Developer: Nintendo Entertainment Planning & Development
Format: Nintendo Switch
Released: June 16, 2017
Even though the Nintendo Switch is going to miss out on the majority of third party software released on other platforms, its first party lineup for 2017 is looking pretty stellar. This is partly due to the games themselves are of high quality, but also because Nintendo is arguably doing a better job than Sony or Microsoft in staggering their releases in such a way that it seems like we have a brand new Switch exclusive to play each month. Case in point: Arms, June’s major new Switch release. Originally unveiled during the Nintendo Switch presentation back in January, this wacky boxing game initially had “gimmick” written all over it and looked like the kind of motion control shovelware that was all too rampant on the Wii. And to be honest, Arms doesn’t make the greatest first impression, especially if you play it with just the motion controls. However, like any fighting game worth its salt, Arms is much more complex than it initially lets on and becomes more rewarding the longer you spend with it.
It also helps that it’s absolutely dripping with style.
As a fighter, Arms plays like a wacky version of Punch-Out!! if every character controlled like Dhalsim from Street Fighter. Each of the game’s 10 playable combatants fling their stretchable boxing gloves at each other and each of these gloves (which are fittingly called Arms) come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and have their own distinct characteristics. On lower difficulty levels, you can pretty much get away with just flinging punches around and not being overly concerned with loadouts but if you want to be competitive against higher difficulty A.I. opponents or other people online, learning the ins and outs of what each Arm does is essential. Additional complexities reveal themselves when you factor in each fighter’s innate abilities, like Spring Man’s deflections or Ninjara’s teleportation. My one criticism here is that the game doesn’t do a great job of telling you what the actual Arms do and you pretty much just have to experiment for awhile until you find a combination that works.
Much like Blizzard’s Overwatch, Arms excels making each of its characters feel distinct from one another, both in terms of how they play and their actual design. Nintendo easily could have made character design an afterthought here and just focused on the gameplay but instead, they’ve crafted a universe with its own distinct visual design and a surprisingly strong (and absolutely bonkers) backstory. When entire articles are being written about whether certain characters are the greatest thing ever or horrendous abominations, something is obviously going right. I still can’t say for sure whether any of these characters will go on to have long-term popularity with Nintendo fans, but I do know that Helix is a good gooey boy, so it’s clear that they’re already leaving a lasting impression.
Combat in Arms can best be described by that old “easy to pick up, hard to master” cliche, as various nuances and intricacies reveal themselves the deeper you dive into the game’s mechanics. Nintendo has emphasized motion controls in the game’s marketing and while Arms actually controls very well with the Joy-Con controllers, you probably won’t be getting very far in ranked matches unless you’re using a Pro Controller setup. Fortunately, much like the Switch’s other multiplayer-centric titles, Arms allows for a whole range of different control options. There’s the aforementioned motion control and Pro Controller setup, but you can also tilt a single Joy-Con on its side and play that way if you’re so inclined, or play it in portable mode. I personally found that the best setup was whatever configuration allowed me to use analogue sticks, as this is a game that demands precise movement input, as moving around and dodging is just as important as throwing punches.
As you probably have guessed by now, Arms is at its best when played with friends and fortunately, there’s a good selection of modes to choose from. Nearly every mode can be played solo or in split-screen co-op and though the traditional brawls are where the real meat of the game are found, minigames like V-Ball, Hoops, and Skill Shot are neat diversions that emphasize different skills and help break up any potential monotony from setting in. Team Battle is a particular highlight, as you and your partner are tethered to one another, which makes actual teamwork and communication essential to survival. Arms also features an impressive suite of online modes, with Party Match being the possible highlight of the entire game. Here, groups of up to 20 players are shuffled around a lobby with rotating matches and even though you may find yourself waiting to get into actual fights, you can quasi-spectate other matches that are going on, so it always feels like you’re connected to what’s happening.
Arms is better than it has any right to be and feels like it could be Nintendo’s next Splatoon — a multiplayer-focused new franchise that came out of nowhere and attracted a dedicated, passionate fanbase. It’s an easy game to recommend to Switch owners who get together regularly with friends to play but if you’re only going to be playing solo or even online, I would caution possibly holding off. As a full-priced $60 release ($80 in Canada where I am), Arms feels a little too light on content and I’m still not totally convinced it will have the same lasting appeal as a game like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
That being said, Nintendo has already announced that the game will be getting free DLC, including new fighters and stages, post-launch, so it won’t be long before the game starts to feel a little more substantial. Plus, Arms has the benefit of being released at a time when there still aren’t very many “must-have” games out for the Switch and while I wouldn’t quite rank it as high as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or the aforementioned Mario Kart 8, Arms is still a great addition to the Switch library that I’m looking forward to spending more time with.