Nintendo’s new fighting game proves that with wacky appendages, clever boxing is within reach.
By Brendan Graeber
Ditching the more grounded world of Nintendo’s Punch-Out!, Arms is a far wackier take on the boxing genre. It’s an exciting face-off as you weave around incoming fists from afar, looking for that small opening to curve your powered-up glove straight into your foe or leap into the air for perfectly timed grab. Arms is bursting with fast-paced modes and colorful exploding gloves that make every fight a blast, and its stylish lobby system keeps me coming back for more.
As you engage in cartoony fisticuffs with the eponymous stretchable boxing gloves, of which there are many shapes and sizes, the combat of Arms is easy to pick up. You can fight any way you please: with motion-controlled Joy-Con controllers, Pro Controllers, or even a single tilted Joy-Con. The motion-control setup works well enough, since instead of throwing huge punches and tiring yourself out, subtle jabs and tilts will get the job done. Tilting the controllers to move, curve punches, and block does take a bit of getting used to, and I had the tendency to unconsciously move my Joy-Cons at the wrong time. This led me to gravitate more towards the Pro Controller or playing in portable mode, using the analogue stick for precise movements and using triggers instead of buttons to throw punches.
What really matters in every match is movement: if you aren’t constantly strafing and jumping to dodge the projectile-like punches of your adversary, you’ll just be giving the match to your opponent. Rock’em Sock’em Robots, this is not. Equally important is charging up your Arms to deal bigger, elementally enhanced damage, but it’s a risk because pausing to charge can leave you open to attack. There’s a great sense of give and take here: for every move you can make, there’s an equal counter, and the delicate dance of trying to outsmart your competitors can lead to some very tense moments. There’s also plenty of room for surprises, as just one match against a player who effortlessly dodged my attacks had me stopping to rethink my strategies and swapping out my equipped pair of Arms to try a different approach.
Character abilities factor into every matchup. Each of the 10 fighters has two innate abilities, such as Ribbon Girl’s multiple aerial jumps or Spring Man’s deflections. Some of these abilities can lend themselves well to developing new tactics, but others, like the fast-jumping but incredibly slow-dodging Kid Cobra, just feel like they got the short end of the stick.
The Arms themselves are all distinct enough that you’ll soon be able to spot which ones your rival has equipped and what they are capable of. While traditional Arms like the fiery Toaster are great for straight shots and breaking your opponents grab attempts, wide-arcing attacks from weapons like the Chakram and Thunderbird can flank from the sides.
Even variants of the same weapon type feel more pronounced than a simple reskin.
Most weapons can charge up to deal debilitating effects, although some felt a little more pronounced than others. Sure, having a wind effect to knock a fighter away from a powerup is nice, but not as nice as using electric attacks to completely shut down an opponent and leave them wide open to a grab, which does a ton of damage. Some types are rarer than others – giving them great unique appeal (Helix starts with the only blinding weapon, for instance) and even variants of the same weapon type feel more pronounced than a simple reskin when you compare the ice-encrusted Chilla to the gold-trimmed Bubb that doubles in size when charged.
You’re given access to every type of Arm from the start, but they are locked to specific fighters. If you want to rock a Guardian Arms with Spring Man, for example, be ready to shell out the money earned from fights in a target-hitting minigame for a chance at your desired glove appearing for the right fighter (and you’ll still have to unlock the Guardian again for every other fighter you want to use it with). I was hoping there would be a chance to be surprised with Arms nobody had in their default loadout (thirty Arms is still a pretty diverse selection), but there are some interesting choices to be made mixing a fighter’s abilities with the unlocked Arms of another fighter. Pairing up Ninjara’s quick movements with some of the freezing and electric Arms let me capitalize on his speed that I couldn’t achieve with his default loadout.
Fisticuffs With Friends
If you were worried 1v1 brawling would get boring, Arms does a good job of giving you plenty of alternate modes to choose from – and most every mode can be played solo or split-screen co-op, including the traditional 10-round Grand Prix campaign with scaling difficulty. The 1v100 mode gives you a lesson in endurance as you take on small groups of weak enemies until a final tough opponent. Modes like V-Ball, Hoops, and Skill Shot are nice diversions that are quick and concise, though getting walled off from your opponent by a large obstructing net playing explosive volleyball isn’t as fun or engaging as those that let you antagonize or otherwise go head to head. Getting tethered to another player in team battles was exhilarating, as I worked to defend my buddy from getting grabbed and timed rush attacks with the openings my partner created. That said, having the lock-on view constantly switching between targets on its own without my input got frustrating at times.
Players rarely go too long without being placed or paired up with other fighters.
The mode that really deserves a medal here is Party Match. This online mode transports you to a constantly shifting lobby area that’s almost as fun to watch as it is to take part in. Groups of up to 20 players (10 systems with two players each) are continually shuffled about as the lobby decides who should be matched up in the circles it creates. This means players rarely go too long without being placed or paired up with other fighters, and the lobby adapts to odd numbered groups by making frantic free-for-alls, grouping up against intimidating AI bosses, or letting local players take turns.
Even when I wasn’t in a match, I was hungrily absorbing the clever layout of each fight taking place in the lobby – seeing the health bars drop, rush attacks trigger, and the timer wind down around the circle until the players were jettisoned out of the circle to seek a new match. Ranked Battles offer a little more structure, and I was happy to find friend lobbies offer a lot of customization to pick and choose what kind of matches the lobby would pull us into – including the ability to choose possible stages, modes, and how much prize money was needed to be declared the lobby winner.
Choose a fighting champion from around the world, equip your own combination of extendable arms, and then use a mix of button presses and quick hand motions to really take the fight to your opponent.
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Arms’ clever take on boxing provides a simple premise with a startling amount of depth for those who would seek to master the stretching appendages. Its rapidly evolving lobby system had me sticking around for “just one more match.” There may not be a lot worth unlocking right now, but planned free updates may just give Arms some additional legs.