I never expected the Nintendo Switch to become my go-to fighting-games machine. But here I am, setting up impromptu Street Fighter matches in parking lots and combing through the trove of classic Neo Geo brawlers in the eShop. And now I'm throwing literal punches in Arms, a motion-controlled fighting game developed by the same folks behind Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
Arms is Nintendo doing what it does best: delivering joyful multiplayer experiences that are both extremely accessible and impressively deep. It's an easy recommendation for Switch owners seeking a great game to play with other people, though solo fighters might not find enough content to justify a $60 purchase.
As its name suggests, Arms a fighting game that lets you throw punches using your actual limbs. It sounds like a silly gimmick, but it actually feels great.
Arms' motion controls were consistently responsive, whether I was adjusting the curve of my character's stringy arm mid-punch or reaching out with both hands to grab my opponent. It felt good to get into a rhythm of performing motion gestures to move and punch, while pressing buttons to jump and dodge.
I mainly play my Switch on the go, when throwing real punches would probably get me in trouble. Fortunately, the game felt great with standard controls, whether I was smashing the CPU in handheld mode on the subway or gleefully beating up my friend at a burger joint with the Switch propped up on a table. While playing with motion controls gives you finer control over where your individual punches land, I found general movement more precise on a gamepad.
I went into Arms ready for a great multiplayer experience. What I wasn't expecting was the depth of a true fighting game. The game's rock-paper-scissors flow of punching, blocking and throwing allows for the same kind of mind games as Street Fighter and Tekken, except without the complex move inputs required to succeed in those titles.
As a result, I was having thrilling, down-to-the-wire matches with friends who typically don't play fighting games. Nothing made me happier than seeing the game just click with people who, within minutes, were performing advanced strategies like trying to trick me into going for a throw so they could dodge and counter. As someone who usually struggles to get friends to play fighting games with me, the low barrier of entry has been Arms' biggest selling point.
Throwing Down Your Way
Arms has a healthy amount of play modes for up to four players, and they're mostly a blast. You've got standard battles as well as 2-on-2 team fights, the latter of which I found a bit awkward since you're essentially tethered to your teammate.
You can smash targets in Skillshot, take on waves of enemies in 1-on-100 or play a decently entertaining version of volleyball. But the real highlight for me has been Hoops mode, in which you'll dunk or shoot your opponent into a basketball hoop every time you grab them. It's thrillingly tactical, and extremely silly. The game lets you battle online in both ranked and casual fights, and my matches so far have been impressively smooth.
While Arms offers good variety in terms of how you want to beat up your friends, the game might dry up fast for solo-minded players. Its marquee single-player mode is Grand Prix, in which you take on a ladder of enemies before fighting a final boss. Sure, you can try clearing it with every single character at every single difficulty, but you might get pretty bored along the way.
Big Arms, Short Legs
The big hook to Arms is unlocking and equipping new arms for your fighters, from standard-issue boxing gloves to boomerang launchers and defensive umbrellas (yes, really).
While swapping out arms adds tons of depth and variety, acquiring them is a bit of a pain. Winning battles will get you coins, but you can't simply spend them on arms -- you have to spend them to open up mini-games that give you a chance to unlock arms. The process feels a bit too tedious for me, and I really wish the game had borrowed from Mario Kart 8 by simply doling out new customization parts as you played the game more.
It almost feels redundant to say that a modern Nintendo game is beautiful, but Arms really pops. The game's colorful arenas are bursting with the same level of sheen that you'll find in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, while its zany characters exude a sense of style and attitude that reminds me of Splatoon. Seriously -- this game lets you fight as a mummy, a girl with ramen arms, a robot cop with a dog sidekick and a living DNA strand. You won't forget these fighters anytime soon.
Arms joins Super Smash Bros. and Splatoon in the pantheon of wonderfully accessible Nintendo multiplayer experiences that also happen to be great competitive games. It's a blast to play when you just want to swing around some Joy-Cons with your friends, but it also appeals to the hardcore fighting game fan who wants to master every fighter and come up with the perfect arms loadout.
However, I can't wholeheartedly recommend spending $60 on Arms to someone who mostly plans on playing alone. There are a ton of weapons to unlock, but between the singleplayer's fairly vanilla Grand Prix mode and its somewhat frustrating progression system, you might get bored pretty quickly if you're not playing online or trading blows with your friends locally. If you have access to a PS4 or Xbox One, you'll find more meat in Injustice 2 and Tekken 7.
Still, Arms is such a joy to play that you might find its flaws worth putting up with. If you're looking for the next great Nintendo multiplayer game, you've absolutely found it.
Image Credits: Nintendo
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Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.