K.O.

How Nin­tendo is bring­ing one of the tough­est gen­res to the masses with bril­liant fight­ing game Arms

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN

Do they even have gen­res at Nin­tendo? Pick any game from the most en­vi­able back cat­a­logue in all of videogames, then try to neatly cat­e­gorise it. Chances are, you’ll be do­ing it a dis­ser­vice. Pik­min is no RTS, and Spla­toon hardly a shooter.

Pilotwings de­serves bet­ter than the fusty la­bel of flight sim, and who would dare call Mario Kart a driv­ing game? Across most of its time in the videogame busi­ness, the only mo­ments a first­party Nin­tendo game has slot­ted neatly into a sin­gle genre is be­cause one has had to be in­vented to ac­com­mo­date it. Nin­tendo sim­ply doesn’t think that way – which is why, when in­tro­duc­ing us to Arms, the com­pany’s first in­ter­nally de­vel­oped ver­sus-fight­ing game since 1984’s

Ur­ban Cham­pion, pro­ducer Ko­suke Yabuki is talk­ing not only about fists and feet, but guns and ammo, too.

“Arms,” he says, “is a fight­ing-sports game that makes use of char­ac­ters with ex­tendible arms. It’s sim­i­lar to box­ing, where you trade blows with an op­po­nent at close range, as

well as shoot­ing, where you aim at an op­po­nent some dis­tance away. I love fight­ing games and shoot­ers; I feel Arms isn’t ei­ther of those gen­res, even though it in­cludes el­e­ments of both.”

It’s a bold claim – though not ex­actly an orig­i­nal one, since no game de­vel­oper likes the idea of be­ing put in a pi­geon-hole. But he’s right. Arms cer­tainly re­calls the shooter in the way it re­quires a care­ful aim at a far-off op­po­nent. It’s a fight­ing game, too, with its health bars, its three-round setup, and its use of the clas­sic rock-pa­per-scis­sors re­la­tion­ship be­tween blocks, blows and throws. But we’ve never played a shooter in which the bul­let is ac­tu­ally a metal wreck­ing ball on a coiled spring, whose an­gle we can change af­ter fir­ing and which flaps daftly in the air if it misses be­fore lan­guidly re­coil­ing its way back to us. And we’ve never played a fight­ing game in which land­ing a sim­ple punch is the hard­est thing in the game. We have thou­sands of hours of ex­pe­ri­ence of both the gen­res on which Arms is sup­pos­edly based, yet Arms makes us feel not like a vet­eran, but an ab­so­lute rookie. It is none­the­less an in­stant, and un­remit­ting, delight.

And yet there is, to put it mildly, some­thing of an ad­just­ment pe­riod in the open­ing ex­changes of our lengthy sit­down with the game – or, more ac­cu­rately, our stand-up with it. While seated play is cer­tainly pos­si­ble – whether play­ing on the TV us­ing the Joy-Con mo­tion con­trols or hunched over the Switch in table­top mode us­ing tra­di­tional sticks and but­tons –

Arms is at its best when you’re on your feet. You hold the JoyCons in what Nin­tendo calls the Thumbs-Up po­si­tion, the con­trollers up­right, sticks and but­tons fac­ing in­wards. You move your char­ac­ter by tilt­ing the con­trollers in a given di­rec­tion. Arm mo­tions pro­duce punches, as you’d ex­pect, with twists of the wrist curv­ing the tra­jec­tory of your blow; push­ing both arms for­ward at the same time ini­ti­ates a grab at­tempt, while bring­ing the Joy-Cons to­gether in front of you puts up your guard. The shoul­der but­tons per­form jumps and dashes, and when a su­per me­ter fills a tap of a trig­ger will be­gin a Flurry Rush, where fran­tic punches with both arms un­leash a suc­ces­sion of dam­ag­ing blows.

Those are not just the ba­sics, but the sum to­tal of Arms’ con­trols. There are no tricky spe­cial-move in­puts, and no lengthy combo strings to learn. It is no co­in­ci­dence that many of the se­nior mem­bers of the de­vel­op­ment team have a Wii

Sports credit on their CV. Arms is, by de­sign, sim­ple and in­tu­itive, a gen­tle work­out, and an ab­so­lute plea­sure to play.

