Nintendo’s sparky, audacious reinvention of the one-on-one fighter was a pretty weird proposition to begin with. 150 hours in, that hasn’t changed much. ARMS is still a brawler that often feels like a shooter. It’s still a glorious thing to behold, with its big, bright characters and fights that marry graceful movement with slapstick violence. True, the more you play, the more glaring the cracks in its Nintendo-pristine facade appear. By the same token, it’s only with this much time that you’re truly able to appreciate the subtle genius of its underlying systems.
Party Match online mode remains a masterstroke, at least in a structural sense. It sticks you in a colorful lobby with a bunch of other players, letting you keep rough track of how their matches are going as you wait to be paired off, and giving you the option to get in a bit of target practice during the short lulls between battles. The one-round scraps are briskly entertaining, and the game types are regularly switched up, keeping you on your toes and adding enough variety to keep you amused. It’s moreish enough to keep you playing when you’ve got time to spare, while letting you dip in and out for a bit of quickfire fun when you’ve not.
Some of those pace-breakers, however, are a problem. ARMS’ netcode struggles with V-Ball matches at the best of times, but in a two-on-two game it’s basically pot luck who wins, as the ball pings around madly, frequently clipping through the net, or registering a point for your opponent when the ball hasn’t even hit the floor. The one-on-one basketball-with-people aside that is Hoops, meanwhile, is flawed for reasons of balance alone: its focus on throws gives a huge advantage to specific characters and specific Arm types. If your opponent is a fast mover and has an electrically-charged Arm, they’ve practically won before the match has started, since a stun always leaves you open to a grab.
It also requires you to have a high tolerance of fortune as a potentially decisive factor. Nintendo’s always used luck as a leveller: Mario Kart’s blue and red shells giving less capable players the occasional a shot at victory being the perfect case in point. In ARMS, there’s little you can do if you’re paired with a newbie who leaps in front of you just as you’ve let off your rush special. It doesn’t always pay to be matched alongside a player on a hot streak, either, since their health will be reduced by 25 percent once they’ve had four consecutive victories – and further still if they’ve managed to keep winning against the odds. Then again, you could view that as a bonus challenge: an extra incentive to try a little harder. The wins that come when you or a partner are suffering a clear handicap are among ARMS’ most satisfying moments.
Ranked mode eliminates almost all of those problems by focusing exclusively on those taut, tense, one-on-one fights. The netcode seems to hold up better, with very few instances of noticeable lag, while making it the first to two lets you adjust tactics significantly in the second round simply by switching your choice of Arms. The sheer range of options means two rounds against the same character, let alone two matches, often play out remarkably differently. Progressing up the ranks isn’t simply a matter of learning the character but the player. Not to mention the Arms themselves, and in turn the strategies that opponents are likely to adopt as a result of their loadout. Using an Arm type that curves or has strong lateral coverage is one way you can turn things around if they’re dodging to the sides a lot; the vertically-aligned Hydra can significantly cut down their airtime if they’re jump-happy.
Though Nintendo has smartly introduced a series of balance tweaks since launch, there are a few character/Arm combinations that feel slightly overpowered, and others that result in cheap tactics. You may well roll your eyes when you see your opponent equip double Hydras, which can be a pig to deal with if they know what they’re doing.
On the more cramped arenas, meanwhile, it can be extremely difficult to cope with a high-pressure game from Ninjara players, when the most effective tactic is to keep your distance. And the bouncy cars on Twintelle’s stage give a significant advantage to characters with a strong air game. If you’re facing a half-decent Ribbon Girl, you might as well wave the white flag before you’ve started. The whirling Beyblades of Snake Park have been sensibly taken out of Ranked rotation: this might be another Nintendo should consider leaving to the chaos of Party Match.
Still, the additions so far suggest Nintendo understands ARMS’ strengths precisely. The brilliant Hedlok Scramble is a wonderful Party addition, where grabbing the eponymous mask gives you six arms instead of two but makes it all the more likely that the other players will focus you. An extra set of situational training exercises provides more helpful tuition, and new playable character Max Brass is Nintendo character design at its finest: a grinning muscleman with a fist-shaped helmet and belts for arms, who arrogantly puffs his chest to boost attack power.
Up in ARMS
There’s a lingering sense that ARMS could have done with a little more breathing space. It’s clear Splatoon 2 has cannibalised some of its user base, partly thanks to a series of clever hooks that keep players coming back. ARMS doesn’t quite have anything like that: new characters and modes will likely provide a burst of activity as lapsed players return to try them out before drifting away again. Even so, enough people have stuck around that you’re never waiting long for a Party Match, and if Ranked hook-ups take a little longer, you can always busy yourself with the Versus modes while you wait.
When you’re not waiting, it’s the kind of game you can easily lose yourself in for, well, 150 hours or more. Nintendo might have set out to create a fighting game for the masses, but it may have to settle for a smaller but fiercely loyal audience that appreciates its off-kilter brilliance. No KO, perhaps, but a definite win all the same.