15 min read

What developers are saying about the design of Nintendo's Arms

Developers are buzzing about Nintendo's unique fighting game for Switch. We gathered impressions from ten devs about Arms's gameplay, controls, aesthetic, unlocks, multiplayer, and more.

Developers are buzzing about Nintendo EPD's recently released fighting game Arms.

The game's colorful characters, approachable design, and general wackiness merit comparisons to the classic Punch-Out!! franchise. But some claim there are depths to the game's fighting mechanics that rival those of eSports mainstays. Many admire the online multiplayer, which is something that Nintendo has not often been praised for, Some people adore the controls; others are put off by them.

We felt that the game's many bold and fascinating design decisions merited additional discussion. Gamasutra reached out to several developers for their input, and ten of them were willing to share some of their initial impressions and insights.

Edu Cueto Sola (Nubla)

I've been gleefully surprised by the precision of the joycons - It's probably the best game yet when it comes to the potential of the joycons and the Switch. I've always admired Nintendo's capacity to renew genres from scratch and simplify them for more casual players like me.

The Trinity of attack, grab, defense is really smart and intuitive, and gives the players enough options to develop a strategy and play mind games with the other player. I really look forward to the competitive aspects of the game.

Seth Killian (Rising ThunderPlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale)

"You can see opponents' decisions play out at a rate that allows you to easily think about your next move while your current attack is in flight."

One thing I love about Arms is the way it encourages dynamic rock/paper/scissors mechanic, but doesn't isolate the decision about where and how to attack to the series of fast individual attacks you expect in traditional fighters.

By giving players control over the entire time that your attacking arm is in transit, they can try to subtly shift and influence their chances while their opponent is attempting the same dance. It lets you read a lot about an opponents' intentions and habits by allowing players to turn away from or lean into the initial target of their attack. You can see their decisions play out at a rate that allows you to easily think about your next move while your current attack is in flight.

The results of winning one duel also doesn't build into major subsequent advantages as much as they do in other fighters. You can still catch a beatdown, but you rarely get that feeling of "what the heck just hit me?" that can overwhelm new players.

Adam Saltsman (Canabalt, Gravity Hook)

So the Arms meta is still SUPER fresh obviously. I'm hesitant to like dig into balancing since it feels like first week of Overwatch where every other day a different character was OP, etc. I have theories but they're probably bad and wrong but whatever. Even outside that I could probably happily do like 5000 words on how ludicrously clever Arms is. So like let's keep it to the short important stuff probably:

  1. Rebuilding The Fighting Game from scratch a bit. There's recognizable stuff here - blocking, throwing, normals, super meter with i-frames, character-specific traits and abilities, etc. But everything's been boiled down to such a pure state. Your two punches really work more like specials than normals - big commitments with status effects that leave you vulnerable etc. To offset the simplicity there they've made the combat VERY spatial, but spatial with very big granularity. Where in a classical fighting game long range and short range attacks might be a matter of a few pixels, in Arms it's spelled out in like the dozens of meters of distance between the players. The Rush meter incentivizes players to get close and take risks, knowing there will be a little payoff later. The controls are super simple and intuitive. The feedback on what landed and why is mostly perfect. The online works great right out the box with no patches. I mean wtf
  2. Virtuoso character design. A lot of it skews youngish, it definitely takes some willpower to say the word "Ninjara" as an adult I think. Whoever designed Helix should probably be arrested. But otherwise it feels like the same extremely strong and even bold design sensibility from Splatoon, with a little like 90s The Designer's Republic sensibilities slipped in there. It feels like any two of these characters could stand on their own in any normal game, and there's like 10+ crammed in here. And the way the character themes are derived primarily from their titular Arms is just superb. The curled brass spring of a clock, noodles, bandages, DNA, leather belts, anything that can be a convincing spiral is grounds for designing a whole weird new character. It makes me very happy.
  3. That theme song. LORDY that theme song.

Jon Davies (Super House of Dead Ninjas, The Binding of Isaac, Cave Story)

"For a game that, on the surface, looks like nothing more than wacky Rock-em Sock-em Robots, there is a surprising amount of tension in high skill matches."

Thinking about it, it seems to fall in line with Nintendo's standard of easy to play and hard to master, but whereas games like Mario Kart and Smash Bros. seem to rely on a certain degree of random luck to level the playing field, Arms is approachable in how easy to grasp its core fighting mechanics, as well as the developers' understanding of what makes a fighting game tick. 

Punches are slow, at least compared to high-octane fighters like Guilty Gear and Marvel Vs. Capcom, so it is very easy for beginners to fighting newbies to know what to expect. It's also a lot simpler, and attacks behave exactly as the player would expect them to (curving and so forth) But customization does allow for playstyles to emerge and strategies to prevail, and maneuverability during combat keeps things fresh and dynamic and leaves plenty of options for mindgames.

