For a company that is so often accused of relying too heavily on its existing franchises, Nintendo has been refreshingly open to creating new intellectual properties of late. Splatoon famously came out of nowhere back in 2015 and established Nintendo as a key player in the online shooter genre, and now ARMS is attempting to perform the same trick on the Switch, this time in the competitive fighting game arena.
Of course, you could argue that Nintendo has prior form with this kind of game; the Punch Out!! series instantly springs to mind. However, to call ARMS "just" a brawler is misleading; it's a game where you spend much of the bout trying to keep as much distance between you and your opponent as possible, thanks to the telescopic limbs each fighter possesses. Punches are akin to projectiles, and it's even possible to curve your blows to attack your enemy from the side - a key strategy when they've thrown up a defensive wall of their own. Feeling like a cross between Capcom's Power Stone and Sega's Virtual On yet at the same time totally unique, ARMS is quite a departure for Nintendo.
ARMS supports a wide range of control methods, but Nintendo has understandably chosen to highlight the motion controls in its promotional footage for the title. When playing with the Joy-Con in this mode you hold them "thumbs up" and each swing of your arm is replicated in-game. Turning the Joy-Con slightly after a punch has been thrown adds some curve, while tilting both Joy-Con left, right, forward or back moves your character in that direction. Tilting them inwards activates your block, and dashing and jumping are assigned to the L and R buttons. ZR triggers your "Rush" attack, which is only accessible when your Rush gauge is full. Punching with both arms executes a grab move, which - should it connect - allows you to deal a high level of damage.
Early matches will invariably involve you chucking a few punches while simultaneously trying to keep out of reach of incoming blows, but against a talented player this kind of approach isn't going to get you very far. You'll need to mix in copious amounts of dashing and jumping, both of which are obvious evasive options but are also necessary to charge up more powerful punches; after a dash, jump or guard you'll notice that your ARMS glow with power; any punches thrown in this charged state will be stronger than before and may even unleash a special, element-based attack.
While it might initially seem like a simplistic take on Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, ARMS has many layers of depth that reward tactical and nuanced play. You can adopt a wide range of tactics depending on the situation; it's often a good idea to box speedy players into a corner by aiming punches to either side of them, or you could try to knock out your rival's arms temporarily with a glancing blow from a distance using a charged elemental attack. Taking to the air means you can avoiding incoming blows but it also leaves you exposed on the way down, so there's often a valid argument for keeping your feet on the ground as much as possible. Dashing around incoming punches allows you to counter with your own combo of hits, while especially nimble combatants can neatly shimmy through a series of blows before leaping skywards and grabbing their rival for a devastating throw.
The game's control system certainly gives you a workout, and health benefits aside it's an entertaining way to play; the satisfaction of a real-world punch winning a virtual boxing match surely needs no explanation, and intelligent button mapping means you never feel like you're fighting the controls at any point; in fact, because you're combining arm movements with button presses, it feels like you're more in control. The only reservation we have is the process of adding curve to your punches; it's hard to keep your Joy-Con totally upright when you swing your arm, and as a result the game often applies aftertouch on a punch even when you want it to go straight forward, making precise attacks a little trickier than they should be.
Given the rather negative perception the gaming public has of motion controls it's fair to assume that anyone who wants to play ARMS seriously will opt for using sticks and buttons; the game supports dual Joy-Con input (either when connected to the Switch console or when ensconced in a Joy-Con grip), Pro Controller and single Joy-Con. The all-important dash and jump commands are mapped to the Y and X buttons, while punches are mapped to the B and A / ZL and ZR buttons. If you only use the face buttons then you have the problem of not being able to throw a punch and dash or jump simultaneously, as your thumb can only be in one place at any one time. Blocking is also a little less intuitive; you have to push down on the left analogue stick, which is often easier said than done when you're desperately trying to dodge a flurry of blows.
What's surprising about the controls in ARMS is that there are strong arguments for both systems, just like there was with Splatoon. We're sure some will swear by the motion controls as they not only make the experience more immersive but they arguably feel more natural thanks to the fact that the dash and jump commands - which are utterly essential to success in the game - sit underneath your thumbs for easy access. The old-fashioned stick-and-buttons system means you can be more precise with your movements and punches, but having dash and jump on the face button cluster doesn't feel as intuitive to this player. Part of the challenge is finding which interface suits you, but at least you know one isn't necessarily superior to the other, meaning that a motion control expert has just as much chance of winning as someone who swears by the Pro Controller.
ARMS has ten fighters to select from, each with their own unique strengths and abilities. Spring Man - the closest the game has to a lead character - benefits from more powerful blows when his health is low, while the hulking Master Mummy is capable of taking punches without flinching and replenishing his health whilst blocking. The acrobatic Min Min can deflect incoming punches by jumping and dashing in mid-air, and the reptilian Kid Cobra sacrifices dashing speed for swift jumps, but can also use his stored charge to perform a super-swift quick-step. The variety in the cast means that there's a play style to suit all tastes, and what's even more remarkable is that no one fighter feels more powerful than any other; this is one seriously balanced roster.
Of course, the characters are only half the story - the titular Arms you equip them with are equally as important. Each fighter has three default Arms to begin with, but a total of 30 different options can be obtained by participating in the Arms Getter mini game. You can tinker with your standard three-Arm load-up and then choose from that trio at the start of every round; it's almost always a good idea to have a different Arm on each limb so you can use them together to tactically outsmart your rival. For example, you can use the Guardian Arm to create a shield to block incoming hits and then use that window of protection to unleash a freezing ray from the Ice Dragon Arm. Other Arms have a wide horizontal or vertical reach, allowing you to box your opponent in during an offensive. The process of mixing and matching Arms is essential if you want to raise your game, and certain opponents are much easier to tackle when you have the right gear. There's hours of gameplay here just in finding the right combination.
