Does Arms have legs? Should the previous question see itself out?
Following in the footsteps of Splatoon, Arms is another bold new take on a familiar genre led by a younger team at Nintendo. Instead of a shooter, this time it’s a distinct take on the fighting genre, fusing together a behind-the-back viewpoint with (optional) motion controls and a weird arm-firing conceit. The raw gameplay of Arms is mostly brilliant, layered with far more strategy than meets the eye. Best as a multiplayer experience, everything coalesces beautifully when you’re rocking split-screen multi or chilling in a lobby online as you gear up for the next arm-chucking spectacle. The single-player focus is definitely a little on the light side, but the variety of options and modes help mostly make up for that failing. No matter your preference, Arms is likely something you’ve never really seen before, and that’s radical as long as you’re up to giving it some time.
The most basic gameplay is focused on 1-on-1 battles where you, from a third-person perspective, circle around an opponent and fire off your spring-loaded arms in the hopes of knocking down your rival’s life bar and winning the round. It’s like a traditional fighter in that regard, as it’s all about executing strategies and reading your opponent’s tendencies, looking for the right time to strike. To complicate matters, you can charge your punches up for more power, try to grab your opponents (which breaks through a defensive guard), and also mix together jumping and dashing to outsmart your foe. On the whole, Arms is much more of a technical, skill-based competition. Items do exist (and can be turned off), but nothing carries with it the random devastation of a Blue Shell from Mario Kart or a Final Smash from Smash Bros.
Arms has two primary control methods, and they both have their pros and cons. The motion controls use both Joy-Con, one in each hand, and require you to move by using the Joy-Con like giant joysticks. Punching is executed by, well, punching, and every twist and turn of your hand lets you put some spin on each punch. The motion controls have a bit of a learning curve, but as far as I can tell, they are probably the best way to play the game as the options you have with maneuvering each Arm independently is a huge advantage.
However, despite the fact I think motion controls are the way to go competitively, I personally have preferred using the non-motion stationary controls. Using anything from the Pro Controller to a single Joy-Con on its side, these controls are far more traditional, mapping movement to the left joystick and punches to the triggers. While the lack of precision in terms of controlling your punches is sorely missed, as long as you’re not trying to be some top-tier Arms master, these controls are completely and totally fine. My recommendation when it comes to the controls in Arms is to mess with both for a while and commit to your preferred style, and also avoid using single Joy-Con. It’s way too cramped.
While you’re finding your control style, you can also seek out your preferred character. Each of the 10 different characters have their own special abilities. The heavy and large Master Mummy can heal while guarding. The deft Ninjara can teleport-dodge while in the air. The police-robot Byte has his robot dog Barq helping him out in battle. Learning the ins and outs of each one is great for using the character effectively and also knowing how to combat rivals. To start, each character has three unique Arm types that you can equip on each limb. Over time, you can unlock each Arm type for every character, so you can fully customize your favorite character to meet your preferred playstyle. It’s still very early in the potential “Arms scene,” but it seems like the complications of 10 characters that can wield combinations of 30 Arm types can make for a huge assortment of nuance and strategies.
Where you spend the most time in Arms will most likely depend on your own preferences. For me, I’m a big fan of Party mode, an online mode where you can sit in a lobby with up to 20 people total. Players can cycle in and out of randomly assigned matches in a way that emphasizes a more casual hangout. A voice chat option would make this more fun, of course, but it still works well even without it (and that voice chat option might show up in the Switch’s future online app). The Friends option also mimics this Party style, though the former offers much more customization for what kinds of matches you can play. I foresee many a night sunk into Friends or Party in Arms.
The modes present in Party mode and the local Versus mode are abundant and varied, though the regular 1-on-1 fighting is the heart and soul of the experience. Additionally, you have 2-on-2 team battles, free-for-alls for three or four players, and a bunch of goofy modes like V-Ball, Hoops, and Skill Shot that help hone specific skills that can be used in normal battles. The off-kilter modes are perfect for a quick change of pace, but they don’t nearly have the depth to withstand prolonged play.
Grand Prix is the primary Arms single-player experience as it takes you through 10 matches against each different fighter. It’s a nice way to test your might (and beating difficulty level 4 is a requirement to unlock ranked online matches), but it’s weirdly hollow. While the characters and the world are rife with personality, so little of it seeps through in the purported story. The experience is more or less identical for each character outside of some moderately-amusing written dialogue. Grand Prix isn’t bad, just disappointing. As it’s the main single-player-focused element, the lackluster Grand Prix makes Arms a very hard sell for solo players.
A few other solo aspects sweeten the pot slightly, but they are almost entirely meant for training for multiplayer. Arms Test is an endless assortment of matches that pair your chosen fighter with random Arm types in each round. If you like those Arms, you can try to get them in the punitive Get Arms mode, but that can get very frustrating as there are 270 different Arms to get and the process is slow and random.
Arms is a heavily multiplayer-focused game in the same vein as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. A single-player Grand Prix mode might exist, but it’s largely just a gateway into the greater online-multiplayer world. Comparing Arms to Mario Kart 8 with regards to the online experience comes out favorably, though, as Arms’ fresher gameplay style and highly polished online lobbies and infrastructure makes it a more active and engaging online affair. Even with the Grand Prix drawbacks, Arms is a fantastic start to a new franchise. Time will tell if Arms truly has legs, but it’s definitely firmly planted at launch.