The fighting game genre has been so thoroughly explored since its first arcade iterations in the ’70s, the only way to distance a new entry from the hundreds of brawlers that came before it is to do something insane.
Nintendo did something insane with ARMS, its first new IP on the Switch. The roster is filled with bizarrely disfigured fighters, the combat is completely unique, and the different game modes feel fresh. ARMS went all in on weirdness and came out with a kick-ass game.
In the ARMS universe, about one in every 100,000 people has a weird mutation that gives them extendable arms, appropriately called ARMS. Some of these spring-armed freaks use their gift to compete in the boxing-esque sport known as ARMS.
And thus we have ARMS, an over-the-shoulder fighting game where fists soar across arenas to punch and throw opponents into submission. There are tense 1v1 bouts, chaotic 2v2 matches, and alternative modes that involve dunking opponents through a basketball hoop, punching through targets, and a violent version of volleyball.
At its core though, ARMS shines brightest as a 1v1 brawler. There’s no better feeling than beating someone without any distractions in a tense dance of dodges, jabs, blocks, and throws.
The game is like a jacked-up version of Wii Sports boxing
The game is like a jacked-up version of Wii Sports boxing. You have to dodge and block against your opponent’s punches while trying to land hits of your own. Each ARM is controlled individually and can be directed left and right as it launches toward your opponent.
On top of that simple system is a heap of customization to mix up the action and make each fight, even between the same two fighters, feel like a unique challenge.
The depth of ARMS combat
Fighters are outfitted with two interchangeable ARMS. They range from icy boxing gloves to spinning boomerangs; comically large hammers to bouncing paint balls; homing missiles to giant electrified balls.
Different ARMS launch at different speeds, deal different amounts of damage, and effect opponents in different ways. Charging up ARMS while blocking or holding the dash button unleashes their full power. Some charged punches will freeze an opponent in place, some will electrify them and paralyze their ARMS.
You also have a super meter that fills up over the course of a fight like most modern fighting game. You can trigger your super once it’s full to unleash a super-powered barrage of punches on your opponent, which are (sometimes frustratingly) dodgeable and blockable.
Throw in different arenas with varying obstacles and the randomly dropping bombs, healing bottles, and super-building bottles and the differences between one fight and the next continue to grow — but so much that the core feeling of the game gets muddled.
Each character starts with three ARMS to choose from at the beginning of a round, but the more you play, the more coins you get to spend on a target-punching game that allows you to unlock all the different ARMS for each character. Playing enough will eventually mean every character can be outfitted with every type of ARM, the only true difference remaining being the characters’ unique perks (which rarely make a difference in a fight) and their movement speed.
There isn’t much of a difference between the game’s 10 characters outside of their appearance, speed, and default ARMS. The biggest outlier is Byte and Barq, a robot cop with a robot dog that occasionally launches a fist out of its mouth toward the opponent.
Despite that, each character has its own charm and personality that comes out through the the way they carry themselves and bits of text between fights in the game’s closest approximation to a story mode, the grand prix.
Different ways to battle
One run through the 10-match grand prix on its easiest difficulty is a great way to get a handle on the controls, as ARMS barely has a tutorial beyond teaching the most basic controls when you start the game for the first time.
In the grand prix, you’ll fight every character on the roster with some alternative game modes thrown in there for good measure. Bump up the difficulty a few notches and the pressure starts to pile on quickly. On the first difficulty the opponents barely try, on the third difficulty I had to restart fights multiple times after losing to the AI repeatedly. The hardest difficulty is seven.
Two matches in the grand prix are always alternative game modes, which are also playable outside the grand prix in versus.
The best of the those modes is hoops, where landing a throw or a super combo on your opponent will send them toward the lone basketball hoop for two or three points depending on your position.
Another mode called skillshot places you and your opponent on opposite sides of a target range where you have to punch targets before your opponent does all while dodging their attacks and trying to knock them out with your own.
V-ball is the last alternative mode found in grand prix. You and your opponent have to punch a volleyball over a net that explodes when it touches the ground. It’s the least enjoyable of the modes mostly because of the clunky feeling of the ball and the lack of any real strategy.
There’s on more alternative mode called 1-on-100 that throws you into a stage with increasingly hostile opponents that go down in one hit. It’s a fun, timed challenge that is single-player only.
The alternative modes are a fun diversion from the main focus of the game, except the previously mentioned v-ball.
When playing online in party match, any one of these modes could pop up as you match up against the other players floating around your lobby. You may always be dragged into a 2v2 match where things really get chaotic.
ARMS completely stand up as a single player experience but like with any competitive game, throwing in some other real-life humans can be a lot of fun, whether battling 1v1 in versus or online, or teaming up against two other fighters in a team fight.
Although you have a partner to help you take our your opponents, you also have another pair of enemy ARMS to worry about.
In a team fight, getting thrown means your partner also gets knocked down and can take damage. If your partner gets knocked out, you’re on your own against two fighters. To be successful, you really have to communicate and work together or else you could easily get steamrolled by a team with good synergy.
Controlling the fighters
Everything about ARMS would fall apart if it weren’t for its controller options. You can either play with motion controls — leaning and punching with the joy cons and using the triggers to jump, dodge, and activate your super — or with more traditional controls.
I personally hated the motion controls and instead used a pro controller to play, utilizing the triggers to throw punches and pressing X and Y to jump and dodge. Meanwhile someone I played with used the motion controls because it felt more natural. Although they routinely kicked my ass, there didn’t seem to be any advantage or disadvantage to either method.
By mapping each ARM to a different button or motion, ARMS feels very natural. The controls take a few fights to really get used to and dozens of matches to master but they feel right and almost visceral once they lock in.
Each piece of ARMS (except for V-ball) fits together perfectly. And with the promise of free updates and DLC in the future, ARMS looks like it’ll stay fresh for long time.