The process of unlocking Arms is one of the many ways in which the game keeps you interested; coins are needed to participate in the Arms Getter mode and these are earned during pretty much any form of play, be it online, training or solo. The desire to unlock all of the available Arms keeps you coming back for more, and even when you get a duplicate it's not a disaster - having more than one type of Arm increases its power.
Each fighter has their own arena to do battle in, and every single one is totally unique. Spring Man's level has trampolines around its sides that allow you to get an aerial advantage over your competitor, while Ribbon Girl's disco-themed stage has rising platforms which can provide cover. During each fight items will be thrown into the fray to complicate matters further; two types of bomb - explosive and electric - can be punched towards your opponent and detonated (these can naturally be used against you as well), while restorative items top up your life and Rush gauge when you're in range of them.
The game's Grand Prix mode is where you'll be spending a lot of your time, early on. Here, the objective is to take one of the ten fighters to the grand final, and one of seven difficulty levels can be selected before you begin. Level 1 is almost insultingly easy to complete, but it's ideal for learning the ropes. As you grow in confidence you can slowly but surely ramp up the challenge, and with good reason - you can't particulate in Ranked online matches until you've finished the Grand Prix mode on Level 4 or above. This might sound like a cakewalk but on this difficulty level the CPU opponent is surprisingly aggressive, forcing you to master the art of dashing and jumping in order to prevail. This barrier serves as the ideal training mode, and ensures you don't venture into serious online play before you've honed your skills.
The game's Versus mode is all about local multiplayer, and allows up to four fighters to take part in various battles. Team Fight is 2-on-2 action where you are tethered to your ally via an elastic rope which, when put under too much strain, pulls you back towards each other. V-Ball is, as the name suggests, Volleyball, ARMS-style; you stand on one side of a net and have to smash the ball onto your opponent's side, causing it to explode and earn you a point. Hoops is based on basketball, with strong attacks and throws dunking your enemy into the basket for points. Skillshot is all about hitting as many targets as possible with your punches whilst avoiding the blows of your opponent who has the same objective, and finally there's 1-on-100, which is a solo mode where you have to defeat - you guessed it - 100 enemies.
Party Mode is where you'll want to head if you're looking to play online before you've unlocked the Ranked Match mode. Here, you're randomly assigned various modes with other players; sometimes you'll be fighting solo, other times it will be a three-way free-for-all. If you took part in the pre-release Global Testpunch then you'll already be familiar with the setup; the game does an excellent job of ensuring that the wait in between bouts is as short as possible, and when you're not fighting you can take part in warm-up exercises. It's also possible to play exclusively against people on your friends list, or start a local match with nearby Switch consoles. During our online play test we found ARMS' netcode to be solid and robust, with no lag or stuttering. This was naturally during the review period when the load on the servers will have been light, but it bodes well for the full release. We certainly didn't notice any major problems during the Global Testpunch, which was perhaps a more realistic demonstration of how well the online side of things will hold up post-launch.
As is the case with so many fighting games, the longevity of ARMS depends largely on how you intend to play it. The lack of a meaty single-player mode outside of the Grand Prix means that after a while you're going to grow tired of simply facing off against the CPU. To really make the most of the package you're going to have to venture online or ensure you have plenty of like-minded challengers in your household; ARMS really comes alive when played against other people, another thing that can be universally applied to fighting games. If you prefer to play your Switch on the move and find your online access is limited then you may discover that ARMS lacks enough content to keep you totally occupied; once you've pillaged the Arms Getter mode and completed the game with all of the characters there's little incentive to return - unless of course you're willing to compete with other players for glory.
We've spent an awful lot of time talking about the core game without mentioning its impeccable presentation yet - to say this is one of the best-looking Switch titles to date would be an understatement. The character designs are excellent, bursting with colour and personality, while the environments are surprisingly detailed and complex. Everything whips along at a smooth 60fps and it's no exaggeration to say that the game looks every bit as good as anything you could offer up on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. ARMS is convincing evidence that the Switch has more than enough raw power to create visually impressive games, and this is a first-generation release; who knows what Nintendo will be capable of in another 12 months. In terms of music, you should all have the ARMS theme tune ingrained in your consciousness by now; needless to say, the soundtrack is as appealing as the visuals.
ARMS has certainly had its doubters since it was revealed earlier this year, but Nintendo has once again proven just how well it understands what makes a game really tick. The core fighting mechanics are easy to grasp - especially when you're using the pleasantly intuitive motion controls - but they showcase the kind of depth which rewards dedicated players. Mixing up light and charged punches with your dashes and leaps allows you to create an almost balletic style of play, but add in grabs, stuns and features unique to each stage and you've got a truly formidable foundation to build on. That's not to mention the large number of Arms available via the Arms Getter mode, each of which has the potential to totally change your approach to combat. The lure of collecting Arms will keep you glued to your console even if you only choose to play solo, but online is where ARMS is sure to prove its worth; getting into a match is an effortless affair and for those who want to take things to the next level, Ranked Matches provide the ideal means of proving your skill. The light nature of the main campaign may limit its long-term appeal for solo fighters and casual players may find the difficulty level to be a little on the steep side, but these aren't deal-breakers by any means.
ARMS is polished, addictive, immensely rewarding and - perhaps most important of all - establishes a solid platform to create a popular and long-running series.