took a familiar format — the multiplayer shooter — and added a Nintendo spin to it by making it less about killing people and more about covering stages in your team’s ink color. And that’s how Arms earns its Splatoon comparison. Nintendo took something familiar like the 3D fighter and made it its own.
A simple idea with great execution
Arms is a game about punching people. Every character has elastic appendages that can send out swings over long distances. The concept is simple. You want to hit your opponent a lot. But you’ll find depth in the simplicity. You can slightly curve your punches, and anticipating where you think your target will be is a big part of strategy. And since you have two arms, you can send one fist flying in one direction, wait to see how your opponent reacts, and then shoot out the other punch.
The elastic arms things is a bit unconventional (Dhalsim from Street Fighter aside), but fans of fighting games will find a lot here that’s familiar. Fights have a paper-scissors-rock triangle: blocks beat attacks, attacks beat throws, and throws beat blocks. You also have a super meter that slowly fills up during matches. When it’s ready, you can push a button to activate a flurry of strong attacks. If they connect, you can do a lot of damage. If you miss, you’re open to a counterattack.
It’s a fun take on 3D fighting, and it’s much easier to explain how it plays than how it feels. Nintendo always excels at making attractive games full of personality that control beautifully. Arms might not have legs (ha) if another developer took on the simple idea, but Nintendo is able to make the action feel responsive. Even small things like sound effects, which make those connecting punches feel much more rewarding, help make Arms a more visceral experience.
It works well even if you’re using the motion controls, which at first feel like a relic from Nintendo’s Wii days. Holding each Joycon in your hands (those are those little controllers that slide onto the sides of the Switch), you can throw punches and twist your fists to steer them. Sure, it’s a little gimmicky, but it does work. And there is something amusing about playing with a friend when you’re both jabbing like crazy toward the TV screen. Having said all that, I still prefer playing with the controller. It’s just more comfortable, especially if I plan to play with friends or online for a while.
When it comes to the online stuff, I’ve had good experiences so far. Multiplayer pairs you up with random strangers, pitting you into different modes. You could be fighting each other one round, and then you’re all teaming up against computer-controller boss in another. It might seem annoying that you can’t pick how you’re going to play, but there is something fun about the randomness of it. There is ranked mode if you’re looking for more serious, 1-vs.-1 stuff.
I also love that you can mess around and throw punches at target dummies while waiting for a match to start. It makes that wait feel less painful.
A content problem
Arms is a lot of fun, and the presentation is cheery and colorful. But it could be short on modes. It does not have a lot of single-player options. You have the standard fighting game arcade mode which has you play against computer-controller characters until you go up against a boss. It’s the same kind of thing we’ve been seeing since Street Fighter II. But even that old game gave you endings based on your character. Here, you just stand on a podium while the announcer congratulates you. I wasn’t expecting an Injustice 2-quality campaign, but a few still images with some dialogue bubbles between fights helping to flesh out the characters would have been nice.
With no story, your motivation to play by yourself is to grind for credits. You earn these after every multiplayer and single-player match. You can then use them to help unlock more arms. Different arms have different attributes. You’ll have your regular boxing gloves, but some can do interesting things like freeze opponents or even shoot lasers.
Each character starts out with three unlocked, and you can equip different arms to each hand before every round. To unlock the other arms for a character, you spend credits to play minigame that has you attacking targets. Doing this gives you a chance to earn more arms.
It is fun that you’re not just spending credits directly on the arms or some kind of loot crate system, but it does feel like it’ll take a long time to unlock all of them. You earn credits slowly, usually just a few or less for each match. You need 30 of them to spend the lowest amount of time allowed in the minigame, and that’ll probably just net you one arm for one character.
Another hit for the Switch?
So, the package could be on the light side, but Arms is fun enough that it might not matter. After all, most people will stick with a fighting game because they enjoy the competition. They want to try to master the game, and while Arms doesn’t have a lot of mechanics, you’ll need precision and timing if you want to consistently win.
The fighting game market is already a crowded one, so it’s smart for Nintendo to try something different like Arms. Even if it isn’t a Splatoon-level success, this could be another great addition to the Switch library.