For a game that, on the surface, looks like nothing more than wacky Rock-em Sock-em Robots, there is a surprising amount of tension in high skill matches.

Nifflas (Knytt Underground)

"To me, it feels closer to Towerfall (for example) than Street Fighter."

I generally dislike fighting games, but Arms is wonderful.

I dislike combos. I want each button to do a distinctive thing, and I want to react to what is physically going on...rather than reacting to an obfuscated system. Arms is so kinetic, it's a fighting game that's played like a platformer. So, when something goes right or wrong, I always know exactly what happened, because I know what I saw and which buttons I pressed.

To me, all these aspects makes it feel closer to Towerfall (for example) than Street Fighter. Depth isn't accomplished through adding more rules and complicated combo moves. Like a platformer, Arms features a complex possibility space from a very simple and clear set of rules. The way depth is added through the different arms is not that different from adapting to what powerup someone gets in Towerfall either.

Rami Ismail (Super Crate Box, Ridiculous Fishing, Nuclear Throne)

With Arms, the Switch shows its versatility and power with a huge variety of controls – you can play with movement controls, with two Joycons per player, with the Pro controller, and surprisingly, with a Joycon per player. Each of the different control configurations is different, but they all lead to a satisfying fight.

For the motion controls, Nintendo has opted to abstract the player’s movement despite the Joycon’s precision. This seems counter-intuitive, but works out brilliantly: a punch with the Joycon in hand doesn’t translate to an identical movement in game, and instead simply conveys the ‘punch’ command, where the twist of the hand post-punch controls directional ‘curve on the punch as it flies. This avoids a huge amount of frustration with improper registration of action, while keeping the satisfying physicality the game affords – guarding, grabbing an opponent, or executing a flurry rush are both very fun physical actions to execute.

The variety of characters is well-done, from quirky to wrecking-ball, and from fast to elegant. What really unlocks the depth of the game is the ability to match any character with two different (or identical) Arms with their own strengths, weaknesses, speeds, and effects. The game lets any defensive move, whether it’s guarding or dodging, charge the more powerful charge attacks on your Arms, and as such the game affords fast countering and close plays.

The level design is also on-point, with only few exceptions. Most levels have an interesting central quirk, from the trampoline edge in one level to the disappearing blocks in another. My favorite remains the staircase, which is incredibly simple, but creates a lot of strategic positioning.

"Arms feels like it is supposed to be ‘pick-up-and-play’, but the slow trickle of unlocks makes it difficult to feel excited about coming back for new things."

Arms’ online lobby is incredible, showing not just your game but also abstract and real-time representations of other players and their battles on your server instance. While there’s very little functionality here, it creates a very dynamic feeling waiting screen, and definitely improves the experience. Another interesting choice is to let two players go online from the same system, and play splitscreen. The game won’t insist on pairing the two players up for every fight, which means every player can go grab a drink or bite between their battles. It makes for a very pleasant multiplayer experience.

In single-player, there’s a strange dissonance in a lot of the narrative dressing – it feels like Nintendo has attempted to imbue the characters with a bit of background lore and personality, communicated by the ‘Arms commentator’ Biff, but the whole things ends up feeling disingenuous and oversimplified. The commentator lacks the voice acting or relevance during gameplay, and as such kind of ends up feeling like an underutilized and irrelevant annoyance. The same can be said for the alternative modes, volleyball, targets, and basketball, which all feel like relatively meager distractions from the combat.

The biggest downfall of the game seems to be related to the metagame of unlocking new Arms, which at its most positive could be described as tedious grinding. Arms feels like it is supposed to be ‘pick-up-and-play’, but the slow trickle of unlocks makes it difficult to feel excited about coming back for new things. Luckily, it’s an easy game to pick up and play when friends are nearby, and the Switch’s portability makes it much more likely that that circumstance occurs.

Arms brings Nintendo-esque stubbornness to 3D fighting games, and that’s a genre that really wasn’t on my radar for a Nintendo treatment. The game walks a tremendous balancing act between smart and fast decision-making and accessible and fun gameplay.

Jaime Cross (Echoes, Monstrum, Dinersaur)

I suppose I have two things, both of which I've observed while playing with other people. One is that, especially compared to other fighting games, the actions that characters can perform are relatively simple and almost universal. They can all move, dash, jump, rush attack, throw, block and punch. Most options use a single button or input, with the most complex arguably being guarding due to how it's mapped. Anecdotally, I've seen that this is fairly simple for people to just jump into, even with no real experience of the genre, and enjoy themselves. Very Nintendo!

