Arms is hard to pin down, both literally and figuratively. While this weekend’s global testfires offered a good introduction to the house of whimsical party combat Nintendo is trying to build, a quick stroll around inside left me wondering, Peggy Lee-style, if that’s all there is.
Across the roughly three to four hours I spent playing the game’s open betas I got a good sense of the game’s feel, which is to say the rhythm that you’ll unconsciously slide into of launching punches and throws while bobbing and weaving across an array of different arenas. This is the heart of Arms at the moment: throwing one punch, waiting for your opponent to dodge it, and then throwing the other to where they’ll land after evading the first. Using the game’s motion controls, which are good but not great, you can aim your springs to fire-off in a particular arc, flailing to hit moving targets as your brain tries to match up the timing of an elastic, mechanical arm with the one actually attached to your body.
With the Joy-Con attached to one another (my preferred configuration) your left analog stick doubles for both directional movement and aiming, making your manoeuvres feel more precise than what the gyroscope allows but still somewhat imprecise. In total, it’s a good feel; the kind you’d expect from the company who made Mario Kart 8, Smash Bros. Wii U, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But whether good feel (and beautiful colours, great character design, etc.) can make up for a seeming lack of tactical depth is the question.
A typical match during the first period of open betas (another round of which starts on June 2) will see you eyeing up your opponent trying decide whether they’re the aggressive type, someone who prefers to sit-back and react, or simply has no idea what they’re doing (an indication they might be using the motion controls). You can dodge right or left, a quick burst of speed marked by rapid acceleration and deceleration rather than a single, fluid motion, or jump into the air make yourself an even more difficult target, either attacking or dashing again from there.
Compared to something like For Honor, however, the movement feels less targeted and deliberate. While an arrow icon will mark the person you’re currently oriented toward (matches can include 2v2 or more in some cases), there is still a lot of room for improvisation with the direction you character’s facing and throwing their arms in. In theory this should feel liberating, but in practice it can lead to chaos.
As for attacking, you’re limited to throwing right and left punches, either with a slight spin or head-on, or imitating a throw. Like most games, throws can be used to break through an opponent’s blocking action, or to break their attempt at throwing you. And when things get particularly dire, or you’ve spent a significant amount of the match in a defensive stance which fills up a power metre, you can unleash a special flurry of blows that are much more powerful and harder to dodge than normal attacks.
For the first hour or so, this loop of three options on offense and three options on defense is enough. It takes time to get used to, and if you throw in the motion controls as well, it ups the novelty factor as well, like the boxing from Wii Sports, but with a bigger budget and great art direction. Spend a little more time with Arms though, and you start itching for another layer of complexity. That layer doesn’t have to be as technical as Street Fighter or as brutal as For Honor, but it will need to surface at some point if Arms is going to have the kind of shelf-life of similar genre-make-overs like Splatoon.
One thing that does leave me feeling hopeful is Arms prodigious use of numbers. Any time you land a shot, a two or three digit number appears over your opponent to let you know how much damage you dealt. Bigger, heavier characters naturally deal more per shot, while lighter, quicker ones like Ninjara, the beta period’s most popular character thus far, do less and are expected to make up for it by connecting more often. (The game’s current meta, to the extent that there is one, consists of Ninjara players air-dodging and spamming throws).
In this way, it allows players to choose between, say, Manny Pacquiao and Mike Tyson not just in terms of visuals and mobility, but across a number of metrics built into the game’s code. In principle then, there’s lots of potential for statistical depth between different characters and arm configurations even if the game currently lacks a solid triangle of rock, paper, scissors counters to anchor it.
Arms will release for the Nintendo Switch on June 16. Meanwhile you can take part in the next phase of the open beta with a full schedule of times available here.