Arms Review: Fists of Fury

Nintendo's new fighting game is charming, but a little too sparse.

Arms is a strange, endearing little game. Emphasis on the little. It's the newest game from Nintendo, a sorta marquee title for the Nintendo Switch. Already heralded as "the Splatoon for fighting games," there's a lot riding on the game. And surprisingly, many, many ways to play it.

At first glance, the world surrounding Arms is wild and bright. The game's ten fighters are all quirky in their own ways. From Ribbon Girl, a cheerleader gone pop star, to Mechanica, a normal human girl who admired the coil-armed fighters of Arms, the television show, so much that she built a mecha that worked in the same way. The lore behind the spiral-armed fighters is rightfully odd. In its world, a select few humans (and non-humans) awoke one day with lengthy spiral arms, and the characters do as anyone with that predicament does: they battle one another on a faux-television show called ARMS. The winner gets glory, and presumably bragging rights.

Arms is a fighting game, technically, but it operates a bit more like a shooter. You choose a character, each with their own special ability in tow. For example, Twintelle can glide in the air magically for a brief few seconds, while Master Mummy heals himself as he guards. You choose a stage, each themed after one of Arms' unique fighters (a giant ramen bowl for the literal noodle-armed Min-Min, a rusty scrapyard for the DIY-created Mechanica, and so on). At the outset, you have three particular "arms" to choose from per fighter: boxing gloves each with their own singular ability. There's two primary discernible traits between the arms: their class (light, medium, heavy), and their elemental perk.

The gloves, unfortunately, don't end up feeling like they vary too much. Once you've played as every character, you've seen all the game has to offer by way of literal arms. Sure, you can unlock more in the small "Get Arms" tab on the bottom of the main menu screen—playable in limited time slots (short for 30 coins, medium for 100 coins, and long for 200 coins) after accruing coins through the game's many other modes—but the only arms unlockable are the ones already equipped by default to other fighters.

In the instance that you're a Twintelle main who wants Kid Cobra's boomerang-like "Coolerang" arm, you just have to hope for the best. The system feels like a skill-based loot box in a way. In the Arm Getter, you punch through targets to build up points, and punch through little gift boxes to unlock specific arms in the process. Inevitably, you're often bright-eyed and bushy-tailed going in, crestfallen going out.

There are many types of lightweight gloves, each with their own elemental ability. If you charge them up (either with a perfect dash or guard), they awaken their inherent elemental power. Sparky, a yellow glove, will briefly shock an opponent when charged up. Essentially the same glove, Chilla, will instead freeze an opponent for a short period of time when charged. The elemental powers all feel the same when you boil it down: they stall the opponent in some fashion, leaving them wide open for a grab while they're vulnerable. There are a few elements that stray from this path, but primarily, they stay the course.

There are other wildly different variants of gloves, each with their own subclasses of disparate elemental abilities. Boomerang-like arms coil in a curve. The Tribolt-like arms shoot three smaller arms simultaneously (particularly useful in the Skillshot mode). They nearly all end up being repeated across the roster, slapping on a varying elemental ability, but ultimately all feeling the same across their own league.

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When I attended an Arms preview event last month, a Nintendo representative talked up all the ways to play it. There are "8,000 combinations," they said to a small gathering of notes-scribbling reporters. What they failed to recognize, beyond the mixture of swappable arms and chooseable fighters, were the combinations that come into play in how one uses their Switch. I can't do math, but technically speaking, there are far more combinations than just 8,000.

I played Arms in every way imaginable, in maybe the console's first true test in flexibility. I realized over the course of playing Arms that every time I picked up the game, I was seeing it, and honestly feeling it too, in a whole new way. The rhythm I experienced Arms through was ever-changing. Sometimes depending on my mood. Sometimes on comfortability. Sometimes solely dependent on how I wanted to play, like if I was in the serious, play-to-win mindset. Sometimes, plainly, I molded a new way of playing out of curiosity.

