Last week at an event in San Francisco we had a chance to play a near-final build of ARMS, Nintendo’s next major foray into the fighting game genre. During the preview we had a chance to go hands-on with several new modes, new stages and the final roster, including three previously unannounced characters.

New Challengers Come to Fight

We were intrigued by ARMS when it was initially shown off by Nintendo in January, and the game has only improved since then. The most obvious additions are the characters. We got our first look at the final three characters: Byte and Barq, a robot cop K-9 duo, Twintelle, a French movie star who fights with her hair instead of ruining her manicure, and Kid Cobra, a snake-like chap who moves quickly and has snaking arms that move unpredictably.

Byte and Barq enter combat as a team, with Barq being AI-controlled, randomly attacking your enemies with its tongue. Byte’s default arms are Seekie, a homing missile-type arm, Cracker, an arm that resembles, well, a party cracker, shooting confetti at your opponent, and a regular boxing glove-style arm called Bubb.

Twintelle’s gimmick is one that shows incredible potential for both offensive and defensive options. With Twintelle, when you dash in any direction and hold down the button she will begin to wave her arms, which creates a time-slowing effect around her; this makes incoming punches and throws slow to a crawl, allowing you to take your time formulating a counter strategy. Twintelle’s arms include Chilla, a boxing glove that freezes the opponent on contact, Parasol, which is, as its name implies, a parasol that open as it moves, thus make it bigger and harder for the opponent to manoeuvre around, and finally Thunderbird, which launches a bird-shaped projectile.

Kid Cobra is quick and sneaky. His snakelike movements are hard to track for opponents, especially when combined with his speed. He has the Slamamander, an arm which whips out like a snake and cracks at his opponents, the Hydra, which fires three projectiles that are connected on a string, and the Coolerang, a boomerang-like projectile with a freezing effect.

Each of these three new characters had a stage all their own as well. Kid Cobra’s stage, Snake Park, stood out, as it contains hover platforms that you can jump on and take control of rather than moving. On the edges of the stage there are sections where you can perform tricks, though we had a difficult time getting away from our opponents long enough to try them out. Twintelle’s stage, Cinema Deux, is in her home country of France and outside of one of her film premieres. The road outside is lined with limousines which serve as an unbreakable barrier. Finally, Byte and Barq reside in Buster Beach, a fairly standard arena which has some small platforms in it to ensure you’ll have to jump at times throughout your match.

Hoops, Skillshot and 2v2 Battles in ARMS

Stages and characters weren’t all though. Nintendo also unveiled a trio of new modes, each of which is unique. The first of these modes is the quirkiest of the bunch, called Hoops. In hoops, you and an opponent square off on a basketball court. The point of the match is for you to grab your opponent and dunk them. There are no life bars, but otherwise normal ARMS rules apply. You can throw punches at your opponent to build your energy, and if you fill your special meter and unleash a combo on your foe you’ll smack them into the wall, causing them to rebound and fly into the hoop. The first player to 10 points wins. You can shoot the opponent from inside the paint for two points or from outside for a three-pointer. There isn’t any guaranteed success, so you might accidentally bounce a shot off the rim. It’s a fun diversion from the main offering, and an unexpected addition.

We enjoyed the variety it added, as you’re no longer focusing on taking someone out, but instead on fending off throws, which you can do by punching one of your opponent’s hands. It’s hard to believe, but it’s a massive shift in how the game plays and feels a lot more lighthearted than the tense battles you’ll experience in the game’s regular versus mode.

The next mode was again a bit silly, but completely different. It’s a shooting gallery style minigame called Skillshot. The object of Skillshot is to take out as many targets as you can. The other player will be on the other side of the arena from you, trying to take out the same targets before you get to them. Targets appear grouped together, and the more you take out with a single punch, the more points you’ll get. Skillshot isn’t just limited to hitting targets, however; you can also throw punches across the stage to hit or throw your opponent. If you manage to land enough hits you can disable an arm or knock them over, thus giving you some precious seconds to smash up targets free of meddlesome adversaries. Skillshot is a score attack game. There’s no score limit, so just rack up more points than your opponent before time runs out to claim victory.

