Arms

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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.

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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

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