Although E3’s almost here, I’ve actually been hugely distracted by something else: Arms. I’m not sure if Nintendo wanted the two to coincide, but they have. The Testpunch demos certainly give a good basic idea of the game, but after having time with a retail copy for my Arms review, I’ve found that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the game. I was enjoying myself before, but now I may be developing some time management issues.
Arming Up Offline
I’ll be building up my review based on my Testpunch experience. If you don’t have any idea what the game is about, start there, as Arms is a fairly unique game that may need a bit of an explanation. If I had to sum it up though, I’d say it’s like Wii Sports had a baby with a 3D fighting game (such as Pokken). There is a ton of ways to play in short bursts, like a fighting basketball game, explosive volleyball, boxing through target practice, and even a survival mode. However, it’s also got a punishing single-player mode that highlights the depth of the game, as well as the limitations of the game’s imprecise motion controls.
The tutorial is more focused on action than words. While it works for the general combat dance, it doesn’t teach you some basics, just points them out. You’ll be told you’re to practice breaking shields, but not given any points on how to do it effectively. You’ll know which Arms do electric damage, but not what electric damage does. Min Min’s left arm (supposedly) turns into a big dragon when charged, but I don’t know what significance that has. This is key because once you know these basics, the Arms and characters stop feeling like meaningless skins in advanced Wii Sports and more like the heroes of a tactical ping pong.
Like with Splatoon, the campaign mode can help act as a tutorial. For example, I often used Master Mummy as my fighter. I previously only used his quickest default arms for the indirect combat modes like smashing targets or playing volleyball. I’m not perfect, but against most human enemies, I know that if someone charges their punches often, I should duck and weave. If they punch a lot, I can usually punch through them with my heavier fists. However, against AI that has good aim and dodging, my tactics broke down. Instead, especially due to my slower nature, I learned to block more, which also activates Master Mummy’s unique regeneration ability. I also finally used some quick arms instead of my usual heavy ones. I never ran into players using this tactic in the Testpunch, but I did during my review time.
The story mode, Grand Prix, is ten short matches. It’s shorter than Splatoon’s, which felt like a long, drawn out mode with a moderately fun and vaguely useful tutorial. Splatoon’s story is more thoughtful, but the main characters are lightly developed, focusing more on the game’s world. Arms’ characters are only slightly more developed but are more relatable. Nintendo’s inverting some stereotypes I may discuss in a separate article, but especially coming from a Japanese game company, it feels like a recognizable effort to internationalize and modernize, somewhat akin to Blizzard’s Overwatch.
Arms’ main game is a more rewarding than Splatoon’s though, acting as an advanced tutorial that really can prepare you for online play. It also serves to highlight the weakness of the motion controls and the absence of control scheme customization in ways the hinted at in the Testpunch. The pro controller still feels more measured for movement, but the punching, dodging, and jumping layout feels better with motion controls.
Much like with trying to play Mario Kart, Smash, and other Nintendo titles that have motion control options, there’s a point where you’ll realize that the motion controls are a bit too much of a gimmick for precision movement. That point for me was the Grand Prix’s level five difficulty (out of seven). It also showed how much redundancy is used on the default pro controller settings. I suppose some people might want two buttons in two places that do the same thing, but I would have preferred the choice to, say, put my guard button closer to my jump and dash keys, especially since guard is one of those buttons both control settings feel like they do inefficiently (through imprecise motion output or not pressing down on the joystick button correctly).
While Splatoon was dripping personality and customization, and the matches built up my need to compete, Arms (by comparison) feels more muted with a casual-competitive feel. From the Testpunch, Arms felt like it was simple and should be something you can master quickly. Longer play reveals much more though. However, Splatoon and its world were something you wanted to explore and have fun with. It did have competitive modes, but felt like it centered more on fun. That isn’t to say Arms isn’t fun, but as Ranked Mode is 1v1 duels and most Party Modes make losers sit out when defeated, there’s more of an urge to take it seriously at some point.
Part of this involves earning new gear, the arms, each of which expands your default settings to overlap with arms other characters already have. Earning new arms seems random. You go into a target practice mode (called “Get Arms”) with time based on how much money you spent, then whack targets, icons, and watches to get points, icons of Arms to unlock, and additional time. The starting arms you get on each fighter are very well suited for them, but as you get deeper into the game’s difficulty (and soon online meta), you’ll see the value of switching out the default loadouts. Selecting the longest time option is the best value though- don’t even bother with the short one! It also doesn’t matter which character you’re using, as you win Arms for everyone. However, the mode isn’t well explained, much like other key aspects of the game.
As a quick note, portable play is possible, especially if you’re used to the Pro controller, but not so much for motion control fans; flailing around in public spaces is probably not a good idea. For both offline and online play, the game feels more solid as a home console title, but it’s nice to have the option to grind coins even when I’m not at home.
I won’t lie, there’s not much of an MMO feeling to Arms. It lacks Splatoon’s graphical, single-player lobby area populated by “dummy” players of people you’ve played with/against, complete with hand written messages and/or art they’ve added to their profile. Additionally, customization is only limited to your Arms/weapon loadout, not visual appearance. Arms is very much a lobby fighter, even less MMO-ish than Injustice 2, but more accessible, unique, and family friendly. The single-player mode can be very challenging, but it’s also short and has just enough story to entice multiple playthroughs.
Where it shines is online play. While there are no guild options, there are four player matches that aren’t just fun but unique experiences. Injustice 2 had a cute multiplayer co-op mode, but Arms’ random Hedlock co-op battles against an overpowered fighter solidify multiplayer gameplay in ways the sports and player brawls only hinted at. The levels we saw in the Global Testpunch were fine, but less random, more measured. Kid Cobra’s level, for example, involves hoverboards that really speed up the pace of the fights. It almost feels like it should be its own separate mode. The high ground in Mechanica’s level induces some Star Wars moments where your laser Arms cut down cocky Spring Men thinking they can just jump at you.
