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Arms review: Nintendo Switch’s new fighting franchise will hook you

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There’s one thing about Arms that really bothers me. Why does everyone have springy arms? What’s happened in this sick, twisted, colourful world to result in people fighting each other with extendable arms? I can understand why robotic fighters Byte and Barq might have springy arms and how Mechanica – a girl in a robot suit – can get away with it.

But everyone else? What happened? Come on!

Once you’ve overcome that issue (if you ever do), you can delve into Arms properly. On the surface, Nintendo’s newest Switch title looks like an evolution of Wii Sports’ boxing game wrapped up in the colourful and stylised aesthetics of Splatoon. Once you actually pick it up and play, though, it quickly becomes apparent that Arms has more depth than that – it’s a tactical and punishing fighting game that both pros and newcomers can enjoy.

Coming out swinging

The premise behind Arms is, ultimately, a simple and well-trodden one. At its core, it’s a fighting game in its purest form. Battles are over relatively quickly, although there’s some back and forth to the play as players dance around one another, navigating the arena as they go.

You’ve got quick one-two punch combos alongside throw moves, counters and powerful super-moves that can be executed after a special gauge has charged. If it weren’t for the fact this is a Nintendo game and can be played with motion controls, that same description could fit even the most hardcore of fighting games out there.

Nintendo has a flair for good game design. It’s the reason everyone loves Mario Kart despite its difficulty and why Super Smash Bros has a home-grown professional fighting scene. Arms is no different – its beauty lies in its simplicity. In “Thumbs Up” mode, which sees you holding a Joy-Con in each hand and physically throwing virtual punches, blocking, moving and dodging incoming throws, Arms is as easy to pick up and play as a Wii Sports game. This approach makes an intimidating genre incredibly accessible and, when playing split-screen with a friend, it’s a riot.

However, Thumbs Up mode isn’t as simple as flailing your arms to whale on your opponent as in Wii Sports’ boxing. In Arms, you have to carefully consider your opponent and predict and react to their moves. Bouts are tactical: quick thinking and looking for openings is the key to success.

If motion controls don’t sound like your thing, Nintendo isn’t forcing you to play that way. I found them a tad sluggish for my fast-paced style of play. For me, Arms is best played using one of the many button-based control options available; the game feels more responsive and battles seem to play out far faster. If Nintendo wants to see Arms in the tournament space, it’s likely players will opt for button-based play. That’s no bad thing, though. By providing multiple options for how to play, Arms makes fighting games accessible to a wider crowd than ever before and that’s definitely a good thing.

Punch-drunk

In terms of content, Arms has a dizzying amount to keep you busy with. Its cast of ten fighters all have their own strengths and weaknesses, and in the game’s Arcade-like “Grand Prix” mode there are seven difficulty levels to choose from to ease you into mastering Arms’ combat system.

Each fighter comes with three unique and interchangeable fists that you can pick from at the beginning of each bout. Extra gloves can be unlocked through spending tokens earned by competing in fights online, Grand Prix or one of the other various competitive modes. These gloves have their own characteristics and help you shape Arms’ combat into something that suits your own style of play.

Each of Arms’ arenas are also wonderful spaces to explore. At first glance, they all seem rather stylised and generic; in fact, each arena has its own characteristics that affect the way you fight. Min Min’s arena is bowl-shaped, for instance, which means you have to pay attention to randomly spawning bombs that might roll into the centre where you’re fighting; Spring Man’s trampoline-bordered arena means your opponents can use the walls to launch themselves into aerial attacks and Kid Cobra’s skatepark-like stage features moving platforms for comic Gladiators-style antics.

All of this seems somewhat overwhelming at first, and Arms could really do a better job of introducing all of these different aspects. Currently, you need to venture into the Help section to discover some of the finer aspects of Arms’ gameplay although, in fairness to Nintendo, it has done a great job of clearly explaining complex ideas and techniques to an audience that might not be fighting-game savvy.

A new challenger approaches

The only criticism I could level at Arms, beyond my innate dislike for its characters’ freakishly springy limbs, is that it asks a lot of you if you want to have a bit of co-op or multiplayer fun.

Including team-based battles and four-way brawls is a positive move, but if you want to play with friends on the same screen, the cost mounts rather quickly. Playing with buttons isn’t an issue as you can easily play two-player by handing a friend one of your Joy-Con controllers. However, if you’re the sort that can only play in Thumbs Up mode, or you’re trying to entice non-fighting game fans into playing Arms, you’ll need a full set of Joy-Cons per player. That’s quite the financial commitment when a full set costs £70.

That aside, Arms is Nintendo Switch’s dark horse. The console has already been a great success for Nintendo, but Arms has the potential to bring in the hardcore fighting game crowd looking for a new game to master. It will also hold some appeal for the casual audience thanks to its scalable difficulty, simple control scheme and friendly appearance.

Arms is still a big gamble for Nintendo, though. Not only is it a brand-new title on a brand-new console, it’s also playing in one of the toughest genres of them all – and it’s no Tekken 7. But if the fighting game community decides it’s worth their time, and I hope they do, it’s a gamble that will have paid off.

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