Arena fighters are the bastard cousin of fighting games. They can be fun, if you’re babysitting 4 year olds and the parents don’t have the Sprout network, but they have a relatively low ceiling in terms of psychology, nuance, creativity, and establishing a set of rules that puts them in the upper tier that traditional fighting games. Their straightforward appeal (probably unintentionally) has placed them in an unofficial category, “party games”. You can pick up and play them, generally with other human players to maximize their enjoyment. But why not ingratiate a deeper element to these? It may not be broke, but it can certainly be improved upon. Nintendo’s Arms is the first to successfully craft an arena fighter from the ground up to establish its unique set of rules to stand out from the pack and appeal to fighting game fans and casual players without dumbing down your senses or skill level.
One of the reasons I love Nintendo is their knack for never being content with how games are played. Like any inventor or ambitious outlier, it takes risks to innovate. Last year, in a collaborative effort with developer Namco, Nintendo created Pokken Tournament, a game I simply expected to be a Tekken clone with some select Pokemon. After an awkward learning curve, Pokken turned out be a 3D fighter that certainly has a play method to call its own.
With its three playing fields that utilizes a hybrid of zoning and footsies, Pokken redefines a teaching method of how and when to use your moves, as well as WHY you should use them. Pokken Tournament doesn’t play by traditional standards of a Tekken or Dead or Alive, but to utilize the proper tools and mechanics for how Pokken functions, Nintendo (and Namco) stepped outside the confines of formality to manufacture something different. Nintendo is like a steely-eyed pioneer, risking to venture out in the wilderness to discover new grounds in the world of game design, to show those content in the settlements established by the competition that innovation doesn’t plateau.
Upon its initial trailer as a part of the Nintendo Switch’s reveal during a Nintendo showcase in January, Arms looked pretty interesting, but skeptics questioned whether or not this was nothing more than another gimmick-based idea for Nintendo to make another stab at the motion controls. The explanation of HD rumble left a number of gamers perplexed, but Arms’ functionality is a perfect showcase for Nintendo’s more sophisticated method of motion controls. This is felt almost immediately once I passed the tutorial and began to play at my pace and devices.
It may have felt naked using motion controls to simply move in eight directions, but it’s the easiest way to ensure it wasn’t a gimmick. Were the controls mapped to an analog stick, the sense of immersion would be incredibly difficult. Your brain and reflexes create two different worlds of play and your mind would begin arguing with itself over the disconnect. This problem exists with some Wii games, like Castlevania Judgement, you felt like you were just fruitlessly wagging the Wiimote around.
The reliance on analog stick, D-pad, and face buttons resort your mind to an already established sense of how a game should work. In familiarity, things can only be improved upon the foundation, but you can’t innovate without tearing up the base completely and starting anew. In Arms, attacking, defending, moving, and evading are easy to perform because they aren’t asking you to forfeit your senses, but rather evolve them.
NINTENDOES WHAT THE OTHER ARENA FIGHTERS DON’T:
Power Stone is a game I [kind of] like and disapprove of at the same time, because it’s a colorful game with a lot of intangible charm. I can only play for about six minutes because I get bored with it really fast, as there’s not a thing about the game’s design I find enthralling at all. With the basic tap-tap combos, it’s psychology boasts about as much depth as a puddle of water in the Arizona desert. Power Stone’s greatest strength is probably the ability for characters to interact with the environment, based on their skill set and size, but it feels more short-lived and functions more like luxurious bells and whistles rather than a prominent fixture of the game’s design. The tide of the battle or your strategy isn’t altered by whether or not you rip a pole out of the ground. The world is “alive” only in a cosmetic sense. Sure, the stages are shaped differently and have two plains upon which to traverse, but so did Savage Reign on Neo Geo, and I honestly thought they did it better. Power Stone has all the philosophy of a backyard wrestling federation.
Or Destrega on PlayStation, which while amore obscure title, is even more mindless and repetitive, making it a bigger offender. Destrega demands absolutely nothing of you, other than your ability to PRESS BUTTONS.
You have the ability to engage in close range, hand-to-hand combat, but why in the holy mother of Neptune would you bother when at any point, with barely any cost to your skill meter, you can launch a near unstoppable barrage of projectiles of various types!? Destrega is what happens when you combine a paintball skirmish and a Dragonball Z ki blast flurry after downing a Monster Energy drink.
Arms foregoes this mindless method of lackluster programming and asks of its players to understand that proper technique will always bear more long-lasting fruit and satisfaction than simply mashing buttons to get a “W”. Instead of eight or nine interchangeable blank slates, Arms’ cast of colorful characters each boast their own individual unique quality to call their own. The design of this roster reminds me of the only other arena fight I felt got it right: Virtual-On
The matchups in Virtual-On was based on the machine you selected and your opponent. Selecting Fei-Yin and hoping to throttle Temjin in close range combat would not pay off. These variables keep battles amongst human players from being as similar as possible, and that’s true for Arms.
Byte is capable of attacking one extra time, thanks in part to his companion, Barq, who delivers a medium powered shot that takes the full recovery time of whichever (or both) arm(s) is launched. An untrained opponent may see an opening, but can be struck by Bark’s assault. This can potentially leave Byte open for another immediate attack with the coiled arm. The prospect of Barq being knocked out for several moments is a risk players may take, but bear in mind, that could leave you vulnerable to a player waiting for you to take that bait.
Master Mummy makes up for his lack of mobility and immense girth with regenerative properties while guarding, so he may be a slow walking target, but the size of his heaviest Arm covers a relatively great deal of space. Spacing against Master Mummy can be crucial, giving up too much room may mitigate any progress you have at whittling his health down.
See, THAT’S what I mean. There are things arena fighters can’t do that Tekken, Virtua Fighter, or Soul Calibur excel at, as free range movement kind of disallows crafting unique movesets. That again goes back to not trying to jam tradition into innovation. Work around the confines of what presented before you rather than not trying at all.
EVERYONE CAN PLAY THIS
In closing, the coolest thing about Arms is its skill level does not alienate anyone, veteran fighting game players, or those who never took interest. Memorizing 15 hit juggle combos or a long, elaborate moveset can be fun, but that isn’t for everyone. I’ve played fighting games for 25 years, and I’ve watched the arcades dissipate with those players abandoning fighting games, because getting beat up all the time just isn’t fun. Arms is a step forward in showing that even a nontraditional fighter (without the toxicity of the Smash fanbase) can be welcome to all. This game has actually taken time away from the other fighters I regularly play, like King of Fighters XIV and Street Fighter V, and is a strong example of how nothing ever has to stay the same to be entertaining. Thanks, Nintendo, for keeping it different.