Even better is that you can play the game’s story mode and versus while waiting to do ranked matches. Versus actually has a training mode inside, so this is a really nice addition, especially for new players. You can still be learning the game or earning money while waiting to rank up, which may be less charming than Splatoon’s retro arcade game options but more practical.
Party mode, the casual online option, doesn’t allow this though, just a simple target-smashing practice mode, but we’ve seen how fast its queues are from the Testpunches. What wasn’t revealed during those short queues was that, at certain points, some of the targets can be smashed for cash, meaning that your ability to earn dough while waiting isn’t entirely hindered by a queue. This is a move I wish companies with more online experience would learn from.
Even more interesting for casual players is that Party mode might have a built in handicap. As the review period only had other reviewers in it, my online experience was limited. However, during one play session, someone kept kicking my butt but would start each new match with less and less health until he was beaten (at which point he spawned with a bit more). I was on a losing streak, however, and eventually started one match with my ultimate bar full. Though I find many people never touch handicap settings in games, I’ve used them with kids and adults in Smash. Auto-handicap settings help ensure that power players are always being challenged while ensuring that casuals get a small boost to help give them an encouraging win. It’s another design decision I think more veteran online companies should consider when developing casual online play.
If you’re on a budget and more into massive virtual worlds, you can skip Arms. Maybe wait for Splatoon 2. However, if you have a Switch and want to see how Nintendo’s really learning how to appeal to online gamers in terms of mechanics and atmosphere, Arms isn’t a title you should ignore.
Arms has not only a variety of gameplay, but diverse characters and maps that could be a game on their own, especially for a fighting game. While not quite at the same level as something like Overwatch, there’s enough depth to put similar games in the genre to shame.
This is a tough one to judge. On the one hand, I could just say the game is a more fleshed out Wii Sports title and call it a day, or write it up as more motion control junk better played on a traditional controller.
However, what I keep coming back to is the challenge of assembling these different working parts to make something that feels like both a party game and a competitive fighter. When I showed the game to people, one simply thought it was Splatoon. Another, non-gamer, took to it like Wii Sports, a game that really defined the Wii as a console. I saw this happen first hand, despite the player admittedly saying the controls overwhelmed her.
However, she did motion control button jamming in a way that made me feel like she actually had an idea of what she was doing. To see a non-gamer do this in action, for a game whose single-player difficulty made me want to put my fist through the TV, is pure magic. Compared to what’s going on in games in general, Arms feels like it’s juggling enough uncommon parts in uncommon ways to be a game I haven’t experienced before.
This is one of the few reasons I was thinking of scoring innovation lower. Considering what we’ve seen in other Nintendo titles in terms of online play, the team’s taken a step in the wrong direction. The lack of a graphical lobby area is a huge missed opportunity, as is taking advantage of Nintendo’s fan art community that really fueled their online presence in game.
The lack of pre-selected text messages before/after/during matches, like Mario Kart and Smash Bros, really stands out. I feel fighting games, in general, need a way to compliment your opponent to keep heads cool and spirits high. In addition to this, Nintendo is still doing online play without a voice chat option, and I say this as someone who tends to hate voice chat with strangers.
Knowing full well that Nintendo plans to charge for their online service makes me question the future of online Nintendo titles, at least on their consoles. Elsewhere on the internet, however, Arms players are not only flexing their creative might, but creating a lot of buzz and support for their community (even on Reddit where I tend to avoid with certain competitive titles).
Like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, I’m awarding full points. Again, I’m rarely aware of AAA graphics or music, let alone ‘wowed.’ My general weakness in all games is taking screenshots. Perhaps the Switch’s one-button push on a non-keyboard control output helps, but half the time I play I’m just snapping furiously so I can go back and stare in awe of the game. The attention to detail on Master Mummy’s cloth Arms or Min-Min’s udon-like hair blows me away. The colors pop in ways that would make the best cartoons turn green with envy. The music tracks, especially for the loading screens, are oddly memorable. The only weakness is that it doesn’t reach Splatoon levels of musical greatness, but I can forgive that.
For those who only played the Global Testpunch, I must admit that there were times I actually started to get a little bored. I questioned if this game would have enough going for it to be worth the $59.99 price of entrance. The main game’s tutorial-like feel and short-but-cute story doesn’t help. However, the additional characters, levels, and modes of play are tied together well enough that, once I got back to online play, I realized I was just starting to scratch the surface. Then there’s the potential for local multiplayer action and a possible competitive scene.
If you’re looking for a deep story, Arms is going to disappoint. Character customization is hugely limited but not nearly as much as your ability to interact with other players in non-combat ways. In this sense, it’s a pure lobby fighter. The game feels both accessible and competitive at the same time, giving the Switch its first original IP that defines what Nintendo is capable of doing.
If you own a Switch, this is a must buy, especially if you already bought up everything for MK8D. It’s Nintendo reminding us they know how to do fun, even if the online community is still lagging behind. If you’re on the fence about investing in Nintendo again, I’m starting to feel like now is the time to get in.
+Accessible motion control party game with competitive-feeling meta potential
+Unique gameplay modes, especially for a 3D fighting game
+The start of a fun new IP
-Elements of even revealed gameplay techniques poorly explained
-Online interaction still firmly limited to parental control mode
-Lack of Splatoon-esque, avatar based lobby keeps it from feeling MMO-ish