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