Arms, the Nintendo Switch fighting game released last year, was a breath of fresh air from the company. It was “a wholly original property starring all-new characters in a new world,” I said in my review of the game. Arms was a refreshing alternative to established fighting game franchises like Street Fighter and Tekken, and it appears to have found a comparatively smaller but dedicated audience of players.
Its creator, game director Kosuke Yabuki, was at last week’s Game Developers Conference to discuss the creation of Arms and how Nintendo game makers turn prototypes, ideas sometimes many years in the making, into full games.
During his presentation, Yabuki showed off Arms in its earliest form, a simplistic behind-the-back fighting game designed around the Joy-Con controller prototype hardware. The idea, Yabuki said, explored how a Joy-Con held in each hand could be used to play a boxing game with shooting elements.
Late last year, Nintendo released the fifth major update for Arms. Version 5.0.0 of the Switch game introduced a new fighter, Dr. Coyle, as well as new arms and a new stage. It’s going to be the final major update to the game, Yabuki said, though the team will continue to issue minor updates to balance the game and support in-game events.
After Yabuki’s presentation, we spoke with the developer — who also served as director on Mario Kart 7 and Mario Kart 8 — about the creation of Arms and where the fighting game goes from here.
“I definitely do feel a sense of pride in having made a game that is unique and isn’t like something I have seen before,” Yabuki said when asked about how he feels about the final product. “That’s not just in terms of the core, extendable arms game design, but the art and sound design... Having to make new characters and wondering how people would react to those, that’s something I was very nervous about.
“Obviously if we’re putting something completely new, it’s not always the case we can guarantee a good reaction. It would’ve been more safe to use established characters and things people are already familiar with for this gameplay idea.”
Yabuki said he felt the process of creating something totally new, without relying on established Nintendo characters and franchises, was worthwhile. At one point in development, though, the team explored using Nintendo characters like Yoshi and Link as fighters, using their tongue and hookshot as weapons, respectively.
When asked whether they considered using characters from Punch-Out!!, Yabuki said it was considered but said the team was concerned about alienating fans of that franchise and potentially confusing new players.
Instead, the developer focused on characters built from the ground up who explored the concept behind Arms’ springy, extendable arms and the game’s lore, where people with those special arms fight in a sports league. Yabuki talked about two of those characters, the sporty ninja known as Ninjara and the elegant Twintelle, who uses her coiled pigtails to fight, as standouts.
“We really spent a lot of time on all of the characters,” Yabuki said, but the team felt particularly confident about Ninjara. “We know ninjas.”
Ninjara has become one of the game’s more popular characters, particularly with boys, Yabuki said. He said that designing the character felt natural for the team.
“On the other hand, one character that maybe took a bit more time and we were more worried about was Twintelle,” Yabuki said. “The starting point for that, the initial concept was just ‘someone who fights with their hair.’
“Ninjara was a very straightforward character for us to make, but Twintelle came out of a desire to purposely do something different... We didn’t want to just make a character that had a very Japanese background, we talked to people in Nintendo of America and Europe, people from different regions, to create this character who would have a different background.”
Yabuki said response to Twintelle was energizing. He noted a piece of character art with Twintelle working out at the gym as having a particularly positive response from fans.
“We spent a lot more time on Twintelle’s character and worked a bit harder,” he said, “but when we put that first video out and saw those reactions, that made me very happy and gave us a lot of energy as we were making the game.”
The game itself doesn’t say much about its characters. There are no real cutscenes that tell a story and no single-player campaign that relays much about the lore of Arms or its fighters. It was a common criticism, given that Arms shipped with just 10 fighters, and something I asked Yabuki if he had any regrets about.
“I think there are lots of reasons [for not making a single-player campaign], but the thing I would say is, rather than single-player I think where we wanted to ... focus on balance and making more characters,” he said. “It was really just a question of focus. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to make an excuse, but it’s more of a question of making sure the competitive aspect of the gameplay, that core of the game, was really, really solid.
“I could say there are lots of things we could do with unlimited time and unlimited resources, but for a competitive fighting game, the idea of creating these big single-player stages, the kind of thing you might do in Splatoon, just didn’t really fit this type of gameplay to me.”
The Arms team added more characters to the game for free over time, ultimately bringing the roster to 15 fighters. And Yabuki said that they spent a great deal of time and effort in defining the characters by their visual design and the things they say.
“We pared it down to bare essentials to get across a lot with a little,” he said of the Arms cast.
“Of course, hearing that so many people do want to know more about the backstories of these characters and the story of this world, it does make me feel good about the characters we were able to create and feel good about the effort we made in giving them personality.”
For Arms fans who hungry to know more about the game’s character and world, a forthcoming series of graphic novels will help flesh out its lore. Nintendo teamed up with publisher Dark Horse and creators Ian Flynn and Joe Ng for a new Arms comic. Yabuki teased one piece of game lore in his GDC panel: The Spring Man that we play in Arms is actually the third such fighter to bear that name.
“This is something I think we’ve seen work with other games before; in Japan, they have Splatoon comics,” Yabuki said of the decision to flesh out the game’s universe in comic form. “But in terms of what’s different [for the Arms comic], when we were kids, we were kind of into American superhero comics. We thought those were really cool.
“There’s lot of manga creators in Japan. It would’ve been a lot easier to just go that route, but because we wanted to make something different we decided we would ask an American creator. My hope is that people in America will see the comic and get more interested in these characters and want to check out the game. Even for people in Japan and Europe, having an American comic artist creating a comic for a Nintendo property will seem really fresh to people and give them a new perspective on the property.”
Given that the colorful characters of Arms have resonated with Nintendo fans, I asked Yabuki the obvious question about his fighting game: Will we see, as is frequently speculated, an Arms fighter appear in the recently announced Super Smash Bros. for Switch, and if so, who?
According to my notes, Yabuki’s answer to this line of questioning was prefaced with “intense forehead rubbing.”
“I think the correct reaction is to say ‘I can’t answer that!’” Yabuki said. “Another thing I’d say is that Arms is so young — it’s only a year old — that maybe it’s too early to think about that. But I think it’s absolutely fantastic that there are people out there talking about Arms characters in that way.”
One of the first questions I asked Yabuki in our interview was about his level of satisfaction with Arms. As an untested, original property full of all-new characters that was updated multiple times based on fan feedback, was he satisfied with his game?
“Satisfaction is sort of an ultimate, unattainable goal,” he said. “In a sense you can never be satisfied with a game you’re making. You want your game to be played by lots of people, and even if somehow everyone in the world played my game, then I’d want aliens to have played it, too.
“You can never really be satisfied.”