ARMS is the Nintendo Switch’s take on fighting games, in the same way the Splatoon (and the upcoming Splatoon 2) is Nintendo’s take on team shooters. Naturally, there’s an extra element at work that makes the game unlike others that you’ve played. So naturally, we donned our rocket boxing gloves and spring-loaded boomerangs to see what the game is about.
The entire conceit of ARMS is that it’s pugilism at a distance, and with bizarre weapons instead of fists, and springs instead of arms. Yes you could get up close and all up in everyone’s personal space, but why bother when can hit someone over there from over here? You’re not limited to the boxing gloves you start with, either. As you progress through the game you earn points which you can use to unlock even more crazy handwear. The entire game is shown from a 3rd person perspective, and more than anything reminded me of a more advanced version of Punch Out for Wii. The fighting itself is limited to a simple set of moves: punching, which is either controlled by punching with the JoyCon, or pushing one of the assigned buttons; grabbing, which is done by punching with both arms at the same time; and blocking. You also have the occasional special move, as well as a jump, but there are no combos, no counterattacks, just good, clean fights. Except for the fact that you can also to curve your attack to get around obstacles or attack from somewhere that isn’t directly in front of your opponent. In a way, it’s very “rock-paper-scissors” (or RoShamBo, as it’s known to some), with punching beating grabs, grabs beating blocks, and blocks beating punches.
While there is no massive story mode to ARMS—or even any good reason why the fighters have springs for arms—there are a number of single player modes they you can engage in. The first of these is the Grand Prix, which sees you fighting every other ARMS fighter in the game, Mano a Mano, until one of you is victorious. One interesting aspect about the Grand Prix is that it’s not strictly fight after fight after fight; occasionally, one of the other battle modes, which I’ll be describing below, will make an appearance. Grand Prix is good for getting a feel for the game, but not much else.
The next couple of modes can be considered more party modes than anything else, and cover such games as ARMS-style basketball, volleyball, and target practice. There’s also a 1-vs-100 mode, which sees you square off against a horde of foes. Once again, these modes are great for honing your skill, but lack that “stick-with-it-iveness” that can make some game modes utterly compelling.
Where ARMS excels, naturally, is its local and online multiplayer. Duking it out against someone else—especially someone in the same room as you—is where it’s at. In a way, ARMS is to fighting games what Mario Kart 8 is to racing games: the best fun you can have with another person with your pants on. The online modes provide the usual gamut of ranked and unranked matches against both friends and random opponents. And of course, the Switch makes it possible to take all this fun on the road with you and battle it out wherever you are against anyone who happens to be in the same room as you, be it a kid at the dentist or your bros at the coffee shop. The Switch makes it doubly easy, since each JoyCon becomes a controller in its own right. It’s an awesome way to get your butt kicked if you still haven’t mastered the punch-block-punch-grab timing of the game.
And timing is a lot of what this game is about. It’s not about brute force or finger speed or combo memorization. You have to take into account the fact that your punch takes time to get to your opponent, and then time again to come back. Have both arms out at the same time, and you’re unlikely to have enough time to block or deflect a grab attack. Spend too much time blocking or countering grabs, and you’re going to spend an eternity winnowing your opponent down to zero health.
Is ARMS worth the purchase, though? Despite the ridiculous plateau you hit when trying to master the game and the lack of proper single player campaign, I reckon it is. The game can give you a good run for your money if you have someone consistent to play against, or if you enjoy the thrill of online matches. If you enjoyed Punch Out then you’ll definitely have a blast with it. If you were expecting something more in the line of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Injustice, or Tekken, you’ll have some learning to do, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a lot of fun with it in any event. And nothing beats the feeling of grinding your opponent down to the ground and being a complete and utter sore winner.