As an accessory to the human body, there’s a lot to love about arms. They help us get out of bed in the morning. They make it possible to pour a bowl of cereal. Without them, our teeth would rarely get clean and our cars would veer out of control. They help cement a business agreement while giving friends the necessary tools for a warm embrace. Many famous ones have garnered headlines, from Tyson’s fierce right hook and Nixon’s raised peace signs to Betsy Ross’s flag-stitchers. And now, finally, after ceding the headlines to an unending bevy of floating guns, spaceships, leaping legs, and rotating geometry, they get the videogame they deserve.
With the arrival of Arms, Nintendo is crossing their fingers and toes in hopes they’ve achieved the perfect balance of the company’s signature qualities. In some ways, their latest release is a return to their pre-videogame roots. In the 1960s, Nintendo employee Gunpei Yokoi invented a simple contraption (a toy, really) that allowed the user to grab an object that was far away. By cleverly combining a latticework of plastic and two handles, he devised a kind of extendable arm. Then-president of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi liked it well enough to sell to the masses. They called it the “Ultra Hand.” It was Nintendo’s introduction into the toy market and a precursor to the same kind of lateral thinking that would birth Yokoi’s most well-known product: The Game Boy.
Fifty years later, Nintendo is known more as a videogame company. But they still think like toy crafters. Arms is Yokoi’s original idea turned into electronic sport.
During a recent interview with producer Kosuke Yabuki, a representative of Nintendo of America admitted they thought about naming the game Ultra Arms in homage to their history. The adjective’s omission is key: a decision to avoid retroactive navel-gazing is representative of a company that so often trades on nostalgia but now wants to look forward.
Like in many fighting games, in Arms, the player scales a tournament bracket of competitors on their way to becoming champion. But instead of defeating each opponent in the standard mano-a-mano fashion, sometimes battle will take place on a volleyball court, or in a strange game of basketball where the players throw each other into the net. These detours are not simple “Bonus Game” material to drum up some arbitrary score but are given the same weight as a bout of fisticuffs — fail to defeat Min-Min (a noodle-armed fighter with a dragon limb) in your 1-on-1 Hoops match and you will not progress. After all, there are many things our arms can do, and boxing is but one of them. While Arms presents itself as a fighting game, in a way, it has become a sneaky demonstration of the limitations of the genre’s defining features.
Arms is more than a game about fighting; it is a reminder of genre’s stagnation. Just like a bicep will atrophy in absence of exercise, so too will a category of game (“one-on-one-fighting game”, for example) become stunted by too many me-too attempts. There is both unlimited room and potential for videogames and yet the market is oversaturated with games that rely on stale conventions. Thus it becomes very disappointing when yet another first person shooter is announced over a title featuring, say, a pair of barber’s scissors.
But the same narrow range exists within each sub-category of videogame. Those walls are beginning to crumble. We thought we knew what a soccer game looked like… until Rocket League (and its less-popular forebear) put cars on the pitch. Team-based shooters were a dime-a-dozen… until Splatoon asked the immortal question: “What if you played as a kid, who was really a squid?” That game’s surprise success, Nintendo’s previous foray into a highly competitive field, spawned discussions within the walls of their Kyoto headquarters. An early prototype of a fighting game using extendable weaponry caught the eye of Yabuki, who felt they were onto something.
“When you spend any time playing it you realize [Arms] shares a lot with shooting games,” he said, remarking on the flip in perspective from a sideways view to an over-the-shoulder one. “We realized that we might actually have a completely new kind of fighting game.”
Indeed, playing ARMS feels both intuitive and strange. Stand in front of your TV with a Joy-con in each hand and you feel more connected to your character than in a typical 2D Street Fight. Thrust your right hand out and there goes character’s right arm, unfurling into the distance and, hopefully, smacking against your opponent’s face or chest. Cross your hands in a protective stance and, sure enough, your character blocks incoming attacks. You can play with joysticks and buttons, if you wish; I prefer the physicality of throwing down and leaning hither and thither, even if my naissant skills haven’t mastered the inputs necessary for clean, 100% accurate control.
The design works in concert with the host system. Though a single player is meant to play with one Joy-con in each hand, you can also turn the controller on its side. That means two players can square off at a moment’s notice with a single piece of Switch hardware. But to allow for such flexibility, the designers had to forego dual-joystick control. With your elastic and bendable Arms, you’d expect to move with the left stick and point your punches with the right stick. Once you throw a punch, though, your feet remain moored to the ground, allowing you to steer the punch’s trajectory with the left (and perhaps only) stick. The limitation gives each decision extra weight; the player can’t just dash out of the way if they misjudge an opponent. Once that fist is flying, you’ve committed to making it count or paying the price.
And you will pay the price. Whether facing computer opponents or the rapidly improving online population, Arms is a challenging game. The beauty of resetting a genre’s ruleset, though, is that it enables beginners to jump in. Other fighting games have decades of strategies built up through refinement and increased understanding. Arms is a new thing with its own fresh, still-unknown techniques.
During Nintendo’s E3 events in Los Angeles earlier this month, they held an Arms Open Invitational tournament, inviting professionals from the Fighting Game Community and allowing attendees to battle their way to the final eight competitors, where four amateurs would compete against the four pros. After the first round, all but one pro had been knocked out.
The design of the arenas and surrounding details cater to this feeling of a grassroots, burgeoning scene. Other long-running fighting games take place in mystical realms or in front of blasé passers-by. Street Fighter II’s combatants brawl in front of bicyclists or shop-owners. Tekken matches take place on circular mats surrounded by natural wonders. Mortal Kombat’s bloodlust is often witnessed by some kind of dark energy vortex or in the recesses of a dank dungeon. But Arms portrays its violence more as sport than pugilism. Arenas are filled with cheering fans, many of them dressed in the colors or gear of their favorite hero. The in-game audience mirrors the game’s, then: Since its reveal this past January, the internet has flooded with fan art and appreciation for the game’s colorful squad of elasticized brawlers.
Some have compared Arms to Nintendo’s other boxing-ish game, Punch-Out!!. And yes, the easiest thing Nintendo could have done would have been to slap Little Mac on the box, give Soda Popinski flexible foreArms, and call this Ultra Punch-Out!!. Fans would have roared with excitement. But the potential audience is a diminishing one. By building up this universe from the ground up, Nintendo smartly alleviated expectations, and disappointments, that come with a known entity. To compare Arms to Punch-Out!! is to call a Creamsicle the same as frozen concentrated orange juice. They share an ingredient or two, but the end result is worlds apart.
And these ingredients will continue to marinate. What Arms is now will not be the same as in a month or two. Nintendo promises to continue to expand the game with free downloadable content; their first update will include making the Final Boss playable, a beefy metallic dude with a fist-head called Max Brass. More modes and characters will follow. But even now, weeks into this new kind of fighting game’s lifespan, it feels vibrant and alive. The colors pop. The theme song burrows its way into your dreams. Were Nintendo to take Arms away now, it would still exist as a part of our collective memory, a phantom limb we remember having always, even if we’re just now getting the hang of this fascinating new appendage.
Arms was developed by Nintendo EPD and published by Nintendo. It is available for the Nintendo Switch.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.