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