With the release of ARMS quickly approaching, there are still plenty of mysteries about Nintendo’s clever take on the fighting game concept. Perhaps the most commonly-asked questions revolve around the competitive future of ARMS. Does it have depth? Does it take skill to win, or can you just throw hands and hope for the best? Does ARMS have the competitive legs to go the distance?
Last week I got the opportunity to get my hands dirty, spending a full day with ARMS at a Nintendo UK event, learning how to play and taking part in a pre-release tournament that allowed me to see for myself how ARMS holds up when players do whatever it takes to win. And, I have to admit, I came away surprised.
Nintendo are the masters of looking at a genre and taking it apart, rebuilding it, and making something magical. Splatoon was as deft and intelligent a breakdown of the Shooter as you will ever see, and continues to play host to a competitive community that is steadily growing. ARMS is, without a doubt, just as impressive a pastiche of the Fighter–complete with punny naming conventions and all the fighting archetypes you expect from a hardcore fighting game.
In Min Min and Helix, ARMS presents us with two versions of the zoner. Helix has slow movement, but makes use of a shield arm and powerful projectile to keep opponents pinned down and suffering. Min Min, on the other hand, is engagingly mobile. Her dodge acts as a parry, and she moves around the stage comfortably while peppering the opponent with attacks from long range.
Ninjara and Kid Cobra suggest that Nintendo can also build rushdown of a sort, again in different styles. Ninjara is rapid, and attacks predominantly from blind spots for the opponent, while Kid Cobra is less mobile but can instead be totally oppressive with slapping and freezing ARMS.
There are grapplers too, along with more straightforward brawlers and characters seemingly designed to work best from the air. The variety is impressive, as is the clarity with which they have been created. Each character effectively plays the role they are designed for, with each apparently being given the tools they need to succeed–even if it is not always easy to see for some fighters, like Helix.
Most impressively, you can change the ARMS that each character has available to them, meaning that you can mix and match tools to work at the very peak of their abilities–or to build a character that suits your own style more effectively. With some ARMS having special abilities when charged, like breaking an enemy’s guard or freezing them in place, the decision-making gains even more weight.
This is vital because, and there’s no getting around this, ARMS is slow. It doesn’t have the same sort of pace many modern fighters exhibit. No one is expecting ARMS to keep up with Guilty Gear, but the pace is significantly more considered than other modern titles: reminiscent more of Street Fighter II than Street Fighter V.
This is by no means a bad thing, as it gives each move a gravity and weight that forces you to think about every move. With only two weapons on hand –your left and right ARMS–using both at the same time feels like a heavy commitment. It is the most effective method of locking your enemy down, forcing them to move in a certain direction with one ARM and following their movement with the other, but doing so leaves you very open, which is scary. The same goes for grabs, which are ponderously slow and easily broken. Using one in neutral is an almost unforgivable commitment, as it leaves you open to heavy punishment.
The ability to cancel any move into Rush–the ARMS equivalent of a super–mitigates the risk slightly when you have Rush available, but there are risks there too. Almost invariably, he who activates Rush first wins when Rushes clash, so if your opponent gets a read on your plans, you could find yourself at a heavy life deficit and out of a Rush to boot.
Because attacking feels like a heavy commitment, much of ARMS’ neutral is played out without ever throwing a punch. Each character moves uniquely, but has access to a couple of universal options; a dash, a jump, and an air dash. These options are augmented depending on your character: Ribbon Girl has multiple jumps, while Twintelle can use her ability to charge in the air to feed into multiple air dashes. Mechanica can float in midair, giving her good mobility in the air that contrasts her poor grounded movement, while Kid Cobra has far better movement on the ground than in the air.
Often it feels like he who punches first loses, as the majority of the game is played in neutral, dancing around the stage and trying to bait an attack from the opponent. Like in Tekken, movement is the first law of ARMS, and the first thing that will be optimized if a competitive scene does arise.
One barrier to that competitive scene gaining weight is that, more often than not, ARMS feels janky. Punches can clash with each other, leaving that ARM disabled for a time, and throws can be knocked from the air seemingly randomly, leaving you completely open. Because it is played out at such a distance, there is very little impact to a successful hit–and I actually feel ARMS does as good a job is possible under the circumstances–which in turns makes landing a good hit ultimately unsatisfying. Accordingly, losing can feel particularly frustrating, as it can sometimes feel you lost without ever getting a good hit in, even if the match was close.
The undeniable depth of the game might overcome that, though. I’m not going to pretend we came close to understanding everything on offer at the event, with deep levels of strategy left unplumbed. After a brief learning phase, ARMS quickly settles into feeling like a match between two players reading each other, with strategy and counterplay coming into effect in the space of single match thanks to ARMS glacial pace.
In many ways it feels like a fighting game taken from the playbook of David Sirlin, who has long espoused the idea of fighting games as a mental battle between the two players on the sticks. It’s hard not to see the parallels between this and his own Fantasy Strike and Yomi games, where the emphasis is on the player to read their opponent.
The question that remains; will ARMS grow a competitive community? Many of the problems people have with ARMS have been addressed–the movement controls are not mandatory (and I played on the okay, but workable physical controls throughout the event), and it is without a doubt skill that plays a deciding factor in who wins a match.
However, it is janky. You can rest assured that there will be mountains of salt mined over the next few months. It’s easy to find excuses for losses in ARMS, and it’s particularly easy when something weird happens–and it does, often! In the end, the ambition of ARMS might be its downfall, as at times the tracking or curving of ARMS works strangely. You can throw out a punch that looks the same as many others, only to have it miss when the others hit.
So will ARMS blossom as a competitive game? I’m not convinced. It’s not just me, either. I talked to other members of the FGC also present at the event, who said they were expecting to see ARMS as a side event rather than on the main stage. There may be a core of players who are passionate about the game on the competitive level, but expect many to fall away because of the jank and confusion.
In the end though, none of us can know for sure. What I can say for certain, is that ARMS is an excellent game. It’s good looking, it’s fun, and it feels like a fighter at heart. All that remains is to see whether it has the legs to build a competitive community when it releases this month.