It’s easy to draw comparisons between ARMS and Splatoon, Nintendo’s paintball shoot-‘em-up that debuted on Wii U in 2015. Both games represent major new first-party IPs – a rarity for Nintendo – featuring stylized visuals and gameplay that usurps their respective genre norms. But while Splatoon succeeded at presenting a unique and refreshing take on team-based shooters, ARMS falls short of reaching those same levels of enjoyment. There’s some surface-level fun to be had, but ARMS is a shallow and frustrating fighter whose punches lack impact.
As you square off in over-the-shoulder boxing matches featuring colorful fighters with extendable slinky-like arms, the gameplay revolves around bobbing and weaving against your opponents while sending your own fists flying. Each fist is controlled independently and can be steered toward your opponent mid-punch. Throwing both fists at the same time initiates a grab, but leaves you stationary and open to attack until your fists return to you, while blocking, dashing, and jumping round out your ability to minimize incoming damage.
These relatively straightforward mechanics make ARMS approachable to newcomers, but often feel like its biggest drawback. Matches are peppered with moments of tension and excitement as fighters stare each other down in an attempt to counter each other, but fights rarely felt varied enough to distinguish one from another. Experimenting with different characters and Arm types provides some variety, but the core gameplay loop still remains largely the same throughout, leaving ARMS feeling a bit too basic and repetitive.
While these 1-on-1 fights are the centerpiece of ARMS, several other game types help to shake up the formula. Skillshot, which places moving targets in front of fighters, and 1-on-100, which is a survival mode of sorts, are great modes for practicing your timing and aim. The real standouts, though, come from V-Ball and Hoops, ARMS’ version of volleyball and basketball, respectively. These modes still retain the limited input of the game’s fights, but help to extend the ARMS formula in clever and engaging ways.
Despite how straightforward ARMS feels, I still found that the game never entirely “clicked” for me. Basic punches, grabs, and blocks are easy to grasp, but some of ARMS’ finer intricacies still remained unclear in the heat of battle. Some concepts, like whether colliding fists would retract or continue barreling towards your opponent, are vital and yet seemed completely inconsistent at times, leaving me struggling and confused even on ARMS’ easier difficulty levels. Is ARMS just a difficult game? Was I misunderstanding some of the concepts? Or was I just plain bad at the game? I could never tell, and this lack of clarity seemed at odds with how welcoming ARMS tries to be.
Part of this problem can be attributed to ARMS failure to provide detail. ARMS boasts an eclectic cast of fighters, as well as plenty of different fist types to experiment with, but there’s no discernable way to determine the attributes during fighter selection. Each of ARMS’ ten fighters comes with different stats – some might be slower and heavier, while others might be able to do warp dashes or double jumps. But unlike Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (developed by the same team), which had a great way of displaying character stats during selection, ARMS doesn’t offer that same info for its fighters or Arm types. Given that these attributes seem so crucial to the ARMS experience, it’s unfortunate that the game expects discovery through trial-and-error instead.
I wish ARMS had a little more personality too. ARMS features such a novel concept, chock full of cool-looking characters, but feels barren when it comes to fleshing them out. Fighters have no real back story other than a quick text blurb spoken by the game’s announcer, and there isn’t a single line of voice acting dialogue in the game. This bland presentation is emphasized even further by the rise of other recent competitive character-driven games like Overwatch or Injustice 2. Lead character Spring Man, tensile hair fighter Twintelle, and stealth-expert Ninjara are all seemingly interesting characters – I just wish I got to know them all better.
One other minor complaint comes from the motion controls. Punching and steering fists works surprisingly well using the motion of Switch’s Joy-con controllers, but character movement, done by leaning both Joy-Cons in your desired direction, lacks finesse and precision. I often found myself sending out punches when I simply meant to move out of the way, and stepping forward and grabbing – which are both done with varied sensitivity by pushing both Joy-cons forward – are far too similar to make this input type preferable to standard controls. Motion controls have come a long way from the uncoordinated waggle days of the Wii, but ARMS is far more preferable when using a sideways Joy-Con or Pro Controller.
The ARMS formula also caters strongly towards multiplayer matches due to the portability of Nintendo Switch. All match types are available in multiplayer mode via local play, wireless play, or by playing ranked or friend matches online. Playing impromptu multiplayer matches with friends using Joy-Cons in Switch’s handheld mode is seamless, and the easy-to-learn nature of ARMS helps to give a minimal learning curve. For all of my nitpicking of ARMS minor mechanics, its pick-up-and-play appeal is fantastic for friendly competitions.
All of my complaints aside, ARMS is still an entertaining fighter at face value. Straightforward controls make ARMS enticing for all skill levels, and its multiplayer focus and unique concept fit well among the quirky, early library of Nintendo Switch. But despite its solid foundation, I just wish ARMS had gone a lot further in some key areas, namely, depth, clarity, and personality. ARMS is a welcome addition to Nintendo’s excellent stable of first-party IPs, I just hope to see it fleshed out a bit more in potential sequels.