As you’d expect from the name, being able to throw a proper punch is the most important thing in Arms. Use the recommended control scheme – the Thumbs-Up Grip, with a Joy-Con upright in each hand – and chances are you’ll quickly realise you naturally curve your real-world punches; that won’t do in Arms, where simply getting an enemy into a punchable position frequently feels like the hardest thing. When you’ve finally pinned them down, the last thing you want is for your execution to let you down.
But saying that, punch control is the most important thing in Arms. You need to hit things, sure – but you’ll often want to miss on purpose, sending out a limb to block off an escape route. Master Mummy’s hulking Megaton fist is slow, and easy to avoid if you see it coming. If an opponent sends one out to your right, you’re going to go left; a canny foe, knowing this, will send a follow-up punch in the direction to which they’ve just tricked you into heading. Being hit in the face is bad enough; knowing that you walked straight into it is even worse.
Especially if the fist in question had been charged up – since that, really, is the most important thing in
Arms. While the methods of doing so are largely universal across the cast – blocking for a while, holding the jump button until you touch the ground again, or likewise with a dash – some characters get a new ability when their arms are charged, and every fist type takes on a new property. Some get bigger; others faster. They might stun an opponent with electricity, knock them to the ground with fire, or lock them in place with ice.
Really, though, none of that matters unless you get your arm selection right, which is the most important thing in Arms. Each of the ten characters will have, once unlocked, a pool of 30 fists to choose from, and can take a loadout of just three into battle. Some fly straight, some in a curve and others randomly, while some have homing properties. Some are slow to start up, but eventually emit bursts of laser fire. One bounces along the ground, and if it hits your opponent, will explode and leave an inky mess on their screen. Ensuring you take a good loadout – not only to suit your attacking style, but also to counter anything your opponent might throw at you – is the true key to success.
That’s true, but none of that’s any use if you don’t base your playstyle on the designs of each stage, which really are the most important thing in Arms. Some prompt simple battles over the high and low ground; others change over the course of the match, revealing a central trampoline, for example, that makes your movement easy to predict when you step on it. Others have controllable platforms, or pillars that canny players will stay behind for cover, using arms with curved trajectories to punch enemies from out of sight. Or there might be trampolines around the perimeter of the stage, which not only allow you to mix up your angle of approach, but also to extend combos after downed opponents bounce back into the air.
All of that can be mitigated with good defence, which is why blocking is the most important thing in
Arms. The camera is positioned tight behind your fighter, and curving arms are hard to track. And while you’ll want to keep moving to make life as difficult as possible, you’ll occasionally be boxed in with no escape route, and will need to put up your guard, bringing the two Joy-Cons together in front of your chest.
We say that, but now we think about it, defensive punching is the most important thing in Arms. Punches that meet in transit will cancel each other out, limbs flopping hopelessly to the floor before recoiling back to their sender. Wait until an opponent’s punch is about to connect, then quickly jab it away, and you’ve got a clear window for a reprisal. Throw attempts can be similarly batted away. Get it right, and you never need get hit.
But, wait – in fact, mobility is the most important thing in Arms. Every character has a jump, and a dash, which can be performed on the ground or in the air, and some of the cast can perform one or the other multiple times. Ribbon Girl has a triple jump; Mechanica can hover in mid-air by holding the button; Ninjara has a teleport that makes punches pass helplessly through clean air. Character turning circles are slow, so a flighty foe can feel like an impossible one to fight. In a game whose punch animations can be measured in seconds, not frames, mobility is everything.
The truth of it, then, is that everything is the most important thing in Arms. Every character, arm type, stage design and strategic tweak can feel utterly transformative; the game pulls that magical trick of making its every component part feel irredeemably broken under certain circumstances, an even balance somehow emerging from the chaos. And by stripping away the fiddle and the faff of so many fighting games – being able to direct and control your punches properly is about the limit of Arms’ skill ceiling – Nintendo has crafted a level playing field for combatants of all skill levels. Genre veterans understand the importance of adaptation: of identifying the kinks and tells in an opponent’s strategy, and adjusting your approach accordingly. It’s something that only typically comes into play when you’ve spent a couple of hundred hours in a fighting-game training mode, making execution a matter of muscle memory, and can let your brain focus on the finer details of a fight. Here, because the controls are so instinctive, adaptation comes naturally. Even fights between relative novices can have the back-and-forth flow of a high-level match.
With such magic at the game’s core, it is a little easier to excuse its flaws. Perhaps most troubling of all
You need to hit things, sure – but you’ll often want to miss on purpose, sending out a limb to block off an escape route
is that, while only rarely, it can sometimes feel as if the motion controls are letting you down. No doubt user error is to blame for, say, an intended grab attempt (punching with both arms simultaneously) coming out as two punches deployed a couple of frames apart. But occasionally there can be too much of a gap between intention and execution, and that simply evaporates when using traditional controls. Doing so loses a few abilities, however – you can no longer curl punches independently, or widen the horizontal range of a grab attempt – and it’s a good deal less fun. And whoever decided to map blocking to a click of the left stick needs their head read. Putting your guard up when using motion controls isn’t perfect either, in fairness. The game can feel uncommonly exacting when it comes to recognising the input, and we’ve taken a few smacks in the face that we didn’t feel were warranted.
But that’s nothing a minor patch can’t fix, and Nintendo has already committed to supporting the game in the long run. While the company has been open in its intent for Arms to follow Splatoon’s lead – a slender launch package that is steadily expanded over time, for free – the fact remains that there’s not much meat on the game’s bones on day one. The singleplayer Grand Prix is Arcade mode by another name, its eight difficulty levels veering a little too quickly from doddle to waking nightmare. Fights are interspersed with minigames, which are also playable separately, and while there’s a certain thrill to Hoops, which tweaks throws and Flurry Rush super moves to end with your opponent being flung through a basketball ring, other modes feel a little shoehorned in. V-Ball is a game of volleyball – volleybomb, really – that you never quite feel in control of, while Skillshot puts players at either end of a shooting range, awarding points for smashing targets and landing dings on each other.
Still, they do a fine job as pace-breakers, both in Grand Prix and the excellent online mode, which has lobby support for multiple players and lets those at the back of the queue instantly enter practice mode at the press of a button. Rather than a simple succession of versus battles, lobbies set a cumulative score target and then bookend fights with minigame battles and the occasional co-op scrap with Hedlok, a boss character with six arms. The decision to even award points to the loser is a masterstroke, ensuring those that are getting destroyed in the one-on-one arena feel like they are still within touching distance of the ultimate prize.
That is Arms in a nutshell: it is a very Nintendo sort of fighting game, just as Splatoon was a very Nintendo kind of shooter. It removes much of the skill barrier that deters far more people from the genre than it attracts, and powers it with instinctive controls that mean players of all skill levels can compete. It contains layers of strategic depth that unfurl organically, almost invisibly, simply through play; the tutorial is a slender thing indeed, yet for once in this frequently confusing genre, it barely matters. Yes, it’s a little light on content, but what’s in there is delightful, accessible, intuitive, playful stuff. From the off it’s fun and, before long, it becomes oddly magical, too. Over time, it may become wondrous. At launch it will just have to settle for being merely excellent, and yet another standard bearer for Nintendo’s new console. That, we suppose, is really the most important thing about Arms.
When Twintelle is charging her arms, she generates a forcefield that slows down incoming punches. It’s a fine defensive tool, but easy enough to counter: its duration is short, so you time punches to connect as it ends