Motion controls. Punching. Nintendo. For many, these four words will summon the specter of Wii Sports Boxing with its wildly flailing limbs and drunken pub fight responsiveness. When the company's new fighting game for the Nintendo Switch, Arms, was announced back in January, there were concerns we'd be subjected to more of the aimless waggling that Boxing -- and many other Wii games -- fell victim to. After a few hours with a preview version however, this is less of a concern -- although Arms remains a difficult game to grasp.
The design theory seems to be to do to fighting games what Splatoon did to shooters -- i.e., take a popular genre, strip it down to the basics and build it back up in an idiosyncratic style, making it accessible to newcomers while also promising enough depth to keep a lively online scene thriving. It is a fighting game with party game elements -- it's Super Smash Brothers v Punch Out v Powerstone. And that's a really intriguing if complicated package.
The Feel of the Fight
Arms offers a range of lively, idiosyncratic characters, each of which can be equipped with a wide variety of cybernetic combat limbs. Some look like regular fists, others fire lasers, missiles or metal discs, offering a combination of close and ranged fighting options. At the start of a round, you need to select two arms from your character's roster -- a tactical decision involving both the attacking and defensive capabilities of your limbs as well as their weight (stronger arms are slower and require more recovery time). All the different arms also have different attributes -- including electricity, fire and shock -- that can be charged up and unleashed to deal devastating blows.
The Joy-Cons in motion-control mode are held on their side and upright, like you're giving a thumbs up -- it takes a little while to get used to, but the actual punching is a lot easier in comparison to playing on a controller. The fact that motion controls not only work, but are preferable, is a pretty impressive technical achievement. Your initial instinct is to lash out often and fast. Pretty soon, however, it becomes apparent that this is not how the game is played: precise, measured punches is how you succeed. The motion controls also dictate your movement and blocking, while jumping, dashing and special attacks are controlled by the buttons on the Joy-Cons. In both motion and controller modes, curling a punch requires you to use the right stick, which is quite fiddly.
There is, then, a lot of physical strategy: this is far more than an overblown mini-game. The counter-attacks, elemental effects of various weapons, importance of timing and the huge customization options for your fighters and their arms mean this isn't an easy game. It takes time to grasp the basics, let alone the more advanced skills that will surely reward those willing to spend time honing their technique. Learning how to combine jumps and dashes while timing attribute attacks and working out which arms work best against which foes are all necessary for improvement, recalling the hidden intricacies behind Super Smash Bros' cartoonish façade.
There are a number of different modes aimed at both single and multiplayer sessions: 1v1 matches, 2v2 and a four-player free-for-all are available as local and online multiplayer. These work like a traditional fighting game with players beating each other up until one person's HP is depleted and they're knocked out. Alongside these are modes like V-Ball (volleyball with a bomb), Hoops (players try to grab one another and slam them into a basketball net) and Skill Shot, which has you hitting through targets. Finally, 1-on-100 is a single-player horde mode about bashing through 100 enemy AIs. Internet connectivity wasn't available for the preview, however, and it will be interesting to see how lag -- the curse of online fighting games -- affects things.
There are interesting questions about Arms' role as a fun party or local multiplayer game -- an angle Nintendo is obviously keen to promote. Unlike Mario Kart 8, both Joy-Cons are needed to play, so you can't just bring the game along and share it; your pal will need their own (pretty pricey) set of Joy-Cons or a Pro Controller. Then there's the process of explaining of how to play: imagine a lot of “hold them like this … no not like that. Put your thumb here, no not that button.” And by that point if your friend isn't getting frustrated with you guiding them, they'll need an hour or so to really get a grasp of everything. You could let them randomly waggle the Joy-Cons about or bash some buttons, but after the novelty has worn off the fun wouldn't last much longer.
That said, when you do have a group of people playing who have mastered the basics, Arms is hugely entertaining. The 2v2 mode in particular, which has you tethered to your teammate who you can also accidentally hit, is a chaotic package of pure fun. The whole thing is beautifully accompanied by catchy music and an art style somewhere between a Saturday morning cartoon and a branded sports drink.
Arms is attempting to straddle both the in-depth fighting game and accessible local multiplayer markets. As a surface-level party experience, people may get frustrated, but that isn't how the game wants to be played. If players are willing to invest a bit more time into mastering the combat techniques, there's real joy and depth to be found. For some, Wii Sports Boxing dealt a knockout blow to the idea of a motion-controlled fighting game, but Arms has dragged the concept from the canvas, and looks convincing.
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Image credit: Product shots by Nintendo.