ARMS Review – Nintendo’s purest take on the fighting genre

Turning originally inscrutable gaming genres into items that are appealing to a general audience. It may sound like an overly minimalistic way of putting it, but that is precisely the recipe Nintendo has been using for many of their historical successes. The Paper Mario saga, and Super Mario RPG before it, did it for role-playing games; Super Mario Kart transformed racing from a landscape filled with scenarios and vehicles that tried to be realistic into a madhouse that took place in unbelievable settings amidst flying shells and tricky bananas; Advance Wars employed a simple interface, cartoonish visuals, and a good deal of didactics to make the depth of strategic gameplay navigable; Mario Golf and Mario Tennis took niche sports and made them into the stars of various gaming parties; and, most recently, Splatoon turned the world of multiplayer-centered shooters upside down by replacing bulky men and women with humanoid squids and bullets with ink.


By putting it into those terms, the work of the folks inside Nintendo may look simple: after all, just grab a genre one’s non-gaming relatives would never touch, do something quirky with it, add a few colorful characters (especially those who are already widely popular), and consumers will put down their hard-earned cash. It is an obvious recipe, but one that does not specify its most important secret: the fact that a whole lot of creativity must be burned for a truly remarkable concept (both on paper and in practice) to rise; and that an immeasurable quantity of effort must be consumed so that the game is fine tuned to the point where its basics are easy enough to learn literally anyone can pick them up while its gameplay retains depth that is sufficient for the title to last for endless hours.


ARMS, the first big Nintendo-made exclusive release for the Switch, is yet another proof that while other companies – lured by how easy the recipe seems to be – try and often fail to reproduce the alchemy of turning something niche into something universal, Nintendo nails it time and time again. One could easily say that, as far as genres go, ARMS is a bit redundant, because fighting games already have in Super Smash Bros. their family friendly representative. However, while that star-studded brawler makes a party out of fighting by throwing rules out the window, ARMS is more dedicated to respecting the genre’s tropes, a quality that makes it far more traditional and forces – on purpose – the game to operate under a tighter umbrella.


In fact, within Nintendo’s canon, ARMS’ closest peer is not Super Smash Bros., but Splatoon. And given how big of an unexpected hit that title was, such inspiration is not only understandable but also obvious and justifiable. Like Splatoon, ARMS does not lean on Nintendo’s established cast of heroes and villains to reach stardom, betting – instead – on a fully original set of characters that are varied and instantly likable; moreover, similarly to the Inklings’ wacky take on shooting, the game hinges on its multiplayer gameplay, with the caveat that – unlike Splatoon – it features a local multiplayer component that is as strong and full-fledged as its online counterpart.


What makes ARMS a true Nintendo product, though, is neither its colorful palette nor its charming characters, but the unusual concept around which it is built. In the world of ARMS, fighters are equipped with spring-powered weapons that extend for lengths big enough to cover more than half the size of almost all of its arenas. In practical terms, such devices mean that where most fighting games are close-range affairs with a lot of body contact, ARMS is focused on mid-to-long-range battles, which in turn demand good aim and excellent timing; moreover, the fact characters’ weapons reach so far away causes fighters to always be in danger of being hit, making tension and action constant, and turning firm attention into a valuable asset.


Additionally, ARMS also carries the signature of Nintendo in its simplicity. Like Super Smash Bros., the game shuns the complex commands and combos of most fighting games, choosing to rely – instead – on straightforward movements that together create a complex web of strategy and depth. Fighters can jump, dash sideways and forward both on the ground and while in the air, charge their arms for extra power, block incoming blows, punch (with the option to curve arms by tilting the control stick), grab, and throw a special move when their energy-meters (which are filled as punches land) are full.


Without exception, all of those moves are delivered with either the press of one button, or two at the same time (in the case of grabs and the special move); or an intuitive movement (if players choose to use the game’s responsive motion controls). It is incredibly easy to learn, and within a dozen rounds most players will have all of those actions down. The complexity and learning curve of ARMS come in slowly mastering how and when to use each of those puzzle pieces, and in coming to grips with how to react to what the adversary is trying to do, all while dodging weapons that come in swooshing close to the fighters’ heads. Nintendo, then, uses simple building blocks to construct a game that is deeper than its surface indicates.