Yet there is depth, and plenty of it. “I won­dered if there was any way to make Arms a lit­tle more ac­ces­si­ble as a fight­ing game,” says Shin­taro Jiku­maru, the game’s de­sign di­rec­tor, of his early ex­per­i­ments with the Arms for­mula. “Specif­i­cally, whether it would be pos­si­ble to re­place the el­e­ments that make up a fight­ing game with some­thing more vis­ually in­tu­itive. For ex­am­ple, in­stead of hav­ing open­ings in your de­fence dur­ing or af­ter an at­tack, we have the arm ex­ten­sion and re­trac­tion me­chanic. And in­stead of strong and weak at­tacks, we have light-but-fast and slow-but-heavy weapons.”

Your arms, cho­sen from a se­lec­tion of three be­fore each round, are in­de­pen­dent from each other, al­low­ing you to mix and match your load­out. They’re the beat­ing heart of the game, and help smooth over many of the char­ac­ter-bal­anc­ing is­sues that are in­her­ent in fight­ing-game de­sign. Con­ven­tion dic­tates that a heavy-set char­ac­ter like Arms’ Master Mummy should strug­gle to pin down a fast, flighty op­po­nent like, say, Rib­bon Girl. While that can be true, with the right weapon se­lec­tion, the gap can be closed.

A hefty fist such as the Me­ga­ton will not only stop a foe in their tracks if it hits, but can also be used to close off an es­cape route, let­ting you deal dam­age with the lighter, faster weapon in your other hand. A vol­ley of three rock­ets gives you a bet­ter chance of land­ing a hit on an op­po­nent on the move, while a weighty slam from a ham­mer will root a static foe to the spot. Arms can be charged up, too, to in­crease the power of the blow, or in­flict trou­ble­some sta­tus ef­fects. While you only take three into bat­tle, the choice is huge; a typ­i­cally fussy Nin­tendo em­bargo pre­vents us from get­ting too spe­cific, but us­ing an in-game cur­rency you will amass hun­dreds of pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tions for each of the game’s char­ac­ters.

Said em­bargo also for­bids us from dis­cussing the size of the ros­ter – one of the more widely ex­pressed con­cerns af­ter Arms’ un­veil­ing in Jan­uary. Suf­fice it to say that at launch there’ll be more than the five shown off at the game’s an­nounce­ment. More seem set to fol­low, too. “The fight­ers we’ve an­nounced are just a frac­tion of what’s to come,” Jiku­maru says. “We’ll be in­tro­duc­ing fight­ers all the time, with all sorts of abil­i­ties.”

Ah, yes, abil­i­ties. The dev team’s ini­tial vi­sion was for the game’s char­ac­ters to have ac­tive skills, sim­i­lar to a tra­di­tional fight­ing game’s spe­cial moves, that could be per­formed dur­ing bat­tle. As de­vel­op­ment pro­gressed, how­ever, Nin­tendo changed tack, adding in­her­ent prop­er­ties to the char­ac­ters’ ba­sic movesets that help dif­fer­en­ti­ate them from each other in more than just their body types. Master Mummy re­gains health while his guard’s up, for in­stance, while Rib­bon Girl can jump four times with­out touch­ing the ground. Nin­jara’s air­borne dodge is a Blink move that makes in­com­ing blows pass through clean air. The newly re­vealed Min Min, mean­while, per­forms a quick kick au­to­mat­i­cally when you back- or air-dash that, if prop­erly timed, will knock away an en­emy’s at­tack. Any char­ac­ter can counter blows like this with a well-timed punch of their own, or by trig­ger­ing their Flurry Rush at the right time, but Min Min’s abil­ity to do so quickly, while evad­ing, stands her apart.

Th­ese lit­tle dif­fer­ences de­fine the cast, mak­ing each feel dif­fer­ent both in the hands and as an op­po­nent. They also show the em­pha­sis Arms places on a char­ac­ter’s mo­bil­ity, rather than just their moveset. That’s re­in­forced by the stage de­sign. One fea­tures pil­lars to act as cover, or to bend punches around; an­other has spring­boards around its perime­ter. Oth­ers make use of el­e­va­tion to show how ad­van­ta­geous the higher ground can be, while still more have de­struc­tible el­e­ments, so the stage changes over time. All make it harder to get, and keep, a bead on an al­ready flighty op­po­nent.

