MMO Burnout: Nintendo’s ARMS and the Switch in public and private


It won’t surprise anyone who reads our WRUPs that a lot of my free time gaming has been mobile-based as of late, especially if it has local multiplayer. While I still prefer PC gaming for the most part, it’s hard for me to bring a mouse and keyboard with me to a convention and play while the line is moving. MMOs with local multiplayer are even harder. Recent conventions have made jumping into traditional MMOs harder, as has the summer heat that magnifies the heat I feel when playing on ol’ lappy (although that could just be a result of the airless storage space I call home!).

At any rate, I decided to bust out my Nintendo Switch a bit more, bringing it with me to try to recreate Nintendo’s questionable marketing ploy and so I can play in a room where open windows don’t pose a risk to my papers and electronics. My weapon of choice? ARMS.

What’s ARMS?

ARMS is a Nintendo Switch 3-D fighter game that allows for motion control or (more reliably) various other non-motion-based controller options. Rather than input crazy combos, players have long, extending arms that must be guided to their target, which is usually an enemy player. Winning usually means running your opponent’s life down, though there are other ways, like simply having more HP by the end of the round. It sounds simple, and it feels accessible, but over the course of the game’s pre-release demo events and actual release, I’ve found a good amount of depth.

Admittedly, when ARMS was first revealed, I had zero interest in the game, as I’ve dealt with a lot of motion control gimmicks in the past, and the earliest revealed characters were uninspiring. However, as more fighters were revealed and talk of four-player modes arose, I got interested. While Nintendo’s covered the fighting genre in its Super Smash Bros series, those titles are 2-D and focus on ring-outs with various Nintendo mascots (and friends).

ARMS is not only a new IP but mostly a 3-D fighter. While I love 2-D fighters, my PC gaming habits, specifically in the MMO realm, have me craving more openness for games that are more mechanics-based than story-based. (That isn’t to say ARMS lacks story. It’s probably Nintendo’s most ethnically diverse original IP from the get-go, and the minimal story telling does some interesting things by inverting some common tropes Mario might want to take note of more – though props for giving Pauline a promotion.)

The 3D fighting aspect isn’t the only thing that made me curious about the game. The various “fun” modes – such as team Volleyball, Basketball, and even a PvE boss fight – are uncommon when merged with the fighting game genre. I’m a sucker for innovation, and Nintendo’s done a good job in these departments.

As for the fighting, there are a few interesting curveballs that come with allowing for more than two players in the ring. Of course, three-player free-for-alls are obvious, but admittedly not that fun. Perhaps it’s because people gang up on me first. However, 2v2 battles where you and your ally are tied to each other are interesting. It requires a level of coordination inverse of the C’Thun fight in World of Warcraft, in that you want to stay near your partner. Straying too far can interrupt your fighting flow, and leaving your ally to fend for herself could mean she gets blown back, with your flying along with her.

ARMS is no MMO, but it does some things a social gamer can appreciate.

ARMS in public

Unlike in the woman in the Switch’s reveal video who brings her console to a party, I never tried to make the portable “my thing.” If it wasn’t obvious from my E3 coverage, I’m one of those guys who’ll talk to the people around him in line. Because I was in a lot of lines at Anime Expo this year, and because there was a fair amount of cosplaying of Nintendo IP characters, I figured having access to some Nintendo games might come in handy.

As Nintendo’s gone mobile, though, there seemed to be more interest in talking about or showing off those titles. The Switch, being much larger and not serving a “secondary” function of being a phone, makes it a bit less convenient to carry around, especially when it feels like multiplayer really requires larger controllers.

The friend I attended with was certainly more in the mobile camp. When we’d be in line or sitting waiting for a panel to open, we might show something on our phones, but ARMS was a bit difficult. Fighting games aren’t always seen as good co-op games, and my friend, who has invited me to fight her in certain titles in the past, didn’t feel like picking up something new, especially with the idea that it’d use motion control. The combination of this, plus needing actual space to share the screen, made playing with another person quite difficult. In fact, of the people there, nearly everyone playing a Switch was solo gaming, even in multiplayer titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

I did find one adventurous soul, though. The stars had aligned: We were inside rather than out, with some space in line to set up the screen, and I had space to use the motion controls, a handicap I used to try to make the game more inviting. He’d actually seen a Smash Bros thing I’d been wearing and hoped I had brought the 3DS game, but as I hadn’t, I figured ARMS would be a suitable replacement. It was. We were chatting and fighting mostly, as he was more interested in the standard one-on-one play than the sports or co-op options. He’d said it was just his personal preference and not anything against those modes, which we’d tried.

A few people around us watched, but no one took up the invite to try. The motion controls I was using may have put people off, and my newfound partner could see through my ploy. While fun and a good improvement from the Wii Remote era motions controls, the Switch’s Joy-Cons still aren’t reliably accurate enough. While my partner won about half the time (he was a quick learner!), he could tell when the motion controls were working. Veteran players who can read their opponents can make the game pretty unfun pretty quick. However, I think the game’s online mode keeps people of relatively similar skill level together, even a month after release before its first content patch.