The final mode is undoubtedly the most exciting of the bunch: 2v2. As its name implies it is a two-on-two match, which can be played with up to four local players, or two players versus two CPU opponents. 2v2 is strictly team based instead of being a battle royale, and it goes a step beyond that by tying you to your teammate. There’s a coloured spring keeping you from straying too far from your partner, and it’s something that you’ll constantly need to take into account. To say teamwork is key in 2v2 is a massive understatement. In our experience we were able to find some pretty cool ways to work together, such as using Twintelle’s time slowing ability to hide behind our partner and let them take advantage of all incoming attacks being slowed down.

With four live players the game’s resolution and framerate take a hit, seemingly dropping down to a 720p, 30fps target, though we’re unable to confirm that at this time. Regardless of the seeming drop in visual fidelity, ARMS still looks and, more importantly, feels great.

Items and Their Impact

New characters and modes aren’t the only new things since we last had a chance to play Nintendo’s extendable arm fighter. Items have also been introduced, and while they’re limited they have the potential to make a huge impact on the metagame. In the build of ARMS we played there were two types of bombs, as well as two types of area-of-effect recovery items.

The bombs are flown in on a drone and hang in the air until you punch them out of the sky and hopefully toward your opponent. The first bomb is a run-of-the-mill incendiary explosive, causing damage to and sending its victim flying back. The second bomb is a bit more devious, and appears to be something like an EMP device. When struck with it you will be shocked and both your ARMS will be temporarily disabled. On top of that the person who’s struck has their movement speed drastically reduced, making them essentially a sitting duck for a couple of precious seconds.

Recovery items are different in that they drop in random locations around the map, opening up a ring in which you can stand to regain either health or special move energy as long as you remain inside. These are major game-changers, as they’ll give both you and your opponent something to fight over. In ARMS getting in close is a very risky proposition as it severely limits your defensive options. Punching a throw out of the air is far more difficult in close quarters; similarly, getting your guard up in time to block oncoming punches becomes that much harder as well.

Is ARMS Nintendo's 'Next Big Thing'?

We played several matches in every mode and took a few turns with every character; while they were each unique, one thing was the same: each battle fought was genuinely exciting. The thrill of facing down an opponent isn’t in any way diminished by using motion controls. Having to tilt the Joy-Con to walk or cross them to block didn’t diminish the excitement of trading blows with your opponent.

It’s impossible for us to say if this will change when using traditional controls. Nintendo confirmed their inclusion in ARMS at launch, citing control schemes for single Joy-Con play as well as the Pro Controller, but it’s clear from how they have chosen to show the game up to this point that motion control is the method of choice.

Speaking of things we didn’t have the opportunity to try, single-player was off the table at last week’s event. When asked about it, representatives for Nintendo confirmed we would see the modes in today’s Nintendo Direct presentation, but wouldn’t speak more on the issue. Another major feature we haven’t yet had the chance to see is ARMS’ online mode. For any fighting game online play is a critical component. Few fighting games released in this day and age can survive without it, and ARMS is no exception. We know Nintendo will have revealed information on this by the time of this article’s publication, and we’ll have more for you as we know it, but at the event we attended no online features were being spoken about yet.

When we played ARMS for the first time in January we were apprehensive. At the time the game showed potential, but there were too many questions yet to be answered for us to be truly excited. Now that Nintendo has lifted the veil on what the full roster looks like, additional multiplayer modes and stages, that apprehension has been replaced by cautious optimism. ARMS plays well, offering a new take on fighting games that could please both newcomers and hardened veterans alike, but there are still some  big questions Nintendo will need to answer before we can recommend  you pick it up on launch day.

Nevertheless, if the rest of the game is as fun as the core gameplay, ARMS truly could be Nintendo’s next big thing.