I realized the lenses of these different playstyles often directly correlated with my enjoyment (and in some cases, non-enjoyment) of Arms. Arms is a game with many highs, a lot of middles, and some pretty low-lows. It's a unique subset of a "play your way" game, where the "play your way" leaves the virtual world, and seeps into the tangibility of how you utilize the Switch. The analog controls, I learned, were hard to get used to and a bit illogical. Motion controls were better than most motion controlled games, but are still just the teensiest bit unwieldy. Because of Arms' wildly different experiences, I've opted to do a different sort of review: reviewing my varied experiences of Arms. (So meta, right?)

My dude here is a baby.

Kickstand, Motion Controls

I downloaded my press copy of Arms on a Friday afternoon. My work day was closing out, and with a chime, I realized my download was finished. My partner also has a Switch, and he has his dock hooked up to our living room television. My own Switch's dock has been lazily stuck on my desk—not connected to a television at all. Rather than drag myself out to our uncomfortable Ikea couch, I decided to do something that I frankly never do: I propped the Switch via its absurdly puny kickstand, slid out the Joycons, and proceeded to punch the air.

This, I quickly learned, is maybe the worst way to play Arms. The screen is small. Not being held directly in your hands led to me scooting backwards in my chair to an uncomfortable medium distance. I was using motion controls after all, and didn't want to land a hit on the console by accident. Yet the screen being smaller than your average tablet, and Arms needing my utmost attention in order to telegraph my opponents' moves, proved an inefficient way to play.

1.5 out of 5 punches

Docked, Motion Controls, Multiplayer

I played multiplayer mostly with my partner. He groaned at the motion controls. Eventually, I ended up preferring them. (At least, when playing on the television.) Together, we battled against each other. We battled against AI through Grand Prix, a mode that can be done co-op as well as single-player. I prevailed. I failed. He did so too. I learned in this experience that Arms is far more enjoyable when playing with someone else—granted, not for too long of a time. After a couple hours, the fatigue settled in, and we stopped for the night. (He has not played Arms with me since.)

On the topic of multiplayer, I'll run down the many modes in Versus: the primary arena where you'll battle alongside IRL pals. The multiplayer modes in Arms vary drastically. The strongest, as with the rest of the game, is just one-on-one. Team Fight (two-on-two) isn't too bad either (either four people in the same room, or two people versus AI), but the tether that binds you and your friend together often inspires more frustration rather than inspiring agile coordination. The other modes in Versus that are available for multiplayer are Skillshot, where you punch bullseye targets for high scores; V-Ball, where you hit an explodable volleyball back and forth over a net; and Hoops, where your only goal is to grab your opponent, and slam dunk them into a basketball hoop.

At first play, the different modes spice up the core game. But after a few matches, they grow tedious, and I just wished I was in standard fights once again. It's a bummer, especially in the game's online multiplayer Party Match, where players have no say in what type of match they're thrown into. The worst of these, by far, are when three players are thrown into a stage as a free-for-all, left to fight each other—no teams—to KO. The result is usually one player getting teamed up against, taken out quickly, and the remaining two dueling it out like a normal fight.

3.5 out of 5 punches

Docked, Joycons in Grip

I've heard Switch players complain about the gripped Joycons in the past, but they've never bothered me. (The perks of being incredibly small, I guess.) The Pro controller, of course, is usable here. I don't have one, so I'll be honest and admit that I was sorta-lying back when I said I played Arms in "every way imaginable."

Regardless, Arms looks remarkably sharp on the television. The vibrant characters spring to life on the screen as they bounce around battles. Their elastic arms extend to impossible lengths; their fists knock each other out. Watching a match of Arms is tremendously different from playing it. As a now-experienced player, it's now possible for me to see the strategies slipping by. The players not punching other fists out of their way, or not guarding at all. It made me realize the game's esport potential: if players take it seriously enough, and should the arms eventually grow more varied than they currently are.

The fighters have the same problem as the arms. Where the arms' elemental subclasses feel all too similar, the fighters often don't feel too different from one another, outside of a few exceptions and each character's small-but-unique special ability. I found myself gravitating towards Twintelle, who has the ability to hold herself in a glide in mid-air, giving an aerial edge on opponents. Beyond her, the robot cop duo Barq & Byte, and the gross-looking DNA man Helix, the fighters ended up not feeling all too different from one another. Or at least, their differences were subtle enough to be negligible.

