Available on Nintendo Switch this Spring
Nintendo consoles use of motion-control technology has evolved significantly since Wii Sports boxing. Back in 2006, a series of inarticulate flails was the best strategy for pounding one’s opponent to the ground. Real-life swings and jabs translated poorly on-screen, and the end result was a frustrating mess.
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Ten years later and ARMS' core mechanic isn’t that far removed the Wii's debut boxer, but after spending some time with it on the Nintendo Switch, it’s clear the two are miles apart. Not only does the underlying tech now work reliably, but ARMS is deliberately configured to prevent spasmodic strikes without strategy. In this regard, Nintendo appears to have learned from some of its previous mistakes.
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The key ingredient to the more tactical pace of ARMS is distance. Punches, which are delivered through a jabbing motion whilst holding a Joy-Con controller, take a second or two to make their way from one player to another, giving the opponent time to meaningfully respond. Part of the problem with Wii Sports boxing was its direct transposition of the real-world sport into game without consideration of what makes games tick. Decision, action, response, these are key to any competitive game, and by slowing the pace Arms gives these mechanics room to breathe.
Mid-fight, there are a variety of ways for players to respond to basic punches. Pulling the Joy-Con together results in a blocking posture. Tilting the controllers to the side strafes left and right. And other button presses allow players to jump, and dash in the direction their Joy-Cons are currently tilted. Reacting with lightning speed is less important than anticipating your opponent’s next move and forward planning.
There are also alternative offensive options on offer. Twisting the Joy-Con whilst jabbing allows players to curve their punches to either side, striking from a different angle and possibly catching their quarry off-guard. Thrusting both Joy-Cons forward at the same time results in a grabbing move, which, if it finds its target, will result in a devastating blow that ignores the blocking posture.
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Players can also choose when to deploy a special move: a whirlwind of punches which is the only time when fast jabbing of the controllers is required. If you’re caught amid the rush of strikes, then it’s nearly impossible to escape. It seems that this ability is limited to one use per match, forcing players to hold it back until exactly the right moment.
ARMS seems to have found the game of rock, paper, scissors which underlies most competitive games – and the result is a game with some redeeming strategic value. Where 1-2-Switch feels like a barebones tech demo, ARMS is more substantial, and that’s something the Switch sorely needs if it's to make its first year a success.
But what truly impresses is how reliable the Joy-Cons are as motion controllers. At last, Nintendo has achieved sufficient accuracy at reading gestures – very few of my motions were mis-read. A punch was a punch. A block was a block. A curve was a curve. Simple. Yes, I still lost the majority of my matches through ineptitude, but this was due to my own mistakes, not those of the hardware.
The Joy-Con feel a touch small for the task at hand, as it’s not possible to grip them with the same white-knuckle fervour as the Wii controller because of the densely crammed buttons. Maybe, however, this is a good thing – a more delicate grip is appropriate for a more delicate game. The important thing is that the underlying tech works, and this signals good things to come from future games which look to take advantage of similar control systems.
The real question is whether ARMS will be good enough to justify its £50 price tag. From what I’ve sampled, this seems like a tall order. ARMS is an arcade game of greater depth than any of the individual modes in Wii Sports, but it’s also a standalone retail title that won’t come bundled with the system. In other words, ARMS can’t afford to pull any punches. A greater variety of game modes, more playable characters, and regular updates seem the bare minimum required to justify the premium cost.
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And that’s before we move on to the real wallet-killer: the Joy-Con controllers. 1-2-Switch can be played head-to-head using the two Joy-Cons that come bundled with the Switch, but for ARMS to accommodate more than one player using motion controls, a second pair of Joy-Cons are needed. That's another £70 to enjoy the game as it’s meant to be played. Yes, controllers are a long-term investment, but in the early days most customers won't own a second pair. Will £120 for the pleasure of playing ARMS with friends be worth it? Probably not.
There’s also the question of playing ARMS on the go. All my encounters with the game were enjoyed on a television screen with the Switch in console mode. How the gesticular gameplay will marry with a 6-inch screen when a TV is unavailable is a cause for concern. It’s been stated by Nintendo that ARMS can be played without motion controls, but without the pumping of fists, the game’s biggest sell washes down the drain.
ARMS is a great showcase for how far Nintendo has come with its motion control, and offers up an innovative fighting game real strategic value. But with Switch titles so thin on the ground, ARMS carries a great responsibility into the ring, and at a premium price it might not deliver the sucker punch Nintendo so desperately needs. We'll just have to wait and seet how much it gets fleshed out before launch.
ARMS is scheduled for a spring release, acting as one of 2017's big Switch exclusives.