There are times when Nintendo Switch fighting game Arms recalls the simple joys of the early days of the Nintendo Wii.
Back when motion controls were a fun novelty and Wii Boxing drew crowds at parties, you could have a blast with a friend as you flailed about with your Wii controllers. Skill wasn’t always required for victory if you could waggle a controller hard enough. The game was a bit of a mess, but it was a fun mess.
Arms winds up being something akin to a lovechild of Punch-Out, Virtua Fighter, Overwatch, and a really complex game of Whack-a-Mole.
Arms is a fun mess too, for different reasons. The game takes the basics of using the Switch’s motion controls to let you throw punches at another player, then adds a whole pile of extra strategic layers. Arms’ premise is simple: Two boxers square off using springy extendable arms, which allow you to throw crazy, bendy, long-range blows you can steer and manipulate after the punch has been thrown.
The result is a lovechild of Punch-Out, Virtua Fighter, and Overwatch, and feels like the an incredibly intricate game of Whack-a-Mole. When you’re taking on another human (or two, or three), those layers add a bit of frantic strategy. As long as you don’t take it too seriously — because you’re still flailing about with imprecise motion controls — that can be a lot of fun.
But Arms, ironically, overreaches. As you explore the game’s intricacies and more difficult challenges, the game crams in more elements than its simple, fun control scheme can reasonably support. Though it works great as a light but frantic multiplayer title, Arms isn’t the deeper fighting game it sometimes wants to be.
Springing into action
Arms is all bright, cartoony presentation and springy punching craziness. There’s little to the game beyond the basics: Weird cartoons wail on each other. With flashy colors and fun, dancy music, it’s easy to get lost in Arms’ aesthetic — it’s a fighting game party at its best, and the bright, colorful look sells that all the way through.
Arms seems fairly simplistic at first glance, but it hides a surprising amount of depth beneath its lack of bells and whistles. Each of the 10 characters that players can choose from has its own positives and negatives, a special move, and a different complement of springy boxing gloves, which also happen to be called “Arms.”
Before each round, you can switch which of three types of arms you want to use. The gloves you bring into a bout carry different properties. There are a straightforward boxing gloves, arcing boomerangs, guns that fires laser beams, and a stretchy oven mitt-like pad that slips past defenses and slap opponents upside the head. Fighters can block a punch with another punch, but heavier gloves like wrecking balls can beat back blocking blows to land a hit. All of the potential interactions add up in a hurry.
With motion controls, all of Arms becomes a desperate dance of tilts and swings to get your character to do what you want at key moments.
In addition to all the possible loadouts you can bring to each fight, each character has his or her own special moves to consider. The ninja-themed Ninjara does a short-range teleport if your punch hits his block; pop singer Ribbon Girl can stay in the air with multiple jumps; the undead Master Mummy can replenish health when his defenses are up. The character you choose affects your fighting style, too, since bigger characters are harder to stagger and knock down, but also move and fight more slowly.
A successful combination of these elements will help you win, but you also need to read your opponent. You can use a guard move to raise a shield that blocks punches, for instance, but with your shield up, you’re susceptible to a slower grab-and-throw move that delivers high damage. Every punch thrown leaves you vulnerable to something, so counter-punching, blocking, dodging, and especially aiming your punches all comes together to make for some frenzied fights.
With motion controls, Arms becomes a desperate dance of tilts and swings to get your character to do what you want at key moments. The game supports up to four players in split-screen or online play, and especially against other humans, motion controls make the game all the more ridiculous and fun.
The game also includes a couple of semi-novel sports-based modes to mix things up. There’s one in which you and an opponent stand at either end of a room, trying to punch targets that pop up between you, while harassing each other with punches at the same time. Another is a volleyball match that’s all about executing the right move at the right time to set up and spike the ball. Finally, there’s the Hoops mode, in which players each try to use Arms’ grab move — the move most easily blocked or dodged and that leaves you most vulnerable when you try it — to slam-dunk each other through a basketball hoop.
The imprecision problem
Arms is fine in more casual multiplayer settings, where the chaos of motion controls is part of the fun. The game also supports a more traditional button-based control scheme if you connect the Switch’s Joy-Cons to the controller dock or the console itself. Those work fine, too, in more casual games.
But on higher difficulties and in more competitive play, Arms gets into trouble. Regardless of whether you’re playing with the motion controls or the button-centric control scheme, the game just doesn’t feel precise enough to make good use of its many nuanced features.
While its core conceit seems geared towards causal play, Arms wants to allow for intense, high-level fighting as well, and there are a ton of features that require players to dig deeper into the game to be really good. As difficulty amps up, keeping track of things like glove weight, character special abilities, power-ups, and elemental effects you can charge up by holding specific buttons becomes essential.
The game’s motion controls are not precise enough to match the level of customization the game theoretically offers. It doesn’t always read your gestures correctly — a long-standing problem among motion-controlled games. There’s always a chance of accidentally tossing off a punch when you were trying to slide left.
Meanwhile, the button-based controls seem like they were deliberately designed to feel be as awkward as possible. When you switch to traditional controller mode, pushing in the left stick triggers your guard move, but that position just begs you to trigger it accidentally in the heat of battle, especially when trying to dodge. Punching is assigned to both A and B and the RZ and LZ triggers for some reason, which means you need to keep your thumb well away from those face buttons, since a misfired punch leaves you vulnerable. Astoundingly, Arms won’t let you reconfigure its buttons. No matter how you choose to play, you’re forced to deal with strange button combinations.
Against a human opponent, these various problems balance out. Everyone is rendered equal because of the controls, and the deluge of elements becomes more of a boon. But playing Arms against an AI opponent often feels like Dark Souls by way of Wii Sports. It’d be tempting to conclude that the easiest solution is to skip the AI-fighting tournament mode, “Grand Prix,” altogether at tougher difficulties, but Arms gates its ranked online play mode behind it.
The goofy craziness that made Wii Boxing a blast is back in Arms, but, for better and for worse, the experience is much more involved. When played with friends, especially splitscreen, Arms is a fun, strategic and just-crazy-enough multiplayer title. That’s the best way to enjoy it, because despite an attempt at adding a lot of complexity to get players thinking strategically, Arms’ controls make it a struggle at higher difficulties.
Is there a better alternative?
On the Switch, and for people who particularly like this brand of motion-controlled mayhem, there isn’t really anything else like Arms. Fighting game fans looking won’t find the next Street Fighter or Tekken here, but it’s pretty great for a party or online with friends. However, if you’re looking for great Switch games, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a fantastic multiplayer party game, and you can find our other favorite Switch games here.
How long will it last?
Arms’ single-player offerings aren’t particularly deep. Its Grand Prix mode only lasts 10 quick fights and can be completed in an hour or so if you’re winning, although you can return to it over and over through seven difficulty modes to unlock and try a huge number of arms for each character. That said, Arms is best enjoyed with friends, and you can play it locally or online for hours on end.
Should you buy it?
No. Not unless you are just looking for a Nintendo Switch game to casually play with friends at home. Even then, Arms is no Super Smash Bros. This will not become your next fighting game obsession.