Movie Sleuth Gaming: Arms - Reviewed

I am glad to see Nintendo’s push towards new properties in the last few years has continued. Myself and many others loved 2015’s Splatoon, and I have been my optimism has continued since last-year’s reveal of Arms. In the past, Nintendo has been a company famous for conservative choices and wringing out value from every series on the books. With recent changes, it looks like things are starting to turn around for the once gaming giant. Because of this, and the ambitiously bold Breath of the Wild totally knocking it out of the park earlier this year, I had a lot of faith when Arms finally hit the Switch.

Nintendo similarly continued their recent habit of public online tests with Arms, and twice I was able to play it prior to release, although I couldn’t really put a finger on my feelings about it. It was colorful, approachable, and polished, the three things that Nintendo always does well, but with such limited access to the game, gathering my thoughts was a struggle. It may have had an influence on the average consumer to buy or skip the game, but for me it just muddied the waters.

When I actually got my hands on the game, it initially impressed me. The gameplay is fast and simple yet rooted in classic fighting games. You won't be rolling quarter-circles and throwing fireballs, but the rock paper scissors paradigm of grabs, jabs, and blocks is there. In lieu of the classical punch and kick buttons, combat is handled simply with left and right arms operating independently, shooting out like an old-timey cartoon boxing glove on a spring. Due to the 3D nature of the battlegrounds, the arms can be moved in flight, and it makes for a satisfying and tactile experience. I was enjoyed the experience early, playing the single player grand prix was fun, if a little easy at first. Where it kind of broke down was when I cranked up the difficulty.

Charging attacks is essential to victory in higher difficulties.

The AI is inconsistent; plain and simple. The earliest tiers of difficulty were a pushover. Opponents rarely, if ever, attacked, and I found myself getting flawless victories against many of them only minutes into gameplay. I could see how this is good to make new players feel rewarded and not challenge them too early. No one wants to immediately get punched in the face and lose, doubly so in a Nintendo first party game. The trouble with that was how ill-prepared it made me for higher difficulties. The level 4 difficulty (the one required to be finished to unlock one of the online modes) felt like a totally different game. The AI opponents could read your inputs and movements like a poem, and on top of that almost never miss a swing. They weren’t aggressive so there wasn’t an intense feeling of pressure, but they were so perfectly reactive that it bordered on broken. I was able to complete it after many minutes of frustration, but I didn't feel good about it. How you had to play felt totally juxtaposed to the rest of the game, and to be honest, the best strategy I found to defeat the AI was to play smart in the early game, then just strafe around and never attack for 90 seconds while the clock ran to zero. Effective, but far from compelling gameplay.

Mixed in with the traditional fights of the single player Grand Prix were several non-combat side modes. I was happy to see something different to mix up the gameplay, not unlike the ‘break the targets’ or ‘adventure’ modes in the Smash Brothers series. There are three side modes, mostly rooted in sports games, wherein you play volleyball, basketball, or competitive target shooting to break up the action. The side-modes are not what I, or I think most people, came to the game for so I didn’t have high expectations, yet I was still disappointed. I think my general lack of enthusiasm worked in tandem with the inconsistent AI to make matters worse, but every time one of these mode came up I just groaned. They aren't fun, they don't seem to reinforce skills to make you better at other aspects of the game, and their simple design makes me think they were strictly an afterthought to squeeze in more content in a game that still feels a little light in spite of them.

I was a little concerned to hear they were focusing on motion controls with Arms, especially considering how powerfully I rolled my eyes upon the announcement of their inclusion during the initial switch announcement. To my pleasant surprise the motion controls worked well, and not just in simple fashion like Splatoon’s tilt aiming, I was able to play with full-on punch motions and it didn't feel punishing. Years of bad motion controls from the Wii and Kinect era had me nervous and I had all but wrote-off the motion in Arms. I was pleasantly surprised by how responsive the Joycon were. Despite my decision to play the majority of my time with the pro controller, I thought the motion controls were surprisingly precise, and I imagine the majority of players who are taking the competitive aspects of the games seriously will play in this fashion, as it enables separate angular movement of each arm independently, in a way that the traditional controls do not. The pro controller style worked well for me, and the controls are intuitive outside of one thing: the block button. I won’t dwell on it too long, but putting the block button as clicking in the left stick was a poor decision. Even after a dozen or so hours it still doesn't feel natural, and there are zero options when it comes to control customization to combat it.

Image result for ribbon girl
Gettin't it done with my girl, Ribbon Girl.

In addition to the single player, Arms packs in two different ways to play online: Party Mode and Ranked Mode. The Party Mode lobby uses a creative means to keep people playing, and I think it is as successful as it is unique. Unlike Mario Kart 8 where all participants in an online room will be constantly competing against each other, Arms concentrates on smaller confrontations. This is handled online via a constantly rotating series of simultaneous matches of different sizes and types. It even has a cool visual representation of player icons moving between different map circles and game types in the lobby. It was cool, although I don’t think I really liked it as much as I appreciated its design. Nintendo should continue to experiment with stuff like this, but ultimately my problem with this lobby had more to do with not liking the side modes than not liking the format.

The ranked online mode is more straightforward. One-on-one battles, best of three fights on random stages. Once it is unlocked, you are free to match with opponents, throw punches, and gain ranks. I wish there was more to say here, but at the very least it is a nice change to say that a Nintendo online mode is fast, simple, and just works. Matches occur fairly quickly, and the matchmaking does an adequate job in matching people of similar skill level. If you really enjoy the traditional fighting gameplay and want to test yours skills, this mode is for you. For me, I don't think I will invest too much more time. I just don't have that competitive spirit and Arms just doesn't have its hooks in me in a way I thought it would in that regard.

That’s just indicative of my whole Arms experience. I do my best not to show my bias, but I am very much a Nintendo fanboy, and the fact that Arms isn’t inspiring me to keep playing is telling. I want Nintendo to continue its trend of freshness and trying new things, and I am not unhappy that I got Arms, it just wasn’t a game for me. There is a crowd for which Arms is right up their alley, and I bet it will have its own competitive cult following. I for one am just glad that I just get to enjoy some of my time with the game without diving headfirst into the cult myself.

Justin Wicker

Developer: Nintendo EPD
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: June 16th, 2017
Reviewer’s Platform: Nintendo Switch