During the three month gap between Nintendo announcing that an ARMS fighter would be joining Smash Ultimate and the day that character was actually confirmed, Min Min quickly became the leading lady among speculators. The announcement also sparked discussion around ARMS itself, an early Switch title which failed to make a lasting impact despite selling two million copies in its first year and a half on the market. Despite this relative success placing it among other mid-tier Nintendo franchises on the system, ARMS just doesn’t seem to have had the staying power of other first-party multiplayer titles like Mario Kart 8, Splatoon 2, and, of course Smash Ultimate. Min Min crossing over to the much more successful Switch fighter is a perfect occasion to reflect on why ARMS never quite took off, and to consider how it might rise again in the future.
Party On, ARMS! Party On, Smash!
At their core, ARMS and Smash are both party fighters. While possessing many of the traits one would expect of a fighting game, neither was designed from the ground up to be a balanced, competetive experience in the way other games in the genre are. It’s more than things like the use of items or level hazards, as well – it’s that both games were conceived to be party games first, then fighting games second. Sakurai has had a famously difficult relationship with the Smash competitive community, but it’s undeniable that their pickup of Melee has contributed to the series’ lasting appeal and success.
But ARMS isn’t Smash. In fact, it’s closer to Mario Kart in that every character has essentially the same moveset, with only a unique trait to make them stand out. Both of Min Min’s such traits are incorporated into her Smash design: her ability to kick to deflect enemy attacks, and her dragon-powered left arm. But every other component of Min Min’s Smash kit is something any other character from ARMS could perform, in concept. That’s a huge departure from the modern fighting game, which is predicated on the concept of a roster of characters with a large range of stats and abilities. This choice to make characters more or less uniform in their capabilities is one of the reasons why ARMS never attracted a large community of dedicated players.
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Out of the Wok, Into the Fire
Within the realm of ARMS, Min Min’s fighting style isn’t anything special. The game’s director states that “everyone is the protagonist,” so it’s fitting that every fighter in ARMS plays pretty similarly. And yet when Min Min is dropped into the realm of Smash, maintaining essentially all of her capabilities, she is comparatively much more unique and will be arguably more difficult to master, if only because the Smash formula is more complex. What ARMS does have, though, are its dozens of unlockable gloves, each one having its own properties and traits. These gloves vary in hit-box range, how they travel across the arena, how they strike the opponent, and can even cause different status effects.
These dozens of swappable tools mean that picking a character in ARMS boils down mostly to personal taste, while the gloves themselves became the center of the game’s meta. Certain ones rapidly eclipsed others, while the entire system caused conflict in competitive scenes around whether and which unlockable tools should be tournament legal. The customizable Mii character caused similar problems in competitive Smash, but that was only one character — not the main focus of the game. To make matters worse, some of the tools in ARMS take hours of grinding to unlock.
On top of this, ARMS’s design itself creates hurdles for competitive scenes. The game’s over-the-shoulder view means that players need their own screens, rather than sharing a single one. Additionally, ARMS was designed with motion controls in mind, but competitive play doesn’t lend itself well to this, and certain techniques are either very difficult or impossible to accomplish based on which control setup you use.
Ultimately, ARMS was ultimately lacking in some of the core elements of modern fighting games. That was an intentional decision — these features were put aside in favor of creating a novel pick up and play fighter. But that decision also meant that ARMS was fighting an uphill battle for competitive legitimacy from the start. That it didn’t gather a lasting scene is thus unsurprising, but still disappointing — the game packs all of the color, life, and personality of newer Nintendo IPs like Splatoon.
A Future an ARMS Length Away
From the opening moments of Min Min’s reveal trailer for Smash, it’s apparent how fun and vibrant the aesthetic of ARMS is. The attention to detail in bringing the character to life within Smash is par for the course from Sakurai and co., and it all feels right at home in the same way that Splatoon‘s Inklings did back at the game’s launch. It’s impressive that ARMS can bring so much unique charm to a game already hovering around eighty playable characters, and yet the same mechanics from their source material have failed to create a more active player base. Sure, star power and legacy are clearly a factor when it comes to Smash, but ARMS isn’t far off from Splatoon in that regard, yet the third-person, team-based shooter was able to maintain a strong player base throughout the end of the Wii U’s life span and into the Switch’s.
Perhaps a reworked sequel could be what ARMS needs, and taking some cues from Smash Ultimate in return could generate a longer lasting scene. ARMS already shares some DNA with Smash by being a party game first and foremost, so how could it add depth to keep players’ attention? Perhaps narrowing down the playable arm tools each character can use and adding even more unique character traits could be a strong start. Or going the route of games like Mortal Kombat and doling out customization and cosmetics could keep players coming back – the post-release achievement/pin system added months into the game’s life could be expanded to add incentive for mastery.
In a similar vein to the original Pikmin having a strong foundation but lacking in depth and content, a sequel to ARMS could potentially propel the quirky title into the hands and hearts of everybody who missed it the first time around. And given Min Min and friends’ impressive wingspan, that may not be such a reach after all.