We tried out the newly revealed modes, characters, stages, and challenges that are slowly giving form to the upcoming fighting game.
Nintendo ended their recent ARMS hands-on event for gaming press with a friendly competition among the invitees. But immediately afterwards, Nintendo's J.C. Rodrigo wanted to go a couple rounds with our champion. The first round went to us, the players, and we hooted and hollered and cheered and clapped. J.C. took it in stride, talked about strategy, and then went in for round 2. The next fight was hotly contested by the two cagey competitors, but after what seemed a tense and long duel, J.C. managed to even the score. There was silence, a pregnant beat of dead air that must've gone on for milliseconds too long because J.C. spun his head around to stare at us, the collected games press who were only here at Nintendo's invitation. We all spontaneously burst out in respectful applause. It was great. ARMS was Nintendo's new fighting game, this was a competition between skilled players, and we had a clear favorite in the matchup. Not all the gaming press at the event had lingered around until the end of the tournament, but those who remained were caught up in a moment of real gaming drama. Clearly, in ARMS the battle exists even when you're not throwing punches.
To explore that further, you have to realize the decisions you make before you even enter battle. First, you have to choose your character. To begin with, each character feels different in how they move across stages (compare: Twintelle's sauntering walk versus the more active hustle of other characters). Additionally, nuances and special abilities set them apart further. For example, new character option Byte and Barq is actually a duo; you play the robot cop Byte while Barq, his robot canine companion, moves independently around the stage and throws the occasional punch himself (often to comical effect).
Then you have to choose your weapons (your "ARMS"), one for each side. In the full game, each character can use any of the ARMS available but at the hands-on event and presentation each character was locked to specific presets of three ARMS each. Choosing ARMS is important because they each have different characteristics. Some are simple punch attacks and others are multiple projectiles arranged vertically or horizontally. Some are massive slow attacks that are difficult to block while others are stylish arcing strikes that swoop in from the side. Some are independent bird-like projectiles that fly on their own and yet others are weapons that fly out partway and then emit a laser beam. These ARMS therefore present a whole range of strategic options, and between them and the characters, more than 8,000 combinations are available.
So yes, while ARMS is a fighting game of in-the-moment reflexes and skill, it's got more layers than that. It's also about devising your own strategy, and making sure you can counter the strategic choices your opponent is making as well.
And in the moment of playing, it's about keeping your cool. You don't just exchange frenzied punches ala Wii Sports Boxing. Because you're often fighting at a distance, the sense of the game is more like launching long-distance attacks and guiding them by tilting the Joy-Cons. And with two arms, potentially equipped with different weapons, you can play with the timing of the attacks to counter your opponent or set up traps. Concurrent with whatever you're doing with your hands, you can still move, dash, or jump. In fact, at higher levels of skill, you’ll need to. You can pick up ARMS and play it immediately, but I imagine there will be a rapid increase of proficiency in the first few hours of play as you learn to juggle at once all the systems of control and strategy that it gives you.
Then you can apply those learned skills to some of the other modes that Nintendo has revealed. There's the basic 1 vs. 1 battles, (computer opponents are available) but you can also enter into 2 vs. 2 team battles. These team battles may seem chaotic at first glance, and you CAN block the attacks of your own teammate, but very quickly you can learn to read what's going on. A faint line connects your character to your ally, which helps in terms of remaining spatially aware of your relative positions. That line is also a reminder, because if one of you is grabbed and thrown, the other may be thrown as well. As a consequence, in team battles "interrupting" and breaking up grabs and throws by hitting opponents with attacks is important, and throws can sometimes seem both more valuable but also more difficult to pull off.
That you can read the action in frenzied fights between four characters is actually impressive, and among other factors might be partially due to the immediately recognizable and appealing character designs. All the new characters on display were visually unique, enjoyable to watch, and exciting to try out. During competition we laughed when Kidd Cobra claimed a win and a throaty whisper would play over the results screen: "Cobraaaaa." And after I'd crushed one match, Helix's victory screen had him running down the stage head stretched back and arms flailing comically.
As for the actual battles, they are played in 3D arena stages, each themed to one of the characters of the game. These have different geometries and obstacles. For example, parked cars in Twintelle's stage "Cinema Deux" block not just movement but punches that haven't been curved around or over them. And Min Min's Ramen Bowl stage has a deep curved bowl-like depression in the center where you might find yourself at a different elevation relative to your opponent. Additionally, items can show up in these stages, giving momentary effects that could affect the battle. Bombs can drop into view that you can either knock towards an opponent or try to avoid before they explode several seconds later. Green canisters can be lowered into spots in the stage and grant a short healing effect, or yellow canisters might drop in that recharge your character's special attacks meter. These items tended to create a sort of mini "King of the Hill" effect in the middle of a battle where you fought to stay in the regenerative territory. (However, there are options to turn these items off.)
In addition to the more traditional versus modes, another option is Hoops, a mode where the stage is sort of a half basketball court. The catch is that there is no basketball: you're trying to dunk or shoot your opponent! While you still have the whole repertoire of attacks at your disposal in this mode, you can only win by grabbing your opponent and throwing them through the basketball hoop. Much of the stage is close enough for a dunk, a guaranteed two points, but if you're far enough you'll throw your opponent for attempted two or three pointers (which do indeed have a higher chance of missing). These matches end at 10 points, so they can feel like focused duels, and are sometimes short and brutal.
The other mode Nintendo had for demonstration was Skill Shot. This had you and your opponent stuck on opposite sides of a stage, unable to close the distance. Instead, you win by accruing the most points within a time limit, and you get those points by throwing your punches and attacks to break targets that pop up in the spaces between the two of you. Since you're both going for the same targets, timing is vital here as well (you can see where the targets pop up moments before they lift into the stage), as is positioning and guiding your arms. But another way to earn points is to actually hit your opponent! You are at just enough range to do damage. Manage to grab and throw an opponent and you may even get a few seconds to yourself where you’re the only one capable of knocking down targets.
Overall, Nintendo pulled back the curtain on a couple more elements of the ARMS formula: new characters, new stages, new ARMS, new modes, and new skills to master. They didn't pull back the curtain fully though, there's certainly more than what we've seen. But the basic concept works. It's fun and it threatens to have enough statistical variety to maybe even be deep. Only time will tell, of course.
In the meantime however, ARMS' uniqueness and novelty might just create a window of opportunity where something competitive is so new that the world hasn't yet been divided into pros and newbies, video game haves and have-nots. If so, enjoy it while it lasts, the way this game is shaping up the fierce battles for ultimate bragging rights won't be far behind.