All that means that sim­ply land­ing a punch is a feat in it­self early on – es­pe­cially if, like us, you in­stinc­tively curve your

ARMS IS, BY DE­SIGN, SIM­PLE AND IN­TU­ITIVE, A GEN­TLE WORK­OUT, AND AN AB­SO­LUTE PLEA­SURE TO PLAY

real-world punches, and have to coach your­self into shoot­ing straight. It says much that our first vic­tory by time­out – where, in the genre tra­di­tion, the win­ner is the one with the most re­main­ing health when the timer hits zero – comes not be­tween two slow, cagey op­po­nents, but two of the fastest char­ac­ters in the game. While we’re still find­ing our feet (OK, fists) af­ter six hours of play, the CPU AI shows us how it should be done on its higher dif­fi­cul­ties: our op­po­nent, Nin­jara, wins by time­out af­ter we’ve failed to land a sin­gle hit. It’s a gen­eral fight­ing game tru­ism that know­ing how to not get hit is as im­por­tant as be­ing able to land the most dam­ag­ing combo, but never has the bal­ance felt so firmly tipped to­wards the for­mer. Arms is a game played with few in­puts, but there is a tremen­dous amount to think about dur­ing play. It has been, Jiku­maru ad­mits, a com­plex process to drill Arms down to this mag­i­cal bal­ance of sim­plic­ity and com­plex­ity.

“First of all we asked our­selves how we wanted play­ers to use each of the char­ac­ters,” he says. “For ex­am­ple, is this a char­ac­ter who doesn’t jump much, and is mainly for ground com­bat? Or is this a char­ac­ter who is go­ing to jump a lot? Once we had this de­cided, we started test­ing out abil­i­ties. Our ap­proach was to pick abil­i­ties that were a lot of fun to use – that you just couldn’t help but use, and that felt very in­tu­itive.”

What, then, of char­ac­ter bal­ance, which is one of the defin­ing el­e­ments of any suc­cess­ful fight­ing game? As should be clear by now, Arms doesn’t abide by genre rules; in or­der to en­sure all its mov­ing parts played nicely to­gether, the de­vel­op­ment team had to re­think its tra­di­tional ap­proach to game bal­ance. Dur­ing the mak­ing of Breath Of The Wild, for

in­stance, the de­vel­op­ment staff would oc­ca­sion­ally down tools for a week or more to play the game. Arms may not match Switch’s cur­rent star at­trac­tion for size and scope, but the devil’s in the de­tail in the fight­ing-game genre, a few frames of an­i­ma­tion in ei­ther di­rec­tion ca­pa­ble of putting a char­ac­ter at the top of the tier list, or con­sign­ing them to the trash­can.

“In ad­di­tion to the vast num­ber of pos­si­bil­i­ties you can get from the dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of left arm, fighter and right arm, if you in­clude the ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages in­curred in stages as well, then it’s not prac­ti­cal to bal­ance ev­ery­thing with just a hand­ful of de­sign­ers,” Jiku­maru says. “To cope with this, we de­signed some sys­tems to tab­u­late the bat­tle re­sults of all the de­vel­op­ers, as well as a sys­tem for the AI to bat­tle it­self all night.” More tra­di­tional meth­ods – of playtest­ing, it­er­at­ing and playtest­ing again – were em­ployed too, of course, but those un­seen AI all-nighters were a vi­tal tool in the cre­ation of a game that, cur­rently at least, feels re­mark­ably well bal­anced com­ing from a com­pany with lit­tle genre ex­pe­ri­ence.

Those au­to­mated matches were also es­sen­tial be­cause play­ing Arms stood up, Joy-Cons in hand, with mo­tion con­trols is hardly a re­lax­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. We de­part our six-hour ses­sion ex­hausted, and apolo­getic for leav­ing a Nin­tendo demo area smelling like a locker room. The more seden­tar­ily in­clined – or those un­able to play stand­ing up be­cause they’ve taken their Switch on pub­lic trans­port, say – can make use of less phys­i­cally in­ten­sive con­trol op­tions af­forded by Nin­tendo’s mul­ti­fac­eted new hard­ware. Slot the Joy-Cons into a grip pe­riph­eral, hand over one of the con­trollers to a friend, or pick up a Pro Con­troller, and Arms starts to feel a lit­tle more fa­mil­iar. Punches can be thrown us­ing the trig­gers, or two of the face but­tons – jump and dash are mapped to the other two. You click the left stick to guard. Ev­ery­thing you need is here, and it works – but some­thing’s miss­ing. Since the left stick con­trols the an­gle of your punches, you can’t move in one di­rec­tion and punch in the other. You can’t strike at a dif­fer­ent an­gle with your other hand un­til the first punch is fully ex­tended, ei­ther. Robbed of the phys­i­cal­ity of its mo­tion-con­trol in­puts,

Arms isn’t quite the same. No doubt th­ese al­ter­na­tive con­trol op­tions have been added to en­sure the game is playable in ev­ery sit­u­a­tion in which you can use a Switch. Yet it also feels like a thumb of the nose, how­ever un­in­ten­tional, to play­ers who spent the Wii gen­er­a­tion com­plain­ing they’d have pre­ferred to have played Mo­tion-Con­trolled Game X sat on their back­sides with sticks and but­tons. On-foot mo­tion con­trols aren’t the only way to play Arms, but for our money, they’re far and away the best. Pro­ducer Yabuki, as you’d ex­pect, agrees.