The elements that make ARMS a strong game do not stop there, though. Although it has a set of characters that is undeniably limited, featuring a total of ten fighters, Nintendo put a lot of thought into their design and quirks to make each one of them unique, giving them special traits that support distinct fighting strategies and approaches. Ribbon Girl can quadruple-jump and drop to the ground quickly; Twintelle has the power to slow down punches that are close to her; Spring Man gains a power boost when his energy is low; Master Mummy regains health when blocking; Mechanica uses the hover rockets of her robot suit to float in the air; Min Min can kick punches away; Helix can use his jelly-like flexibility to extend his body or duck below arms; Ninjara disappears and reappears quickly; Kid Cobra can charge his dash to move at impressive speeds; and Byte & Bark fight as a duo, with the latter being controlled by the CPU and occasionally serving as a jumping board for the former.


Besides experimenting with all of those different fighting styles, learning their intricacies, and eventually choosing the one – or the ones – to which they will adapt better so that they can beat down their friends online and offline, players will also have a lot of arms at their disposal. All characters start with three distinct weapons, but as the game goes on and players accumulate coins, that collection will increase to whopping thirty non-exclusive arms per fighter. Given only three can be taken into battle and since each of the characters’ two arms can have a different weapon equipped to it, the strategic possibilities are basically endless.


Therefore, even though thousands of gamers will choose the same character to master, it is unlikely they will play the same way, a statement that becomes even truer when it is considered how different some arms are from one another. There are standard gloves, boomerangs, birds, dragons, missiles, guns, umbrellas, shields, hammers, objects that cannot be qualified, and more, each having – according to their type – side effects when charged, which can include paralyzing electricity or freezing ice.


Sadly, though, the collection of arms is one of the game’s few glaring problems for the sole reason the whole process is too slow. In order to acquire them, players are required to play a target-hitting mini-game that has an entry fee. Albeit relatively simple, with arms wrapped as gifts dropping every time a certain point threshold is reached, the mini-game is not exactly productive, as the coins used to access it are not easy to come by (winning a battle will earn players either four or six of them).


According to the coins that are spent (thirty, one-hundred, or three-hundred), gamers will be given a predetermined amount of time to hit the targets and collect arms; however, not only are arms gained not that many (with the one-hundred-coin clock yielding an average of eight arms if players do very well), but the weapons acquired are absolutely random, meaning that if gamers want to try the combination of a specific character with a certain arm, they will have no option but to use the power of wishing. Even more aggravating is the fact that given how weapon variety is a key element in the game’s strategies and depth, Nintendo has essentially locked a whopping ninety percent of them behind a wall that comes down so slowly most players will never be able to bring down half of it.

Luckily, ARMS is built on a foundation that is strong enough to overcome that shortcoming. The Grand Prix (a series of ten fights for the championship belt) that players can tackle either by themselves or alongside a friend (in which case they will be joined by a rubber-band and will be forced to work as a team against pairs of CPU-controlled fighters) packs quite a challenge and beating it at the highest of its seven difficulties is brutal enough to have the most skilled players pulling their hairs out. However, it is worth noting the AI sometimes comes off as cheap, executing reactions that are so fast and precise one has to wonder if it was not programmed to occasionally read the button that has been pressed by gamers.

To escape that frustration, players can hop online either for sheer fun, in which case they will be placed in a lobby with another twenty fighters and be randomly placed in battles against up to three of them, or in mini-games of basketball, target-hitting, or volleyball; or for rank, where one-on-one battles are a constant. Moreover, keeping true to their traditions of offering a strong local multiplayer, Nintendo delivers the goods by allowing players to set up LANs of various consoles with two players being able to share each Switch; or go old-school and gather up to four people around a single console for battles or mini-games, which are fun for a short while but in no way carry the depth and enjoyment found in regular fights.

ARMS, therefore, is a game that succeeds both in its single-player and in its multiplayer fronts. There is challenge, variety, complexity, and fun to be had whether one plays it on their own or alongside friends. Even though it operates inside a scope that is far more limited than that of the likes of Super Smash Bros. and Splatoon, it is able to come through in the delivery of a lasting experience that will welcome and draw newcomers that would never think of touching fighting games, and keep avid gamers entertained for long periods of time, whether it be by giving them vast combinations of fighters and weapons to try and master, hooking them with the competitive online scene, or offering an impressive single-player challenge.


Ultimately, ARMS is Nintendo’s purest take on the fighting genre, mostly respecting the essence of one-on-one combats but doing so by adding a clever twist that makes it unmistakably a Nintendo product. And true to the tradition of the games that have walked out of the company’s Kyoto studios, it does not achieve universal appeal by a mindless dumbing down of a gaming style, but via its reconstruction with small bricks that amount to a structure that is far more than its individual parts let on.