Like Daniel LaRusso at the start of Karate Kid, I was an easy target for the older, bigger games reviewers. It didn’t take long for them to single me out, smashing my ribbon girl to the ground in match after match. I flailed with my joy-cons trying to punch back at their relentless assaults but no matter what I did they would break my grabs. They’d grapple me when I tried to block, tossing me painfully to the side of the ring, and when I’d cower and run from their long arms they’d activate a Flurry attack and rain down punches, whittling my health bar away to nothing.
I was the noodle-armed nerd, and they were the bullies in red jackets.
I couldn’t see what other players were doing that I wasn’t. I’d had the same problem at a preview event, where my real-world actions didn’t seem to make my character do what I wanted them to and, worse, there was nothing indicating how I could do it better.
After a string of losses that would dent anyone’s confidence, I was on the cusp of giving up on this colourful fighter. I couldn’t access the depth everyone else was saying was there. Then, down the row of console pods, I saw a screen where someone was piledriving a player through a basketball hoop. This wasn’t a versus fight, it was something else, something sillier and simpler: Hoops.
The game mode is simple, two players are in a tight square basketball court with a single hoop at one end. Players don’t need to worry about health, because you can’t die. Instead, the danger is a grapple. If you can grab your opponent with both hands then your character will toss them up into the air and unceremoniously dunk them through the hoop.
You can still punch and use your Flurry but those moves take on a slightly different purpose, you’re doing it to stun or unbalance your opponent long enough that you can get in a grab. Hoops focuses ARMS: you learn to dodge, because a single successful grab can change the outcome of the game. You learn to jump and punch, because the elevation changes the angle of your attack and that can be all it takes to get your grab past their defences. Most importantly, you learn to time your punches rather than flail because you always want to have your arms ready to grab, block, or sideswipe your opponent.
If you’ll excuse the pun, Hoops isn’t just a throwaway mode. Dunk your opponent near the hoop and it’s only worth two points – but score from further away and you’ll get three. If you can catch someone with the full brunt of your special attack it punches your foe to the side of the court, where the walls are lined with trampolines which bounce them high into the air and into the hoop. These two high-scoring moves push you to move around the court, trying to coax your opponent into a better-scoring area—after all, a three-pointer means your opponent has to match you or score two low-scoring shots to get ahead.
Hoops is the Mr Miyagi of ARMS, constructed to subtly train me in everything I needed to know for the main game without the stress of getting walloped for every tiny mistake. When I went back to ARMS’ versus mode after an hour of Hoops, the game opened up. I went from being a flailing mess to a— well, I won’t say master, but I did win a few fights.
Thank the Lord for Mr Miyagi, then, because without the wax on/wax off training of Hoops I’d likely have given up and walked away, bidding a farewell to ARMS.
ARMS suffers from the classic problem of motion-controlled games: the movements in the game don’t exactly match your movements in the real world. No matter how fast and how often you punch in the real world, your in-game character will only punch as frequently as their animations allow. This disconnect can, when you first pick up ARMS, give a frustrating sense that the game isn’t doing what it's supposed to. It’s only after spending time that you learn to internalise the rhythms, and begin adapting your movements to the demands of the game. Problem is making that investment in the first place, getting over that heave and becoming comfortable with how the controls are designed to work.
This is why Hoops saved ARMS for me, revealing a fighting game that is genuinely new. The 3D space of the arenas allows (and demands) clever movement to push your opponents into corners where they can’t dodge your long-armed attacks. It’s not a game about mastering long chains of combos, there are only really three simple moves — punch, grab, and block — that have to be used precisely to get the most out of them. It’s not about execution, either: the moves are easy to pull off, but a player who knows what they’re doing will tear apart someone new. Grabs can be broken by a well-aimed punch; blocks can be circumvented with a grab; flurries of punches can be weathered by a judicious block.
This game ended up as a joy to play, but its sheer originality means your brain needs to do a little readjusting of its own. But ever since ARMS opened up, I’ve been loving its warm embrace.