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How Nintendo created its wild new cast of fighters for Switch game Arms

When the developers at Nintendo began concept work on Arms, a new fighting game coming to the Switch later this month, they weren’t sure what kinds of characters it should include. Early on, they toyed with the idea of featuring familiar Nintendo faces like Mario, Link, and even the Wii Fit trainer. But the key to Arms is right there in the title: it’s a game where characters possess extendable arms that they can use to hit faraway opponents. Twelve-foot-long arms didn’t mesh with a short, squat character like Mario. “We thought the best fit for it was to make it all new,” says producer Kosuke Yabuki.

Like 2015’s Splatoon, Arms isn’t just a brand-new Nintendo series, but a first foray by the company into a genre. Whereas Splatoon was a multiplayer shooter starring a colorful array of stylish squid-people, Arms is a near-future one-on-one competitive fighting game with an eclectic roster of pop star-like combatants. (The Arms and Splatoon teams actually work right beside each other at Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters.)

Arms started as a fairly simple idea — a behind-the-back fighter where players could lob punches at each other from across an arena. From that point, the team started building out the fiction.

Arms

One of the initial inspirations was the world of professional sports — specifically their spectators. “Each fighter has these super intense, passionate fans who kind of copy their look and feel, and come into the arenas to support their chosen fighter,” explains art director Masaaki Ishikawa. “This world of Arms, it’s like our world’s football fans. They’re super passionate, and these Arms supporters really love the fighting aspect of this competition.” Each of the 10 fighters has their own stadium-like arena as a home base, complete with scores of adoring fans, some of whom dress in the colors and costumes of their favorite fighter.

Much like a professional athlete, each combatant also wears equipment that serves as a sort of uniform. Whether it’s a man with slinky springs for arms or a green blob that resembles those inflatable towering mascots flailing their arms above a used car lot, each Arms character sports a face mask and protective chest gear. The outfits have a handful of alternate color palettes to provide some additional variety. “With all of their differences, they still have a cohesive aesthetic that binds them to the same world,” Ishikawa says. The sports theme also helped the game — which is primarily about characters punching each other repeatedly — keep the family-friendly vibe that Nintendo is known for. “We worked hard to make the feel of it such that it’s like you’re watching a basketball game,” says Yabuki.

Compared to other fighting games, the roster of Arms fighters is fairly small, but it’s quite varied. There’s a young pop starlet named Ribbon Girl, a beefy undead boxer called Master Mummy, and Twintelle, a classy movie star who punches with her hair and celebrates victory with a cup of tea. In most cases, the ideas for the characters stemmed from a functional standpoint — if the team needed to add a fast character, for instance, or one who was especially strong — though in a few cases they started with aesthetics. In almost all cases, though, the character design started with the arms.

Take Helix, for example, perhaps the strangest character in the game. Helix — the used car wobbler mentioned above — looks a bit like a particularly jiggly chunk of green ASMR slime, complete with a digital mask in place of eyes and a few floppy strands of hair. But his most striking feature might just be his perpetually twisting arms. According to Ishikawa, the look started with an idea to have a character with DNA strands for arms, but the team didn’t really know where to go after that.

“Initially we had the design for the double helix, DNA-spiral shape for his arms,” he says. “And we had a lot of different ideas for what kind of character would have arms like that. Maybe a cyborg, or some sort of man-made being. Eventually we settled on this amoeba-like character design. In the end, we got a sort of biological creature design. Rather than go really serious with how he moves, we thought it would be more fun and unique to give him an awkward, but cute animation. And with that we ended up with a really unique design that we’re really proud of.”

Other characters followed a similar path: they started out as a pair of arms, and their aesthetics and personalities extended from there. Min Min has spiraling noodles for arms, and she fights inside of a giant ramen bowl. Snake Kid not only has slithering arms, but also appears to be some kind of snake / human hybrid creature who participates in a futuristic extreme sport called snakeboarding. Spring Man, meanwhile, has springy arms, while his hair has a similar bounce, and his arena is lined with trampoline-like pads to jump on. “He’s really based around the idea of springing action,” says Ishikawa.

Arms

Having such distinct, iconic designs was especially important for Arms because the characters are the focal point of the game. Both Yabuki and Ishikawa previously worked in the same roles on Mario Kart 8, a game that features a roster that’s almost a who’s who of Super Mario history. In comparison, the fighters in Arms are much less well known, but they serve a bigger function. “In [Mario Kart 8] the focus really is on each of the course designs, and how you race on those,” explains Yabuki. “But Arms is more about how you use each fighter and their arms to fight each other. The personality and distinctive features of each of the Arms characters is a lot more important in this game, as opposed to Mario Kart.”

Much like Splatoon, the character designs in Arms aren’t like anything else Nintendo has made before. They’re wild and inventive, with a modern sense of style, like the artists at Nintendo were finally able to cut loose and took full advantage of the opportunity — rather than build upon decades old characters. And just like Splatoon, the cast of Arms has been well-received by fans; the game may not be out yet, but there is already plenty of fan art and cosplay to be found on Twitter, Tumblr, and elsewhere on the internet. The early, positive reception has been a relief to the creative team, who say they “had no idea” what to expect when they began revealing characters, especially since they were making an entirely new world to go along with the game.

“Creating a wholly new property is really tough, but also incredibly fun and rewarding,” says Yabuki. “You have to think of everything from scratch; the sound, the visuals, absolutely everything. It was really rough, but also really fun to try this.”

Arms launches on Nintendo Switch on June 16th.

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