Why Arms’ greatest trick is also likely its most divisive element
We can probably blame Super Mario Galaxy. Wii’s star attraction was the game that truly invoked the ire of the more traditional segment of the gaming population; for all that the console’s ground-breaking motion controls had broadened that audience, it had done so with games like Wii Sports and Carnival Games – titles built specifically for those controls, and those people. Wii launch title The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess was easily forgiven, a Gamecube port with Wiimote controls tacked on to give early adopters something more meaty to chew over than the rest of the launch line-up offered. But Galaxy? A true mainline Mario game that insisted players give a little flick of the wrist to perform a spin attack, or to access the star gates that catapulted them between planets? Simply unacceptable, apparently.
For many, that was not the beginning of the end of motion controls. It was simply the end. Now, if they were to be spoken of at all, ‘motion’ would have to be replaced by ‘waggle’, ‘controls’ would make way for ‘bullshit’ and the whole thing would have to be said with a sneer. Or, if you were on the Internet – and you probably were, let’s be honest – with an eyeroll smiley.
It was absurd then, and it’s even more absurd now. These days we accept motion inputs as just another way to play, and sometimes the best way to control certain games. Where would VR, for instance, be without them? Rez Infinite would still be in touching distance of perfect, yes, but games such as Budget Cuts or Superhot VR wouldn’t be the same. Indeed, they may not even exist. VR’s return to the fore has been bumpy, but without Nintendo’s motion-control groundwork, its comeback trail would’ve been even rougher.
Yet Arms, for all its quality, risks reopening old wounds. Here, once again, is a game ostensibly built for those for whom games are more than a mere pastime. Fighting games are in equal part renowned and feared for their complexity; Arms, however, does away with a lot of what we expect from a game in this genre. There are no complex combo strings to memorise. Indeed, the Flurry Rush super aside, we’re yet to land a combo of more than three hits before an opponent is knocked down. Every move, including the damaging Flurry, can be performed with a single gesture or button press.
As such, Arms finds itself in a difficult place. Committed fighting-game players may see it as too simple. Novices may see a game in a genre that has always baffled them. The Galaxy hate mob may – OK, probably will – see a simplified fighting game that’s played with motion controls and dismiss it out of hand as a game that’s compromised at a conceptual level. We’d love a Nintendo-developed fighting game, they’ll say. But we want a proper one.
In fairness, there may be times when you’ll agree with them. Feeling a little overconfident after a few successful hours against the AI, we headed online – but Ranked matches aren’t available until you’ve cleared the singleplayer Arcade mode at difficulty level four. Well, fine; we’ve done one through three, so this should be easy enough. Except it turns out there’s a very good reason Nintendo has elected to gate off the punishing battlegrounds of ranked play in this fashion. Level four is a heck of a step up; we struggle for an hour so then quit out, suitably chastened. We put the Joy-Cons to one side, pick up the Pro controller, and try again. It’s still no cakewalk, though it’s a good deal easier – but then again, it should be. We don’t have to think about how to operate the controller in our hands. Motion controls are intuitive, yes, but not to the same degree as the friendly configuration of sticks and buttons that we’ve held in our hands for countless thousands of hours over the years. This is why Galaxy became a sort of bête noire for the trad-games crowd: its hybrid of ‘proper’ and motion controls added a layer of uncertainty into their play sessions. I know the problem, and I know the solution. But what’s the thing I need to do with my hands to make it happen?
This is precisely, of course, why motion controls exist, and why Wii was such an instant success: because your non-gaming relative didn’t need to ask you which button to press to make the little man serve the ball. It’s why Arms is the way it is, too. Nintendo hasn’t made a true fighting game since the ’80s, because the complexity and niche appeal of the genre don’t chime well with the company’s almost obsessive desire for its games to feel welcoming and easy to understand. That it has made something so friendly, yet so deep, with such a basic set of inputs is remarkable, yet it runs the risk of being dismissed on sight by an element of the game-playing public that sees being asked to do anything other than twiddle thumbsticks and tap buttons as an affront.
The difference this time is they don’t have to. Thanks to its host hardware’s portable nature and various controller configurations, in Arms, motion controls are optional. For our money they’re preferable, even if they’re not optimal, the joyful physicality of a local multiplayer bout proving more than enough to make up for any frustration at the occasional botched or misread input. Perhaps the wider public will agree. Maybe Arms will, by offering both sides of the control divide at the same time, be the game that finally repairs gesture controls’ reputation. If not, it may have to make do with being the Switch’s Super Mario Galaxy. That, in fairness, is pretty good company to be in.
The Galaxy hate mob may – OK, probably will – see a simplified fighting game that’s played with motion controls