The upgrade game

Much as it does with Splatoon, Nintendo is giving ARMS players free post-release content. My biggest gripe with ARMS, however, is basically that it’s not Splatoon. Both at release and after having explored Splatoon 2’s lobby area, I was reminded why the 3-D lobby area works so well: Its Miiverse tie-in (now relegated to general social media in Splat 2) allows players to not essentially “tweet” out to people they’ve recently played with but rather to have their art featured both in the lobby area and the actual matches. People cheer for their favorite characters, outfits, moves, the current meta, and Splat 2 will even be getting voice chat.

ARMS doesn’t feel like it has a community in the same way. It feels like a lobby game in the worst sense of the word. While I can play story mode while I’m queued up for ranked mode, there is no way to really communicate before, after, or during a match.

Without a way to communicate with other players, my sessions often leave me feeling like I’m thrashing around with a gag in my mouth, trying to guide teammates to better positions, or showing opponents in free-for-alls that the other guy is hiding at full health in the corner while we’re both at half or less health. Maybe it’s down to getting older or my family’s obsession with our horrible political climate, but I no longer have much faith in a person I can’t even talk to. The teacher in me, at the very least, wants to give new players tips.

That’s incredibly frustrating because there are a lot of good ideas. The four-player volleyball, fighting the boss Hedlock as a team, and especially the 2v2 tied-to-your-ally are unique, fun ideas, especially when you’re new and everyone else is too. However, ARMS is a legitimate-feeling fighting game, and fighting games are only as good as their communities. In a 1v1 only setting, it’s not unsurprising to think you’d meet a lot of bad apples. However, adding more people means an added chance to get an opponent that’s friendly. The problem is that, as a friendly opponent, I have no way to help out newer players, not even through Nintendo’s new “friend” system. I can add players to a friends list, but there is no way to communicate with them, in game or through a general mailing system. The Wii and Wii U both had this option, and cutting it out of the Switch, a system being pushed as pro-social gaming, is infuriating.

Spring Man from Mega Man on the left, Spring Man from ARMS on the right. No confirmed relation.

The free additions to the game so far are pretty standard. We have a new stats page, character and arms rebalancing, a penalty for people who rage DC to try to save their scores, and the loss of my favorite level in ranked, which I’ll discuss later.

Our newest character, the game’s boss Max Brass (the meaty looking guy in the header image), feels a little lazy, in that he plays very similar to a heavier version of the character I most despise, Spring Man. That being said, Brass’ default arms don’t home-in like other fighters’ arms while also packing more of a punch. It’s harder to play, but getting a perfect match against someone in the casual party mode feels both good and bad at the same time, really showing both players how wide the skill gap can be. As Brass’ arms can be unlocked on other players, it’ll be fun to see how the meta shifts with these new more skill-intensive arms on the loose.

The game does have a handicap option automatically built into the casual “Party” mode. What’s nice is that if you’re a good player on a winning streak, you may be forced to start your next match with less health, but you get a coin bonus (used for earning new arms with various functions) if you’re able to win. Losing too many times allows you to start your next match with a maxed out special meter, helping you to break your bad luck streak. It was nice before, but with the patch, I’ve come to realize that it also helps people trying to learn a new character against human players. I know MOBA players often get angry when people train in live matches rather than against AI, so perhaps a similar system in non-ranked modes could be experimented with within the genre. Heck, even in MMOs, giving personal boosts to players having a bad luck streak might break some of the tension when a certain side keeps losing (or, perhaps, help highlight to players that it’s not their team that’s on a bad luck streak – it’s them).

However, my favorite level – Snake Park, which has these really cool hover boards that make the game itself feel new – was moved out of ranked play. On the one hand, that probably caters better to the “strip everything out to test ‘real’ skill” crowd, but as someone who got into fights as a kid, I think this has always seemed ridiculously unrealistic. But I might actually like the competitive mode more than the party mode at the moment. In MMOs, I’m generally against ranked arena matches and prefer open-world PvP where I can jump out of the bushes or call my guild to stomp on another guild. Party Mode may be more fun with local or online friends, but my experience with that is severely limited. Mostly I play with PUGgers I can’t communicate with.

ARMS is a great title to fiddle around with if you’re looking for 3D fights on a smaller scale. I don’t recommend carrying around your Switch hoping to find a fight, but it’s still fun with the right people. The lack of communication options with online play can be frustrating, so invite a friend or two over so you can communicate in real-time. It’s got some depth, both in terms of mechanics, and welcome ethnic representation for a global audience. It’s no Splatoon, hey, both my Wii Sports loving mom and a random fighting game enthusiast could enjoy it, so that’s gotta count for something.

Are you burned out on MMOs? It happens. But there are plenty of other titles out there with open worlds, progression, RPG mechanics, and other MMO stalwarts. Massively OP’s MMO Burnout turns a critical eye toward everything from AAA blockbusters to obscure indie gems.
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