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Rating: E for Everyone
Release Date: June 16, 2017
Price: £45, $60
Links: Amazon (UK) | Amazon (US) | Official website
Like Splatoon and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo’s Arms takes an established genre—in this case, the classic one-on-one fighting game—and turns it on its head. Gone are the side-on views, fast close-quarters combat, and complex combos adopted by almost every fighting game since the debut of Capcom’s seminal Street Fighter II in 1991.
In their place is a bold mix of long-range, third-person combat played at a strategic pace far removed from the split-second timing and dexterous button bashing typical of the genre. There are even motion controls that not only work with surprising accuracy, but are more appealing than their tactile counterparts.
Having been burned by motion-controlled flops like the Kinect-powered Fighters Uncaged, or even Nintendo’s own notoriously shallow Wii Sports Boxing, I’m surprised that Arms‘ motion controls work as well as they do. More surprising is that, despite the motion controls and Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic, Arms is a game of boundless depth. Even now, after hours spent swinging wildly at a television, I have barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. Arms isn’t a button-masher (or arm-flailer) for the casual crowd, but a complex fighter for those with a steady hand and the patience for betterment.
In short, Arms is utterly brilliant.
Everyone wants a slinky
In some ways, Arms is too complex for beginners, although it does its best to outline the basics. There are 10 colourful characters to choose from, with such distinctive names as Spring Man, Twintelle, and Kid Cobra. Each is equipped with a pair of the titular spring-loaded Arms (or hair), on which are perched a variety of accessories. Some look like boxing gloves, others like miniature missile launchers. There are boomerangs that can turn on a sixpence in midair, great big wrecking balls dubbed “Megawatt” that shock opponents with sparks of electricity, and a cybernetic “Dragon” that fires a long-distance laser.
Choosing which accessories to equip is the first in what is a long list of strategic choices to make before throwing a punch. Powerful ones tend to move slowly, giving opponents time to evade an attack. Yet, when paired with a spritely character like Ninjara—who can disappear in mid-air, much to the confusion of opponents—heavier ones are rendered more mobile. And what of distance? Arms, with its spring-loaded fists that reach across the ring, is a long-distance fighter, but there are variances in both accessories and the fighters themselves. Or what about agility? Or strength? Or the character-specific moves like Ribbon Girl’s double jump, Master Mummy’s health regeneration, or Twintelle’s ability to slow down time?
Such is the depth of choice that Arms doesn’t even try to explain it all. That certain accessories have an elemental attack attached to them—the usual array of ice, fire, electricity, etc.—remained a mystery to me until I dived into the practice mode after hours of play. It doesn’t even tell you the basic rock-paper-scissors mechanic that a throw can be countered by punch, a punch by a block, and a block by a throw. In some ways, Arms‘ instructional brevity is an extension of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild‘s sparse, but cleverly constructed first hour, or Super Mario Bros.‘s seminal first level, both of which aim to teach players without explicit hand-holding.
Arms‘ brevity isn’t as successful. Without deeper instruction, you’re left battling the AI and online players, both of which (even on easy settings) put up a substantial challenge. There is, however, a less than obvious help menu that offers more details on characters, modes, and the controls, as well as some more advanced tips and tricks. There’s also a practice mode that teaches some advanced techniques. Those that want to learn more than just the basic controls exposed by the brief tutorial would do well to give them a look.
The tutorial focuses on motion controls, asking you to place a Joycon in each hand sideways and upright, with a thumb hovering over the shoulder button. You tilt the Joycons left or right to move around the ring, tilt them inwards to guard, tap the left shoulder button to dash, the right shoulder button to jump, and the press the right trigger to activate a Rush attack (which, like in Street Fighter is only available after filling a small attack gauge with well-timed punches). Punching forward naturally sends a fist flying, while punching with both fists at the same time launches a grab attack.
The instinct when facing down a fearsome foe is to punch fast and often. However, as Nintendo puts it, “if you flail, you will fail.” Arms isn’t about landing as many punches as is feasibly possible, but rather about precise, measured punches thrown when there is a clear opening. This might be when an opponent throws a punch that doesn’t land, or when you correctly anticipate the direction of a dash. But punches aren’t just straight, unless you want them to be; they can be twisted and curled to various degrees by tilting the Joycon. As imprecise as that may sound, it’s anything but.
The motion controls are impressively accurate, to the point that playing with a more traditional setup—in which punches are tilted with the left analogue stick—just doesn’t feel right. There’s a nuance to the motion controls that’s missing from the analogue stick, allowing for the launch of late twists and turns that can throw an opponent off guard. The only limitation to the motion controls is the wobbly lump of flesh operating them: after a hour of so of sweaty non-stop punching, it’s tough to maintain the same level of enthusiasm and accuracy as when you started.