Boy, was I wrong about Arms.
When Nintendo first introduced Arms back in January, I was extremely skeptical of the concept; it seemed like Nintendo was trying to hype up a confused mess. I even wrote an opinion piece on the game suffering from an identity crisis, that it seemed simultaneously too ambitious for fighting-game newcomers yet too shallow for genre enthusiasts. Now that I’ve had a chance to go hands-on with the game during its Global Testpunch, I am happy to report that there’s plenty in the package for players of all skill levels.
For the uninitiated, Arms is, at its most reductive, a traditional fighting game. Your objective is to reduce your opponent’s HP to zero before they deplete yours. You achieve this by punching, and you have multiple gloves, or arms, to choose from for each character.
For purposes of this demo, jumping in and out of matches was simple enough. Upon first logging in each weekend, players were given a short tutorial on how to play using the “thumbs-up grip” with the Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons. I didn’t particularly care for the tutorial, as it felt too brief for me to gain my bearings on the controls before I was thrust into the multiplayer lobby and into a match. Since the second Testpunch weekend was my first and only opportunity to play the demo, I wasn’t able to see if the tutorial was offered with any other control scheme, as the player is never offered to go through the tutorial again during the same weekend.
At any rate, once past the tutorial, you’re thrust into the multiplayer lobby, where you pick your character and wait to be paired up for a match. The game offers a nice touch in that you can practice against targets with your chosen character and three different sets of arms while waiting to be matched with opponents, so at least you aren’t just sitting there, staring at the screen while waiting for a match. Once you’ve been paired to an opponent (or set of opponents), the game doesn’t hesitate to throw you in, giving you a brief 10 seconds to choose your arms for the match.
In Arms, it’s all about the…well, arms. Some arms look like traditional boxing gloves, while other characters may sport chakrams, which boomerang around the stage, or a bird that flies out to attack the opponent before circling back to its owner. Each arm has its own unique effect, and you can combine different sets of arms for each match, so you can pick the combination that best suits the situation. For example, one game mode, Skillshot, pits you against an opponent with rows of targets between the two; your objective is to smash more targets than your opponent. The Triblast, which shoots out three cords, might be suitable for smashing more targets.
These different arms are what makes the game so unique, as well as the multitude of playable characters. You have Spring Man, the sort of all-around fighter; or Master Mummy, who regenerates health while blocking. Each character has its own unique twist or quirk, so it was fun to try all the characters available during the demo, even if not all of them clicked with my play style.
The Global Testpunch offered a variety of game modes during its second weekend, including Fight (or versus matches), Skillshot, Hoops, and VS. Hedlock. The former two match types could be one-on-one or two-on-two, while Hoops is a one-on-one mode where the objective is to throw the opponent into a basketball hoop to reach a score of 10 points. VS. Hedlock pits three allied players against a leveled boss enemy named Hedlock, which I found to be pretty difficult. While I found Hoops to be fairly singularly focused by having to spam grab punches to score points, I found all the modes enjoyable, and it was nice to have a bit of variety this time around—unlike during Splatoon 2’s Global Testfire.
The way Nintendo seemingly wants everyone to play Arms is with motion controls. So, that’s where I started. The game has you holding the Joy-Cons in the aforementioned “thumbs-up grip,” wherein four fingers wrap around the Joy-Con strap’s rail attachment and your thumbs lightly grip the L and R buttons. It felt odd at first, but it makes sense when you start moving your character and executing punches. With motion controls, you tilt both Joy-Cons left or right to move your character in that direction—same thing with tilting forward and backward. You use the L button to dash side-to-side, and the R button allows your character to jump. You can also block by crossing the Joy-Cons at an inward angle.
Punching, then, is achieved by…you guessed it, a punching motion with the Joy-Cons. A straight punch sends your character’s arm straight out in front of them, while arcing your punches will, in turn, arc the direction of your character’s arms. Additionally, throwing both punches simultaneously results in a grab, which is unique to each character. Finally, when your meter charges up, you can press either ZL or ZR to unleash a super charged attack, and each arm type comes with a different attack.
While throwing punches using motion felt great and was fun, I found myself missing my opponent more often than I’d have liked, and I found it difficult to control the direction of my punches. I especially didn’t feel in control when traversing the battle arenas, either, as it seemed my Joy-Cons only like to recognize my sideways movements; I found it difficult to move toward my opponent to close the gap.
Switching to my Pro controller felt much more natural to me. Using the left thumbstick to aim my punches, the right thumbstick to move my character, the ZL and ZR buttons to throw my punches, pressing the left thumbstick to block, and the Y and X buttons to dash and jump, respectively, felt much more in tune to how I like to play games. The controls did take a bit to get used to, but once I had them down, I realized how deep the gameplay could be. For example, it wasn’t until I was using the Pro controller that I realized you could jump, then dash in midair; I didn’t notice this when using motion controls because I was too occupied with trying to simply maneuver around the arena, or to just get my punches to go the way I wanted them. Beyond that, though, I found there to be an almost Smash Bros.-level nuance to the controls in the way you can dodge, move around the stage, and maneuver your own punches. In the same way you can midair dodge in Smash, you can sidestep an enemy’s punch and respond with one of your own.
I also did try playing the game in handheld mode, as well as with a single Joy-Con. While the handheld controls were the same as those using the Pro controller, I found myself longing for the extra spacing and larger buttons of the Pro controller. And, while I did manage to win a few matches with the single Joy-Con, it definitely felt too cramped for prolonged play sessions. With the single Joy-Con, you had to use the A and B buttons to punch—you could also do this on the Pro controller or in handheld mode, but it’s forced upon you with the single Joy-Con, so be prepared for that. The single Joy-Con seems fine if you’re playing a couple local matches with a friend, but again, I found it too cramped for prolonged use.
Arms is a fun fighting game with considerable depth for fans of the genre, but also offers enough modes and options for anyone to pick up and play without feeling left out. Each playable fighter is unique in appearance and ability, and the different arms to choose from change up the game in noticeable ways. Single-player gameplay looks crisp and smooth at 1080p and 60 frames per second in TV or docked mode (720p60 in handheld), and the game comes with enough control options to suit motion control enthusiasts and traditional control veterans alike. I’ve definitely changed my tune about this game, and I cannot wait for the full release in the coming weeks.