Wii Sports was a revelation for Nintendo's seventh-gen home system, selling over 82 million copies. Which now means there's a whole bunch of unloved copies cluttering up second-hand games stores, but for a while there, it genuinely looked like video games could go some way to complementing a person's workout routines, or encouraging them to get more active in other ways.
The Switch features no explicitly comparable title, yet—but ARMS, a cutesy-looking 3D fighter produced internally at Nintendo's Entertainment Planning and Development division, its team headed up by Mario Kart 8 director Kosuke Yabuki, is absolutely the system's own Wii Sports in disguise.
Its motion-controlled punching is an obvious boxing parallel, guaranteeing that the less-than-flexible suffer from stiff shoulders and aching elbows the morning after a session too many. But the game offers much more than purely pugilistic thrills. Think of ARMS less as a straightforward successor, or spin-off, to the Punch-Out!! series, and more a package of mini-games topped off with a surprisingly deep and technical fighting experience, potentially capable of holding its own, competitively, beside established pro-scene titles.
Aesthetically, ARMS is Nintendo through and through, with a cast of ten playable fighters each possessing unique looks, characteristics, animations and customizable "arms." These are the hand accessories that can be swapped about pre-battle, ranging from triple-shot Nerf-style projectiles to huge wrecking balls via boomerangs, mallets, lasers and, if you're in the mood for them, standard-issue boxing gloves—and every fighter can unlock more through play. That each and every fighter can be identified by silhouette alone is testament to this game's designers, and their realized ambition to avoid look-alikes, play-alikes, and cheap re-skins.
Approached as a local multiplayer game, where its screen splits vertically, ARMS excels through simplicity and immediacy. You and a mate, two pairs of JoyCons, and it's fists-flying fun times until one of you falls down, in game or in front of it. Bend your punch slightly and the spring-like limbs of your character will do the same, stretching out and arcing, perhaps to strike a dodging opponent, perhaps to avoid an environmental obstacle, of which there are several across an array of imaginatively singular stages. It's boxing from Wii Sports, supercharged, anime'd up, and looking absolutely spectacular. Drink in those slow-motion replays, do.
Having two pairs of JoyCons is a big financial ask, though, but ARMS does handle very well using face buttons and an analogue stick, with individual Cons turned landscape in your hands. What's lost in that instant "I get this" connection between the player and the played is made up for by responsiveness and common-sense control mapping—the left attack button (the "B" equivalent) is your left arm, and the right, "A", your right.
It's even better with JoyCons in the Grip, or with a Pro Controller, giving those thumbs more room to maneuver. This is especially true in single player, as to make meaningful headway at anything above ARMS's lowest three difficulty modes, you're going to need the precision such a set up provides over what can otherwise be a super-fun but rather flailing situation. The dodging, the jumping, and the blocking is all easier to execute using a regular pad, and while ARMS gives off a before-play impression as being somewhat lightweight, with colorful cartoon characters and only-ever family-friendly smack-downs, it absolutely demands your full concentration. Believe me: This is a tough nut to crack.
Split-second openings in defenses need to be taken advantage of, every time; and while it's tempting to whale away, pounding with left and right alike, this leaves you wide open to return fire. It's often better to keep one fist back, to block follow-up attacks. ARMS, played by those who want to take it as seriously as a game with punk-rock Flubber and a clockwork policeman and its dog can be, becomes a tense, testing affair, each player picking and tapping, daring the other to open up, to swing and miss—and then punish their error of judgment.
It's boxing, then—more tactical and thoughtful than it is an elementary rush of blows until one of two is left chewing the canvas. (Or, here, the rusty scrap of a junkyard, the spilled scientific goo of a DNA lab, or the freshly weeded steps leading up to a ninja college. Obviously.)
There's a lot, lot more to be said regarding the genuinely surprising depth of ARMS's core one-on-one (or hectic two-on-two) fighting mode—which is presented as a "Grand Prix" in single-player, a standard arcade-like run through opponents culminating in a slightly disappointing end boss, who serves to illustrate how the game's designers used up their creativity on the ten playable characters.
Watch Waypoint's staff play one of the Switch's most charming launch games, Snipperclips!
Like Street Fighter II, there are bonus rounds, too, and here's where ARMS really earns its local multiplayer stripes, revealing itself to be so much more than boxercise with a bucket load of bells, whistles, and homing missiles chucked at it.
First, Hoops! Let's talk Hoops, because Hoops is awesome. It pops up in the Grand Prix, and is instantly the greatest "extra" here. It's one-on-one basketball, Jordan Vs. Bird style, only not unmitigated shit and without an actual basketball in sight.
Instead, you grab your opponent and slam dunk them for two, or boot them in off the backboard from outside the three-point line. It's brilliant, fast, funny, and perhaps an even better mode when it comes to couch competition than The Main Game itself. The first to ten points wins—and then it's time for a rematch. And another one. And another one. I can't praise the sublime silliness and simplicity of Hoops enough right now—truthfully, I'd much rather be playing it than writing this, so if we could hurry things along.
V-Ball is volleyball with an explosive twist—after a while, the ball, which you predictably enough pump back and forth over an elevated net, blows up. It's no Hoops, but it's another way in which ARMS goes above and beyond what was anticipated of it, to keep players with pals over interested. Skillshot lines up moving targets between you and an opponent—break them for points, but knock that other competitor down for more. (This is probably the trickiest bonus mode, easy to fail even on the lowest Grand Prix difficulty.) Then there's 1-on-100, a self-explanatory mode in which your chosen character faces off against wave after wave of drone-like enemies. Can you beat 100 of them? So far, no. I've tried it the once, and got to 82.
I'm still getting to grips with my preferred fighters, and how best to use their abilities. The robo-suited Mechanica is great, with her triple-hit Revolver blaster and spinning grab attack; but then, the chain-armed Ninjara's teleporting dodge is probably the best in the game; and Twintelle drinks a cup of tea when she wins a round, pure sassing her way through combat, hands on hips while her hair whips opponents into defeat. There's something to be said for every fighter—and I really can't recall the last time I got that first impression from a new game of this ilk.
What's certain, right now, is that ARMS far, far exceeds my expectations of it. What could have been shallow, showy, forgettable, a total novelty aimed exclusively at getting us thrusting those JoyCons, is anything but. As a refined fighter, it's got both accessibility and admirable complexity, requiring plenty of practice to properly read and react effectively to. Its roster is Pixar-like in visual diversity and polished presentation—it's easy indeed to imagine spin-off merchandising and media opportunities. (An ARMS Gym in each of the forthcoming Super Nintendo World theme parks? Yes please.) And as something to put on in social situations, it's effortlessly a 1-2-Switch beater—OK, maybe "Milk" aside—and commendably the closest the Switch has come yet to a Sports-style collection for all ages and abilities. It gives back whatever you put in, and represents a good time at any of those levels.
ARMS is released on June 16th.