Arms reminds me so much of the Nintendo that I used to know.
The company’s latest Nintendo Switch game contains no reboot of ancient characters; no tender hand-holding; no auto-steering assists if you’re struggling; no “grab the green mushroom for help” option. Arms looks a lot more like the Nintendo that won me over in the late 1980s: wide-eyed, fresh, excited, and eager to beat me into the ground.
As a companion to Mark Walton’s full review on Ars UK, I wanted to break down the elements of this new game’s difficulty (which apply whether or not you opt for its questionable motion controls) and what it says about a company that has been making video games for 40 years. An entire generation missed Nintendo’s tougher era—and it’s about to get a spring-loaded Arms sock to the kisser.
Maybe Nintendo’s getting a much needed pop in the face, as well.
Spring into pain
As Mark’s review explains, Arms is packed full of cartoony characters who have two things in common: bendy, stretchy arms and the unhinged desire to beat the crap out of each other with them. Nintendo has elected not to rehash existing brands or locales in Arms (sorry, Wuhu Island). Instead, we’re introduced to nine superheroes, some more human than others, with light backstories and detailed home locales that they fight within.
I point this out because the first time Nintendo launched a fighting-game series, it took the expected Nintendo route of slapping known characters into the fight. Super Smash Bros. began life as an abstract polygon-fighter prototype before its team got the go-ahead to stick Donkey Kong, Mario, Pikachu, and friends in there. (Pikachu has since helped launch a second fighter series.)
But Arms is an entirely new property, and this affords Nintendo’s design team a few freedoms, including a universe full of springy arms. The most obvious benefit to this is cartoony abstraction so that the game can be sold to younger players as an Inspector Gadget fist fight. But long-distance boxing also offers a serious mechanical benefit. Players can bob and weave with ample time to read each other’s punches. That amount of time also lets players use either their wrists or a joystick to nudge their punch directions midway.
Yes, I was pounded into submission by a tutorial.
A “versus” version of the classic Punch-Out!! would never work like this, for example; its punches would register too quickly for anybody to play a comfortable one-on-one match against a friend. Arms‘ springiness also bleeds into your ability to move around debris-cluttered arenas. These cool design decisions may be due to a lack of forced Mario-ization, which has traditionally been rare for brand-new Nintendo franchises.
Arms‘ dev team was afforded one other rare Nintendo luxury: permission to crank the difficulty meter way up.
Its lowest difficulty setting will let you essentially coast through the game. “Level 1” computer opponents rarely dodge, block, or counter your attacks. The game leaves one of its modes, ranked online play, locked behind a seemingly mild barrier: beat the game at “medium” difficulty. How hard could that be?
I don’t count myself as a world-class, tournament-winning gamer, especially as I’ve gotten older. But I’m no slouch. And yet—my first 40 fights in Arms‘ Grand Prix mode, at a “level 4” difficulty, all ended with losses.
I switched fighters. I switched fighters’ fist attachments. I switched controls. (I nearly switched Switches.) No improvement. I simply couldn’t wrap my head (or springy arms) around the fact that my AI opponents kept dominating me, either by nimbly avoiding my every punch and throw or by setting up perfectly timed counters to my actions.
“The game is cheating!” I shouted. I even dove into the game’s “training” mode… and lost repeatedly there, too. That mode includes a few matches with pre-set computer opponents, and one of those just kept targeting, attacking, and beating me. Yes, I was pounded into submission by a tutorial.
This was all followed by my first-ever letter to a Nintendo PR representative begging for help. It reads as follows:
Any help on how the heck to beat the computer? This is easily the hardest Nintendo game I’ve played in a decade. I cannot even beat the first Ninjara training round in which he repeatedly tries to throw you. Punch accuracy with the Joy-Cons is feeling impossible to establish. I don’t normally send these kinds of emails but I have never felt so lost with a modern Nintendo game. Thanks -Sam
Nintendo never wrote me back.