I rarely play fighting games, and, man, I did not expect them to be this soothing. Arms is violent for sure – enemies are pummelled, the ground judders with impacts, and a last-minute defeat can still throw me into an internal rage. But rages, internal or otherwise, are actually fairly rare here – far rarer than last-minute defeats for sure. Most of the time, when I think of Arms – and I am in that honeymoon phase where I think of it constantly – I think of a game that presents itself as a series of nested delights. There’s the music at launch, and its theme of wordless bellowing joy. There’s the way the UI slides in and out in vibrant bursts, like the screen furniture for the best sporting show ever. There are the badges that you collect instead of Achievements, all neatly laid out in their treasure box screen, and there’s the Get ARMS mode in which you cash in in-game money for the chance to earn new and surprising fists to hit people with, by means of a pacey shooting gallery that is rewarding you with stuff while secretly teaching you how to curve punches.
Mainly, though, it’s the gloriously rubbery cast of characters, all of them distinct and memorable and ready to stretch and lunge across a series of beautiful stages. Yeah, it’s those characters and one very special side mode that I cannot stop playing.
Hoops. Hoops is basketball inside a fighting game. Hoops is basketball that feels like fighting. Hoops is not strictly soothing, but I am convinced that it is impossible to be annoyed while playing it. Hoops is pure therapy: whatever your mood going into Hoops, you always come out feeling elated.
There are tips online for how to play Hoops. Strangely, they all neglect the most important tip of all. First, select Master Mummy from the character screen. Master Mummy is my current Arms crush, a vast Egyptian corpse wrapped in bandages, his silhouette suggesting that someone tried to embalm a member of the family Kong, his stretched singlet underlining what all stretched singlets underline – the iniquities of time, the foolish nature of pride. Master Mummy is never still, which is certainly an unexpected trait in a dead person. He is never still because he is almost constantly trembling with rage, a trembling that only ceases when he is punching something and those arms of his, linen unravelling in beautiful corkscrew patterns, are stretching across the arena in the name of holy chaos. Master Mummy’s grab move is an overhead fling that drives enemies in the canvas with such force that you suspect they may strike oil. He is slow but capable of inflicting massive damage. He has a neat twist in that he can heal while blocking, but seriously, why block? You’re a 7′ 6″ monster and you’re already dead. You got your defence in early, you might say. Now it’s the time to let all that frustration out on someone else, ending with a stampy, stompy victory animation and the beaming assurance that of all the Arms roster, you, Master Mummy, have really earned that beautiful hit-pause that defines the game and makes each battle feel like you’re beating a water balloon into oblivion.
So yes, Master Mummy is quite the thing, and he is a perfect fit for Hoops, which is also quite the thing.
Your aim in Hoops is to score baskets. So far, so basketball. But unlike basketball, there is no ball. There is only your enemy, and your enemy does not initially look like they will fit in the basket.
Have faith. They will fit. In fact, it will be pretty easy to make them fit. The arena is small and you can shoot from anywhere. To shoot, you either ready your Rush attack to bounce them into the basket – this is ostentatious, frankly, and Master Mummy is already ostentatious enough – or you grab them and then fling them. The animations for this are always a delight. The thunk of an enemy crumpling into the hoop is a delight. Even the rare occasions where your shots miss and your enemy bounces off at an unlikely angle is a delight.
The genius of all this – and it is genius, and if you don’t believe me I will challenge you to a game of Hoops – is that Arms has a semi-serious problem with grab-spamming, in which players endlessly attack with the two-handed grab move that ends in a burst of damage that always looks incredibly cool. Grab-spamming can be a bit of a problem at times, because it is so appealing that it can often seem irresistible. But in Hoops, grab-spamming is sort of the name of the game. This is an unfair, bullying take on basketball, and so it is carte blanche to grab-spam all you want. With a single mode, with a single objective, Arms has created a means of legitimately indulging in its greatest guilty pleasure.
As I may already have mentioned, nobody grabs quite like Master Mummy: two huge hands on the shoulders, an arcing elastic burst through the air, and then you’re nose-first in the canvas as the world is shaking, musty ossuary dust clouding your head. And even if it’s your nose in the canvas, and even if you got there via an undignified detour through a basketball hoop, it’s hard to feel too bad about it. Arms is about energy and joy and watching the world erupt around you as you lunge and duck and spring about. At times, this game is vitality itself.