The most sur­pris­ing fight­ing game of the year launches this spring



De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Nin­tendo For­mat Switch Ori­gin Ja­pan Re­lease Spring

Ten years since Wii’s ar­rival, Nin­tendo has proved that mo­tion con­trols and depth needn’t be mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. It turns out the an­swer was star­ing – OK, smack­ing – us in the face all along: the fight­ing game is where aus­ter­ity means strat­egy, where a sparse se­lec­tion of in­puts is able, in the right hands, to give rise to spec­tac­u­lar, deeply tac­ti­cal ac­tion. So it is with Arms, Nin­tendo’s first new IP since Spla­toon, and a game that puts a sim­i­larly silly, and ef­fec­tive, spin on es­tab­lished genre con­ven­tions.

The game is played with a Joy-Con in each hand, and puts two char­ac­ters in a suc­ces­sion of en­closed 3D are­nas. As is tra­di­tion, each fighter has a health bar, and a su­per me­ter that fills as they deal and take dam­age. You move by tilt­ing the con­trollers; the left shoul­der but­ton per­forms a quick dash, and the right one a jump. Push a hand for­wards and your char­ac­ter throws a punch with the ap­pro­pri­ate arm; push both hands at the same time and you’ll at­tempt a grab; bring both hands to­gether, as if of­fer­ing up two fist bumps, and you’ll block in­com­ing at­tacks. When your me­ter’s full, a tap of ei­ther trig­ger launches your su­per, which gives you a few sec­onds to un­leash a fran­tic flurry of punches.

Those are the build­ing blocks, the re­quired fun­da­men­tals for the rock-pa­per-scis­sors design that has pow­ered the fight­ing game across the decades: block beats at­tack beats grab beats block. There’s a sim­ple ki­netic thrill in just suc­cess­fully per­form­ing these ba­sic moves – a punch that lands feels all the bet­ter when you’ve ac­tu­ally thrown it – and the fact that you and your op­po­nent are us­ing mo­tion con­trols adds a de­li­cious layer of tac­ti­cal aware­ness to pro­ceed­ings, since a watch­ful player will see an in­com­ing blow be­fore the on­screen an­i­ma­tion has be­gun.

That’s as­sum­ing you can take your eyes off the screen, ad­mit­tedly. While Arms is far from the fastest-paced fight­ing game around, it feels a lot more dy­namic than it is, since your quick lit­tle real-world jabs are trans­lated into lengthy an­i­ma­tions as tele­scopic arms are flung across the arena. While pre­sum­ably de­signed to mask any de­lay be­tween the start of a player’s punch and it be­ing repli­cated on the screen, it also af­fords lit­tle tweaks to the fight­ing game’s tac­ti­cal for­mula. If two punches meet in mid-screen, they’ll can­cel each other out, like pro­jec­tiles clash­ing in a game of Street Fighter and fiz­zling out. The same will hap­pen if both play­ers try to throw at the same time. As such, move­ment is key, since a dash or jump can change your angle of at­tack, re­duc­ing the threat of a punch be­ing can­celled out and coun­tered.

There are fur­ther ben­e­fits to fight­ing from such range, en­sur­ing this is more than just a game in which two pow­ered-up Dhal­sims do bat­tle in silly costumes. Punches can be bent like foot­ball free-kicks, a curved punch­ing mo­tion launch­ing a blow that arcs out, then back in, mak­ing it harder to counter. The dis­tance of Arms’ en­gage­ments also means Nin­tendo can be cre­ative in weapon design: each char­ac­ter can choose be­tween three punch types for each hand, the se­lec­tion go­ing from spring-loaded box­ing gloves to hom­ing mis­siles via lob­ster claws and buz­z­saws.

The re­sults are in­tox­i­cat­ing, and while com­par­isons spring to mind – Punch-Out,

Spla­toon and Vir­tual On, among oth­ers – noth­ing quite hits the mark. This is a sin­gu­lar game, easy to un­der­stand but deeply tac­ti­cal, the blend of ac­ces­si­bil­ity and com­plex­ity that is the fight­ing game’s holy grail. We leave our demo re­luc­tantly, hun­gry for more.

In a run­ning theme for Switch’s soft­ware lineup, con­tent is a con­cern. Just five char­ac­ters are avail­able in the build we play, and as we go to press Nin­tendo is yet to con­firm if more will fea­ture in the fi­nal game. With that in mind, price be­comes an is­sue, es­pe­cially given the fact that play­ing Arms in lo­cal mul­ti­player will ne­ces­si­tate the pur­chase of an ex­tra set of ex­pen­sive Joy-Con con­trollers. The game is playable with­out mo­tion, us­ing the sticks and but­tons of a Pro con­troller or Joy-Con, but it sim­ply wouldn’t be the same. There is no more re­sound­ing en­dorse­ment of a mo­tion­con­trolled game than that.

While far from the fastest-paced fight­ing game around, it feels more dy­namic than it is

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