Barq & Byte and Helix, in particular, feel the most different from the rest. You technically play as Byte in the Barq & Byte duo. Barq is your robo-dog companion, shooting an arm of their own at opponents. A perfectly timed dash and leap will send you hopping off the dog to get a literal leg up on opponents. Byte's a little bit clunky, but the duo is strong. Meanwhile, Helix has the oddest default arms in the game: a Guardian shield, for protection, and the Blorb. The Blorb is a giant paintball that bounces on the ground with its weight, and if powered up, splatters the opponent's vision (like the squid ink in Mario Kart).

Playing them just made me wish that all the characters felt just as special. As much as I gravitated towards Twintelle (partly because I loved her hair-fighting character design, the other because she was the first fighter I was able to beat the game's 1v100 mode with), she still didn't fundamentally feel too different from a lot of the fighters beside her. In most fighting games, every fighter feels wonderfully singular in both their design, their abilities, and the ways players approach them. In Arms, the fighter behind the fists feels like an afterthought.

3 out of 5 punches

Portable, Joycons Locked Side-by-Side

As I did with Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Puyo Puyo Tetris, and more, I played Arms primarily in portable mode. I couldn't help it. I abhor the analog controls, where you're at an inherent disadvantage due to being unable to curve each arm individually with the analog sticks—as you'd expect after playing with the motion controls. Instead, the A and B buttons are your punches, with only one stick able to curve both. With motion controls, obviously, this isn't an issue. Though as I stated above, motion has its own breadth of imprecise control issues as well.

Still, even if I wished for a way to remap the buttons (spoiler: there is none), I got used to the lackluster controls anyways. I even got good. Or at least, good enough to pass through some of the higher thresholds of the Grand Prix mode. The Grand Prix mode is where the "meat" of Arms is: you choose a character, and battle your way through ten fights to become champion. The battles are familiar, lifted from Versus mode and rewrapped into a tidy package to masquerade as the game's "main" single-player and co-op mode. The battles vary from mostly one-on-ones to the sillier modes, like V-Ball. The Grand Prix isn't technically done the first time you finish it, as there are ten fighters to direct through it, and multiple tiers of difficulty too. (Difficulty level 5, at least for me, is where it ramps upwards drastically.)

3 out of 5 punches

You can change fighters' colors too by holding down the left analog stick in any direction, giving you three alternate hues to choose from.

Arms is a game I like more in theory than actually playing it. It often feels like a shell for a could-be great game. The depth is there, as is the strategy. With more arms, fighters, and stages eventually on the way this year incrementally, like Splatoon's regularly updated model, I imagine a year from now Arms will be a much different (and much better) game.

But as of now, too little stands here. The hardcore players will find something to enjoy. Whether that's in Versus' only single-player mode 1v100 (where players battle 100 AI creatures), in the Grand Prix mode's increasingly more difficult levels, or the competitive Ranked mode (gated for players who have completed the Grand Prix on level 4). Casual players, I suspect, will fall off quickly. The bonus modes offer little enjoyment and much tedium. Multiplayer alongside real life friends, whether versus or co-op, is fun to hop into for a brief amount of time, but never for too long.

Of course, where Arms truly shines is when you're nearly alone in the ring, just fist on fist, one-on-one. It doesn't change the fact that after a few hours with all the fighters and arm combinations, I felt like my time with the game was running thin. Occasionally though, Arms would surprise me. Like in the higher difficulties of its Grand Prix mode (and the later segments of its 1v100 versus modes), when tensions would peak. I just wish that it had more to offer—beyond silly forgettable side modes, an odd online matchmaking system that gives the player no choice, and its lack of tangible variety among its few arms and fighters.

But I guess there's always next year, right?

Arms has a lot to love, and unfortunately, a lot to forget too. After a year of planned updates, I imagine the Arms we see a year from now will be a drastically different game. A more fuller one, at that. In the meantime though, while it has potential with its layers of depth, the core game simply doesn't have enough variety among its many arms and fighters to keep the experience feeling fresh for long.

3/5

Tagged with Arms, Fighting, Nintendo, Nintendo Switch, Reviews.

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