In this feature Funké Joseph considers where ARMS can be a breakthrough title for Nintendo in competitive gaming.

After hours of sweating buckets during the Global Testpunch, days of watching gameplay previews, and long nights thinking about an ugly green slime man, one thing has become strikingly obvious to me: ARMS is a super weird game. There’s no getting around it. It’s a quirky fighting game that’s full of boxing mummies, ramen bowl stages, and some truly zany battles. But I think the weirdest part about ARMS is the way Nintendo is handling it. It's a relatively rare instance (outside of Smash Bros. and to a degree Pokémon / Pokkén) where it looks like the company actually wants one of its games to be played competitively. But does ARMS have what it takes to make it in eSports? Well, to find out we’ll have to dive into the Nintendo’s history with pro gaming, check out what the situation is with ARMS’ controls, and see what elements could be tweaked to give it the upper hand in the eSports world.

A lot of people know Nintendo has dabbled with eSports in the past with its Super Smash Bros. series, but it’s not necessarily been an intentional move by the company, at least not initially. In fact, the only reason the Melee community formed was due to the hard work of extremely dedicated fans. They created strict rulesets around items and stages to reduce the luck factor in matches, capitalized on game-changing glitches and made them the norm for every competitive player to know, and they organized tons of tournaments, friendlies, and other events for people of all skill levels. It’s that process that turned a party game into one of the most successful competitive eSports out there, without any help - at that point - from the developer. 

Melee’s journey to competitive success is a wild thing to think about, but what does it have to do with ARMS? Well, it raises two relevant questions about Nintendo’s thoughts on creating competitive games:

  1. Why didn’t Nintendo do more for the competitive Smash Bros. scene?
  2. Is Nintendo going to treat ARMS the same way it treated Smash Bros.?

The answer to the first question is actually pretty reasonable, it’s because Nintendo wanted Smash Bros. to be a party game. And they were extremely adamant about it. So that meant they wouldn’t organize any events, listen to criticism about the competitive state of the game, or develop a game for the more hardcore fans.

In fact, Masahiro Sakurai, the creator of Smash Bros, was asked about competitive play by a Japanese gaming magazine back in 2014. He said, “When the game becomes more like a sport, a tool that more strictly rewards the player with more skill, the game tapers off more, like a mountain. Just like how a mountain tapers off into its peak, that area becomes more and more narrow.” Basically, he thought the fanbase would die off and nobody would play Smash Bros. except for the pros. If that ended up being the case, it would result in low sales, so it was a pretty big factor as to why Nintendo decided to only cater towards the less serious, everyday gaming audience.

But would Nintendo do the same thing with ARMS? Probably not. At first glance, ARMS is a silly game that could easily be written off as something you play at parties when someone asks to use your Switch, but there’s a layer underneath it that Nintendo keeps showcasing in trailers, a layer ideal for competition and community. From the first announcement trailer back at the Nintendo Switch presentation in January to the gameplay shown at the ARMS direct, the main focus is on the 1-on-1 matches. So much so that it feels like a serious spiritual successor to Wii Sports’ boxing in a weird way, except it’s full of well designed characters and creative stages. It holds the same authentic charm and vibrancy that’s pre-packaged with all original Nintendo IPs, something that will separate ARMS from other competitive fighting games.

Another thing that will help ARMS define itself is its unique use of motion controls. I’ve been a fan of using tacky wireless motion gear for games ever since the Wii dropped, which is when I quickly realized motion controls suck. They sound cool in commercials, and then they usually end up being bad gimmicks that don’t work as well as you thought they would. But it was a gimmick that I really liked, and it kept pulling me in. I have a vivid memory of playing the boxing game mode in Wii Sports for the first time, and feeling this intense level of connection with a game that I had never felt before. It tapped into a fundamental joy of moving my hand in real life and seeing it move in a virtual space, and that made me so excited. I was laughing and flailing my arms around like a complete idiot, but I was having a really fun time. Of course that motion control technology wasn’t the greatest,  so it never felt completely responsive or practical, but there was still that inherent fun there; it's that same feeling that ARMS taps into and brings out to new levels.

Punching, blocking and grabbing all feel very slick and responsive. And due to the Joy-Cons, a slight flick of the wrist can curve your fist immensely in-game, which leaves your opponent in some really tricky situations. It’s intuitive too - which is great because you don’t even need to know how to play video games to play it well. If you have even the smallest inkling about how boxing works, you’ll be able to put up your dukes and show your friends that you’re the best at the sports. Even if you’re really bad at them in real life.

Currently the only downside I’ve seen in my time with the game is the poor movement options - as they seem to me - for motion controls. I found myself constantly putting myself in pretty awkward positions just to get my giant fisted mummy to move around properly, which would momentarily break the captivating boxing groove that ARMS put me in. Playing with a standard non-motion controller stops the uncomfortable contortions I have to put myself through to move around the stage, but it also stunts a lot of the organic fun that ARMS provides with its almost mastered motion controls. A good middle ground would be perfect. A feature that allows players to have fully customizable controls, or at least have a hybrid option which takes the best parts of motion and standard controls would be great. That way players would be able to use the fluid motion control combat while also utilizing the joysticks for easy movement options. All that being said, with a few adjustments here and there I honestly think ARMS could stand out as the first great fighting game that uses motion controls.

I don’t have a magical Nintendo crystal ball to tell me the future of the ARMS competitive scene, but I do think that this game definitely has what it takes to make it big. Especially if Nintendo forms a relationship with its fans to help start up an eSports community, and of course if enough people genuinely like the game.

Well what do you think? Does ARMS really have what it takes to break into the eSports scene with its noodle arms and all, or will it stay stuck as a party game you show to your parents when they ask “What the heck does that new Nintendo do?” I’d love to hear what you guys think about this subject, so let me know in the comments or just shout at me on Twitter!

I’m not going to lie, the real reason I wanted to talk about this subject was because there’s a distinct scene in my head of a bunch of Nintendo fans decked out in boxing gear playing ARMS at a huge tournament like EVO, while hushed Rocky music is bumping in the background. And I really want to see that that happen. Hopefully ARMS’ competitive scene grows into something like that, because I would 100% pay to watch that offbeat duel of the fates live. Anyway, if you need me within the next couple of weeks you can find me playing Master Mummy on the top of the ranked leaderboards, smacking losers and defending my throne as the king of ARMS. Watch out.