Nintendo climbs into the squared circle with “ARMS,” a bizarre boxing game featuring a roster of goofy, long-limbed wrestlers. “ARMS” has a great look and a challenging learning curve, but it can’t shake some confusing quirks.
It isn’t particularly important to the game itself, but in the world of “ARMS” rare individuals have the ability to transform their arms into stretchy, springy rubber. (One day they just “wake up this way,” according to the official lore.) This makes them perfect contenders for a sport that combines the in-your-face intimacy of boxing with the long-range accuracy of Ultimate Frisbee. Your punches travel across the arena with enough length for you to angle the fists as they go, letting you curve your shots slightly to score direct hits on your opponent.
This arm-bending mechanic is best-served by Nintendo’s Joy Con motion controllers. With a Joy Con in each hand, you actually punch and tilt your fists, resulting in a very satisfying (if tiring) way to play. The downside to motion control is it makes moving your character more difficult than you’d expect. Two Joy Cons come with every Nintendo Switch, but you can use the separately sold Switch Pro Controller for a traditional video game setup. However, this makes bending more of a pain. You are unfortunately stuck having to choose between easy character movement or immersive punch-bending.
Each “ARMS” fight takes place in one of several unique battle stages that require lots of dashing and jumping, so I’d suggest leaning toward using a Pro Controller. But if you do not have that extra accessory – or just want to enjoy the motion controls – the Joy Cons will be fine.
“ARMS” shows off some amazing character design work. The game’s creators thought of objects that would naturally be long or stretchy and then came up with a cartoon cast based on that conceit. Ribbon Girl’s arms are thin ribbons, Kid Cobra has coiling snake limbs, while Min Min’s arms are noodles. Each fighter is colorful and creative, making each fight just as interesting to watch as it is to play.
Not only do the characters have built-in differences of size, strength and special moves, but each arm ends in a customizable attacking fist: the titular ARMS. These range from regular boxing gloves to missile launchers, giving you many options for a customized character that works best for you. Each character starts with three possible ARMS, but you can unlock more options via a mostly-boring target practice mini-game. It is a bit of a bummer that Nintendo duplicated some design here, as many of the ARMS fists are just re-colored and power-tweaked versions of each other.
Most of the game revolves around these 1 on 1 (or 2 on 2) fights, but a few extra modes massage the fist-flying concept into new forms. The best of these is a basketball game where you have to dunk the other player, but these mini-games are all short-lived sidebar events. The main attraction is duking it out, either online or off, in quick matches or the game’s “can you make it to the very top” Grand Prix mode.
Grand Prix mode pits you against every other fighter in best-of-three bouts. There are multiple levels of difficulty so you can start out slow and really climb into the game’s headspace. “ARMS” may initially come off as a button-mashing fighting game, but it’s far more delicate, particularly once you crest the halfway point on the difficulty scale. Your punches’ travel time often leaves you wide open for counter-attacks, so you need to focus on watching your opponent for openings and taking full advantage of every weakness.
But as solid as “ARMS” is during a match, it’s shallow everywhere else. The game lacks the strong world-building of Nintendo’s other recent e-sport title “Splatoon,” and “ARMS” doesn’t have the kind of support structure that other games have enjoyed for years. You can watch a replay only immediately after a match, for example; there’s no way to save replay videos to watch later. Plus, despite offering support for multiple controllers, there’s no way to tweak the button assignments.
In the post-game analysis, “ARMS” ends a little light. It does one thing really, really well and that’s it. Of course, that one thing – being an excellent fighting game – carries a lot of water, but it’s hard to not expect more from it. This is especially damning as “ARMS” sits on store shelves right beside the likes of recently released DC super hero fighting game “Injustice 2″… which has three times as many fighters and a bevy of options to customize, control and extend the experience.
Still, “Injustice 2” isn’t on Nintendo’s brand new home/portable hybrid Switch console, nor does it have the all-ages charm that “ARMS” brings to the table. “ARMS” is the start of something special for Nintendo fans.
“ARMS” is available for Nintendo Switch. This review based on product supplied by the publisher. Images courtesy Nintendo of America.