“The true feel of Arms comes when you’re hold­ing both JoyCon con­trollers in the Thumbs-Up grip,” he says. “You can throw punches from each hand with real pre­ci­sion as you dash or jump around, al­low­ing for a lot more depth for your fight­ing style. It’s pos­si­ble to throw a straight punch as a feint for your first blow, then curve your se­cond punch to where your op­po­nent runs to. But Arms doesn’t re­quire you to use mo­tion con­trols. I hope peo­ple will pick the playstyle that suits them.”

We rather hope mo­tion con­trols be­come the stan­dard – if only for the sight of see­ing pro fight­ing-game play­ers flail­ing around dur­ing match-win­ning Flurry Rushes on the big­gest stages of the tour­na­ment cir­cuit. Yet for that to hap­pen, the pas­sion­ate, but highly de­mand­ing, fight­ing-game au­di­ence will have to ac­cept it as a pas­time wor­thy of their sup­port. At the other end of the scale, Arms is a Nin­tendo game, so must ap­peal to a wide au­di­ence; and as an early re­lease for a young con­sole, it needs to lure in as many early Switch adopters as pos­si­ble. Ap­peal­ing to such dif­fer­ent groups might seem like an im­pos­si­ble task. Juki­maru, how­ever, doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t ac­tu­ally con­sider fight­ing games to be a niche genre,” he says. “There are a lot of big games, and a lot of ti­tles that are prom­i­nent on the es­ports scene. It’s a fiercely com­pet­i­tive genre. We de­signed the ap­pear­ance and sys­tems of

Arms so that peo­ple can feel like it’s the kind of game they’d like to play, too, by mak­ing it so you could see the tra­jec­tory of your arms, and by re­duc­ing the amount of things you have to mem­o­rise. And be­cause we were us­ing mo­tion con­trols, we worked hard to make sure that while you could play sim­ply by wav­ing your hands, you couldn’t win against a good player by just do­ing that. Mak­ing games ac­ces­si­ble while still main­tain­ing plenty of depth is a never-end­ing prob­lem in videogame de­vel­op­ment, and we have taken on that chal­lenge with Arms as well.”

Yet if there is a con­cern, it’s that Arms falls awk­wardly be­tween two stools, at least as a con­cept: a game in a genre en­joyed by se­ri­ous, skilled play­ers, but whose pre­sen­ta­tion and con­trol sys­tem seem de­signed to ap­peal to a more ca­sual au­di­ence. Both groups can rest easy. Fight­ing-game play­ers can

“YOU CAN THROW PUNCHES FROM EACH HAND WITH REAL PRE­CI­SION AS YOU DASH OR JUMP AROUND”

look for­ward to a game that is un­like any other they have ever played, that is based on the same set of fun­da­men­tal build­ing blocks that let the genre work its magic, and whose cus­tomis­able load­outs of­fer up tremen­dous scope for the­o­rycraft­ing and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. The less ex­pe­ri­enced will find a game that strips away the el­e­ments that typ­i­cally turn peo­ple off the genre, with in­tu­itive, in­stinc­tive con­trols. Those in be­tween can sim­ply look for­ward to what ap­pears to be an­other es­sen­tial pur­chase for Switch.

Nin­tendo ex­ecs have spo­ken fre­quently in re­cent years about the need to cre­ate new IP, un­der­stand­ing that it can­not ride on Mario and Link’s backs for all eter­nity, and per­haps ac­knowl­edg­ing that the com­pany’s rep­u­ta­tion for fear­less, rest­less creativ­ity was un­der threat. Yet that is one mon­strous legacy to try and work un­der. Do Nin­tendo staff feel as if they have been tasked with mak­ing a new game, or the first en­try in a se­ries that is go­ing to run for 30 years and count­ing?

“It would be like a dream for this to be­come a fran­chise span­ning decades,” Yabuki says. “But right now, only a small num­ber of peo­ple in the world know about Arms: those who closely fol­low new games and tech­nol­ogy. First, I’d like those peo­ple to play Arms, and have fun with it. This game of­fers a brand-new playstyle, brand-new char­ac­ters and brand-new strate­gic game­play.” We stand cor­rected: there’s a pi­geon-hole into which plenty of Nin­tendo games can fit.

Game Arms De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Nin­tendo For­mat Switch Re­lease June 16

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