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Nintendo’s motion-controlled Arms is a fun but frustrating fighting game

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As one of a handful of new games announced for its Switch console, Nintendo’s fighting game Arms had pride of place in Tokyo today. I spent a few bouts getting acquainted with its motion controls, while getting punched in the face by an ultra-buff mummy with fizzing purple balls for fists.

Arms’ control scheme is simple. Joy-Cons are detached from the base unit and held, one in each hand, in a thumbs-up pose. Tilting them forward sends your character walking forward, while backwards motion has them backpedalling. Lean them left and you’ll sidestep to the left, tilt right to go right. Punch a Joy-Con forward and your character will throw a corresponding fist; tilt the controller as it goes and your punch will snake around in midair, making it possible for you to punch around corners, or nail a moving target.

The Joy-Cons’ buttons add an extra layer of complexity atop this scheme, allowing players to jump or dodge out of the way of incoming attacks, and turbo-charge their fists for a short time to maximize damage output. Still, though, it’s a fairly easy control scheme to understand: to punch in the game, just punch in real life.

And yet on my first few attempts, I was slightly disappointed by Arms’ woolly imprecision. Several times I threw an accidental punch when I’d intended to move, or spent multiple seconds flailing my arms like an inflatable man in a car dealership only to have my character stubbornly keep their hands by their sides. For the untrained, it was much easier to win by simply throwing punch after punch at close range, and hoping enough hit.

The process started to feel a little like a reskinned version of Wii Sports’ boxing — a cardio exercise dressed up as a tactical experience. Fortunately, the ebb and flow of fights began to crystallize after two or three bouts, hinting at the strategic depths the developers promised. I started jumping over incoming attacks, or using my own punches to knock incoming fists out of the air before they could connect with my character’s precious nose. I still couldn’t make my walking punchbag do what I wanted with perfect reliability, but I could, at the very least, develop a game plan.

I started to scheme around my chosen character’s particular talents. Arms’ roster looks like it just stepped out of the casting room for Blizzard’s smash hit shooter Overwatch, each rendered in a chirpy and colorful style that hints at their particular strengths and weaknesses. The hulking Master Mummy is slow and wide, making him an easy target, but blessing him with correspondingly huge fists. Ribbon Girl, the masked star of the box art, is smaller and much quicker, but her extendable arms require more careful aim in order to connect with her foes.

Characters can swap out standard boxing glove fists for other armaments, including propeller glaives and metal paddles that change the way you throw standard punches. I equipped a new glove that made my left hook swing way past an enemy before curling back around to bop them on the side of the head, and won the next match handily (hah).

Arms became legitimately fun at this point, having reached a vague accord with the controls and developed an understanding of my character’s options. But the danger is that at launch this spring the game may be caught between two camps: too complex and multi-layered to be a party game; too floaty and inaccurate to be a competitive battler. Motion controls worked for Wii Sports because precision wasn’t truly required, whereas in Arms, I rapidly found myself wishing for buttons to better control the chaos.