I walked up the tallest hill of my stupid life to reach Nintendo’s Arms event, where I would later punch the air for a few hours. My legs were sore; I could feel blisters forming at my ankles. I wished I wasn’t so cheap and just ordered a Lyft instead of making the twenty minute trek up the steepest hills San Francisco has to offer. But hours later, when I left the event, it wasn’t my legs that hurt anymore: but my literal arms. It all felt like a sick twist of fate.
One of the most common descriptors that I (and others) have thrown around about the upcoming Nintendo Switch game Arms is that it’s Splatoon for the fighting game crowd. It’s a game that envisions a fighting game that’s a bit more lively, fluid, and more kid-friendly, like that very ink splatter did for the multiplayer shooter genre. In Arms, the niche genre is at once accessible for casual players, and has an extra layer of depth for the more dedicated. Recently, I had a chance to swing some virtual arms in Arms myself. Except it wasn’t all arms. At least not literally.
The Arms on display was pretty close to the final version, I was told, which will be released at the tail end of busy, busy, busy E3 week on June 16th worldwide. I had a chance to play as all ten characters the game will have to offer: the ramen-infused Min Min, the creepy DNA blob Helix, the mecha-piloting Mechanica, the ever-agile Ninjara, the enormous Master Mummy, the marquee characters Spring Man and Ribbon Girl, as well as some new additions to the roster, announced during today’s Nintendo Direct.
The newbies—Kid Cobra, Twintelle, and the adorable robots Barq & Byte—all feel different as they throw their weight around. Twintelle, with her actual hands perpetually on her hips, evokes an aura of sass as her weaponized pigtails punch opponents. Kid Cobra is light on his feet. With Barq & Byte, Byte ends up being a useful asset, as an opponent now has to deal with the unpredictability of not just two gloves flying in their direction, but three.
During my time testing all the characters—and the three swappable gloves for each fighter available in the demo build—I finessed into the different abilities the fighters all had to offer. Where I hated playing as the incredibly slow Master Mummy, I alternatively loved playing as Ninjara, who disappears for a brief second in the midst of dash, and Mechanica, whose strength is not to be messed with. With just a few hours with Arms, the game feels fine-tuned to a way where every type of player will find a fighter they’ll connect with.
But alas, there’s something inherently off about Arms. It’s likely the motion control of the JoyCons, which don’t feel precise enough a fair amount of the time. I’d launch my arms forward in an effort to grab and slam dunk an opponent in Hoops mode (where the goal is dunking your opponents into a hoop rather than hitting them), only for each glove to punch forward one after the other. During my time with the game, I wondered if this was an issue that could be simply remedied with the Pro controller, a gamepad with more precision and without the flimsy unpredictability of the Switch’s motion controls. Unfortunately, the event didn’t have one at the ready. And it’s a conundrum, as with the Pro controller the gimmick of Arms would be lost, as it’s a game where you are literally, and strategically, battling another person with the brush of an air punch.
With a breadth of competitive modes and more friendly modes, Nintendo seems to be priming Arms to be taken seriously beyond the casual crowd. I wonder if that’s even viable, with the wieldy, not-always-landing punches. For the fighting games that commonly grace events like EVO, careful precision and combos are everything. If Arms’ issues could be fixed with a mere controller instead of decking the air, then maybe Arms has a future in the competitive esports realm.
Aside from standard fighting, or even the new chaotic two-versus-two mode that pits two players against two others, the separate modes felt like the weakest aspect of Arms. Some modes don’t click as well as others, like Skillshot, where you aim for bullseye targets to accrue points rather than, well, doing what you do across the rest of the game: punch each other. Hoops, a mode about dunking your opponents into a basketball hoop, ends up feeling repetitive and bland after a few rounds. Fighting, however, in spite of its imperfect controls, nearly always feels fresh every match, especially with the wide variety of swappable arms in the player’s arsenal.
Despite these qualms, I still enjoyed my time with Arms, even when I fumbled terribly and lost; and even when my biceps felt a bit sore after playing for a few hours. It’s an easy game to fall into—you literally only use the shoulder buttons and the motion control of punching forward—with a colorful, quirky roster of fighters to play as. As Splatoon once brightened up a dark world of monotonous often-military shooters, I imagine Arms will do the same thing for the muscularly dominated fighting game world. And I can't wait for the day when playing Arms with friends, when someone will inevitably one day punch a hole through an expensive TV.