ARMS is shaping up to be a fun new IP from Nintendo, but between the bright colors and swinging fists, the Week 1 Test Punch leaves a few unanswered questions and concerns.
After several ARMS-centric Nintendo Directs, Nintendo let its fans into the ring to go a few rounds this past weekend with the first of two Test Punches. Out of the gate, there’s a lot to like in Nintendo’s new brawler, and The Big N is working hard to convince us that it’s going to be the next Splatoon. But while ARMS is looking like a shiny and fun experience, time will be the true test of whether or not it has the staying power of a solid competitive fighting game with depth.
The polish that Nintendo fans have come to revel in was on full display with this welcome online demo. A vibrant color palette pairs with wonderfully wacky character designs and a set of mechanics unlike anything we’ve experienced, all running smoothly in both TV and handheld modes. There are shades of old brawlers like Power Stone in here, with nods to both Splatoon and Overwatch, but ARMS is very much its own property. All of which takes place in well-designed stages that themselves were crafted to have an effect on each battle. So, yeah, it looks good. But how does it play?
Some of the biggest questions I have around ARMS stem from its varied potential control schemes. I immediately jumped into the prescribed and much-trumpeted method, the so-called ‘thumbs up’ motion controls. In ‘thumbs up’ mode, a Joy Con is held in each hand vertically for jabs, with tilts for moving and blocking and some button presses for a jump, dash, and rush. It’s a lot, but it’s surprisingly intuitive. As I began to throw and curve some punches and strafe around, it was apparent that ARMS does indeed excel well beyond being a glorified version of Wii Boxing. The mechanic works, and it works pretty well. That said, I did experience a few unintentional punches, and felt as though some weren’t thrown when they ought to have been. This could be chalked up to inexperience, or it could be part of the game while playing with motion controls.
I also gave ARMS a go with the Joy Cons attached to my Switch in handheld mode. Personally, a game’s functionality in handheld is important to me for The Switch – much to the chagrin of my fellow New York commuter, I play with this little beauty on the go a lot. Once again, things worked relatively well, particularly when I realized I could use ZL and ZR to punch (an idea that is inexplicably not offered in the colorful instructions). But where punches were more reliably thrown, it was now more difficult to curve them. In motion controls this can done by physically turning the Joy Cons, here you have to do it with the stick, and it feels like a bit of an awkward sacrifice.
For me, neither control scheme felt perfect, and neither felt broken. Perhaps we can hope that the experience will come to mirror that of the Switch itself, where neither handheld nor TV is perfect, but the sum total is something great?
The online on display worked very efficiently, arguably moreso than that of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. I was matched up with no problems, no lag, and no dropped games. The online demo ran strictly in Party Mode, swapping you from gang matches, small games of ARMS-style volleyball, and one-on-one matches. Larger gang battles are exhilarating but overwhelming, where it feels like much of the overall strategy is sacrificed for enjoyable chaos. Thus far volleyball feels like a bit of a throwaway if an amusing diversion. The real meat and potatoes are where they belong, with the compelling one-on-one battles. Here, it was already feeling apparent that strategy comes first, and patience and thought can pan out. The other additions are welcome, assuming we’ll be able to choose to simply play one-on-one matches online once the full game is released.
Controls and online aside, the actual gameplay is intriguing and has a lot of potential, but again begs some long-term questions. In standard fighting game style, there is an elaborate form of rock-paper-scissors taking place between punches, blocks, and throws. This is modified by the subtleties of each fighter, as well as which powered gloves you chose to place on either hand of any given fighter. These three variables amount to quite a lot of potential strategic variation. With so little time in the ring, it’s hard to say whether or not this will pan out as a vast and subtle system of strategy or a game of glove roulette, but with the little time I had, each small change definitely felt like it made a difference, and the fighters all play with unique weights, speeds, and specials. It was definitely a blast to try out the different combinations, and I could see getting really into tweaking until I found my perfect combos and preferred set-ups.
There’s a lot to commend here from Nintendo. They’re clearly trying something new, they’ve done a beautiful job with the presentation, and they’re working hard to get us on board. Unfortunately, without more time, it’s hard to say whether or not we have a deep and well-executed game that does for fighting games what Splatoon did for shooters, or if we just have a fun little diversion with slightly wonky controls.
In the end, I got to experience several really exciting fights and a few frustrating moments. When the stars aligned and I was feeling like I was understanding the rhythm of the game, the bouts were undeniably exhilarating.
Despite my questions and concerns, the Test Punch left me wanting more, and I’ll be ready for it next weekend. I hope that it’s a matter of time and experience that will allow me to embrace one of the control schemes as my go-to, and that the implied strategic nuance bears fruit.
For now, I’m ready to stretch those arms and get back in the ring.