Arms has stood out to me since its unveiling as the Switch title with the most hidden promise. Punch-Out!! for Wii proved that motion-controlled boxing can be a ton of fun. Arms puts a spin on that successful template with wacky, extendable limbs, the freedom to mix and match zany weapons, and a Saturday morning cartoon presentation. But does it perform as well it looks? I went a few rounds with Arms at PAX South to find out.
The first hurdle was acclimating myself to the controls. Playing Arms requires holding a JoyCon each hand with thumbs on the respective shoulder buttons. Instead of using the analog sticks to move, players tilt both controllers to get around. Tilting to the side, forwards, and back positions the boxer accordingly. Throwing a punch in real-life causes the same to occur in-game. Holding down the left shoulder button performs a dash while the right shoulder jumps. Finally, pressing both Z buttons activates your special maneuver once the corresponding gauge has been filled. If that sounds like a lot, it kind of is - I didn’t even touch on blocking and grapples. Putting all of that into practice took more than a little work against my CPU opponents.
Leaving the safe confines of the tutorial proved to be a jarring wake-up call. As the A.I. unleashed hell upon me, I struggled to competently combine movement, jumping, dashing, and punching into a coherent strategy and kept mixing up the controls. Still, I managed to win primarily by keeping my distance and performing grapple moves.
The pieces began falling in place a bit better by the next round. I started timing my punches better and learned to read my opponent's movements. I even managed to block a few incoming shots and get off a few tricky combos. My bouts still devolved into chaotic, mindless punch parties where I probably looked like raging madman, but I was having some degree of fun.
Close-quarter skirmishes are fast-paced affairs, but throwing punches from a distance felt comparable to launching a missile. I took aim and watched my fist hurtle across the screen in hopes it would its mark, and it felt genuinely satisfying when it did. The Switch’s much-touted HD rumble simulates the feel of the arms extending and retracting–a neat, but minor, touch.
Button inputs felt exceptional, but tilting the JoyCons for movement didn’t feel natural to me. The entire time I just wished I could move with the sticks, so I’m thankful Arms supports traditional controls as well. The motion controls pick up movements a majority of the time but there were several spots where my inputs didn’t seem to register. It wasn’t egregiously bad, but the occasional misread was noticeable enough to cause some mild frustration.
I found a surprising depth to playing Arms. Outfitting your fists with three separate gadgets, such as propeller blades or a missile launcher, before bouts made me consider what combinations would work best. Environmental hazards like a trampoline around an arena’s perimeter can be used to render opponents open to attack or used to evade incoming blows. Even the act of punching shouldn’t be taken lightly. Since characters’ arms extend long distances, every strike leaves the corresponding side of their bodies exposed for a second or two. That means a punch that eats air leaves a fighter vulnerable to retaliation.
I’ve heard some predict Arms to become the Switch’s Splatoon. I ultimately found Arms to be entertaining enough, but I don’t think it has the novelty, personality, or shelf life to become a phenomenon the caliber of the Nintendo’s breakout shooter. Still, that doesn’t mean Arms can’t exist as a perfectly respectable and colorful fighter for Switch owners to goof around with.
Arms releases this spring on the Nintendo Switch.