The other is the Party Mode. Lobbies like this are nothing new, but I've played a lot of it in 2 player mode with my partner and it feels right for quick play sessions without much set up or faffing about. As you're mostly stuck with the same people, you learn what their tactics usually are, and vice versa, and sometimes form little rivalries with certain players if you keep getting paired with them! I prefer that to some other fighting games with will pair you with a single random person. Iit makes you engage with it and the other players a bit more.

David Sirlin (Yomi, Puzzle Strike, Fantasy Strike)

I still haven't been able to buy a Nintendo Switch from anywhere. But Arms is an "uneven playfield game," meaning it gives material advantage to those who grind or pay more (in this case, grind more). That it has no regard for fairness in competition is offensive to me so I reject the game out-of-hand, no matter what else it might be doing. It would have been so easy for it to be a fair game, so it's baffling that it chose to express the values of unfairness in competition.

"It's an 'uneven playfield game,' meaning it gives material advantage to those who grind or pay more (in this case, grind more)."

Fair competition, that is, competition where the game designers have not deliberately put some players at material disadvantage because those players put in fewer hours, is a virtue that in my opinion adds value to our world overall. Fair competition is a glimpse into what a meritocracy is like, and that's a valuable experience to have—it teaches virtues that extend beyond games. I've personally gotten a lot out of the world of competitive games and I'd hope any other competitive players out there know what I mean.

That Arms is probably aimed at a younger audience makes this more concerning, rather than less concerning, because young people are the ones I most hope get to have the experience of meritocracies. If it were just one game exploring unfairness in an overt way, that would be one thing, but our current situation has fairness in competition under attack from all sides in games. Arms seems to condone that, attempting to build tacit approval of uneven playfields with a new generation of players. Is that truly the mark it wishes to leave on this world?

Mike Enoch (Crackdown 1 & 2)

I was struck by how simple, yet effective, the core game is. Relatively few attacks, a basic combat triangle: punch beats throw beats block beats punch. Individual attacks are quite simple, but there's so much variety in the movement and how that affects play. 

That feeds well into the motion controls: you get a lot of nuance in being able to curve shots - and that isn't as intuitive via controller. Then there's distance affecting your punch frequency - like an old shmup where you can only have X shots on screen at once. (Must admit it took me a while to figure out a basic winning strategy though - doesn't really play like a classic beat 'em up.)

"The frozen screen after every match, with no movement at all -- that's a big UI/UX no-no. It looks like it has crashed."

In terms of negatives: gamepad controls feel really bad to me, even now that I understand the game. I really wish you could remap the buttons in non-motion-control play - something which is standard for beat 'em ups these days. Block should not be on the movement stick for example - that's pretty awkward, stick depresses should be toggles generally, not holds. Also, I think using shoulder buttons for dodge and jump like with motion controls would be better - and would require less of a mental switch. 

As it stands, I mostly play docked and can't really play on the go where motion controls aren't possible (i.e. on a train). Polish-wise, some rough edges I'm surprised Nintendo left in, but generally good where it counts - think they may have rushed it a bit. Prime example is the frozen screen after every match, with no movement at all - that's a big UI/UX no-no, it looks like it has crashed. Stylistically, I get that they want the freeze frame of your fighter, but the UI should have some animation or motion in it. Even if that's just a color cycle on a button, some flashing, whatever - anything to say you can push a button to continue.

Lucy Blundell (One Night Stand

I think Arms is a great fighting game for both casual and core players. Motion controls make it much more accessible and satisfying to play, whilst also adding an extra layer of precision for hardcore players. Punches can be twisted and curved around corners to create all kinds of different tactics. Distance can also be used tactically since the arms stretch so far across levels. 

"Arms reminds me of the fun I had playing Sega and Nintendo games as a child with my friends"

Arms does away with tricky button combos that are typically found in fighting games, yet the game doesn't feel any less for doing so. There are different moves to perform (blocking, grabbing and punching) and each works in a rock, paper, scissors kind of way. Blocking stops punches, punching stops grabs, and grabbing stops blocks. It creates an easy-to-learn mechanic which can be quite tactical, mixed with dodges, rushes and jumps. 

Arms has only 10 characters, each with their own abilities, yet there are hundreds of arms combinations to find your perfect style of play. I also think the character designs are delightful and love switching between them all. Arms has a ton of different modes available to play; co-op battles against Hedlock, 2, 3 and 4 player VS, team battles, hoops, volleyball etc. It's refreshing how party play mixes these modes up to keep the game entertaining. 

Joining friends online is also super easy. The local multiplayer works using any variety of controllers, Switch consoles or Joy-Con combinations, meaning there is always a way to play with your group of friends. Arms reminds me of the fun I had playing Sega and Nintendo games as a child with my friends, and I can see myself hosting Arms party nights in the near future!

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