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Arms (Nintendo Switch) review: Fast, brutally tough competitive fighting game

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A warning to those of you considering Arms: It'll sink its left and right hooks into you.

The Good

Starts easy but gets extremely challenging. Great character design and fresh ideas. Addictive. Online play is fast and fun. Works well with buttons or with Joy-Con motion controls.

The Bad

Only 10 characters to choose from. Not as many game modes as other similarly priced premium games. Unforgiving at higher difficulty levels.

The Bottom Line

Arms is the fast-paced multiplayer game the Switch needed. Hopefully Nintendo will soon beef it up with extra content.

I played my first session of Arms very casually, in a single-player mode against AI opponents. I blew through them easily. I thought to myself: cute game, cute characters, not much excitement. I realized I'd played my single-player game on difficulty level 1. I ramped up a bit.

Suddenly, I hit some challenges. And that's when the addiction began.

Nintendo is starting to put a big focus on fast, multiplayer e-sports-style games, and Arms is part of a trio of early Nintendo Switch titles -- including Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and the upcoming Splatoon 2 -- that are endlessly playable with friends. Must-have game? Maybe not. But it's a great B-side.

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Totally weird springy-armed fighters, but they're all awesome.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Crazy arms!

Arms is a whole new world and new characters, with an art style that exemplifies Nintendo in 2017: bright, like a crazy comic book. Neon colors. A carnival-type theme pervades Arms' world, like a space boxing league populated with bonkers mutants whose go-go-gadget arms extend on springs, ribbons and bandages. The visual design feels like Overwatch meets Splatoon with a dash of Mario Kart.

There are only 10 characters to choose from, which at first feels extremely limiting. Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros., by comparison, more than quadruple the character options. But each character can unlock extra arm weapons. Picking the right ones and deploying them well in a fast-based knockout battle is the game's ongoing challenge.

CNET's Eric Franklin made the comparison to Sega's Virtual On, which I played a ton when I had a Dreamcast. It was crazy, fast-paced mech-warrior battling. Sega used to own this type of game. Nintendo's starting to build out its slice of it, too. Spiritually, this could have been an arcade game in a '90s bowling alley.

It's also a great example of a game that works well on the go or with a big screen. Arms also has enough ways to play that work with all the controller options: split-apart Joy-Cons, or two Joy-Cons per person, with motion controls or not. Oddly, I haven't used the motion mode much. I prefer the hard buttons. There's punching, blocking and directional throwing, and it feels like Punch-Out at the speed and depth of Street Fighter 2.

Mastering the controls takes practice. I mashed away for a while, and that's fine for kids and people who just want to play-box. But the game is much more than that, and you'll get wiped out fast online if you don't think up some strategies.

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Volleyball mode is a nice change of pace: don't let that ball-bomb explode.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Online is fast and addictive

Online play sucked me in, too. In a Party Mode, I ended up being randomly paired with people in two or three-person battles, or teamed up against a boss. Some game modes aren't even boxing-style fights, and shift to odd minigame challenges -- throw your opponent through a hoop, play volleyball with a giant bomb or punch targets as fast as you can.

There aren't many other game modes, which turned me off at first. In single-player mode, a simple "Grand Prix" of 10 matches becomes a Street Fighter-like arcade challenge. But the sheer difficulty wall of gameplay started to become the real thrill. I found myself getting sucked in. I still can't win enough games to qualify for unlocking Ranked online play (I need to beat the computer at level 4, which is far harder than I expected). But I'm getting close.

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Two controllers, two arms, lots of permutations.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Unforgiving

Arms is the type of refined arcade fighter that I usually can't stand. The lack of extra single player modes, characters and other depth might make its full-retail price seem pretty hard to accept. Splatoon 2 arrives in a month, and should offer up at least as much multiplayer satisfaction and more.

Nintendo has announced that Arms will get continuous updates over time, so there's a good chance that more fighters, arenas and arm-attached weapons will come. It feels like it needs it to be worth the price.

But this is the closest to a Wii Sports game that the Switch has, even if it's far from casual. And it's a reminder that tough, fast, ultrachallenging Switch games exist... with springy arms attached.

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