"Because Nintendo": 'Arms' Producer Explains Why Fighters Have Stretchy Arms

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Producer Kosuke Yabuki and art director Masaaki Ishikawa discuss how the game came about, its lore, and why you should be playing with motion controls

Producer Kosuke Yabuki and art director Masaaki Ishikawa discuss how the game came about, its lore, and why you should be playing with motion controls

Originally announced at the Nintendo Switch presentation back in January, the quirky 3D fighter Arms from Nintendo's Entertainment Planning & Development division has gone from being perceived as "that weird punching game" to one of the most interesting new properties from Nintendo in years. Featuring a cast of colorful new characters that punch each other with long, stretchy arms adorned with comically lethal gloves and gadgets, it's at once both amusingly wacky and curiously strategic.

Producer Kosuke Yabuki and art director Masaaki Ishikawa are probably best known for their previous work on both Mario Kart 7 and 8, but each have worked at Nintendo for over a decade – Yabuki since 2005 and Ishikawa since 2004. Between them they have worked on some of the most beloved Nintendo games of the past dozen years, including The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Super Smash Bros., New Super Mario Bros. and Nintendogs.

In the past they have always worked within the confines of a pre-existing and beloved game series, but with Arms for Nintendo Switch, due in stores this week on June 16, they have the opportunity to create something totally original for a new generation of Nintendo hardware and fans. We spoke with the pair at E3 in Los Angeles to get to the bottom of how their seemingly weird idea for a new kind of fighting game could become the big Nintendo hit of the summer.

Arms is a pretty quirky game concept – how did it come about?
Kosuke Yabuki: Nintendo is always creating different prototypes, and many of them won't see the light of day. Arms is one of those prototypes. It was something that we'd not seen before. It just so happened at the time that we wanted to make a game for Switch, and we had a few ideas that we thought would work really well with that. Most fighting games are like Street Fighter or Smash Bros., you know? Games that use a side view. And the reason for that is simple – it's because it's important to understand how far away you are from your opponent. Our initial concept was to try and make a fighting game that was from behind the back, over the shoulder kinda of view but in doing that, it can be really hard for the player to judge distances. When we were trying to solve for that problem, we ended up realizing that it would make things a lot easier if we could just make the arms extend. And that's how the whole thing came about, really. We wanted to express the basic ideas of a fighting game, but rather than being based on positioning and distance, we wanted to try something a little different.

Masaaki Ishikawa: We soon realized that the camera view we were thinking of really lends itself to motion controls too – it all feels much more natural.

Was there a moment in the studio when you could really tell this was going to work? Was it something to do with the hardware?
Kosuke Yabuki: Even at the prototype stage we realized that there could be some real strategy to the gameplay, and that's when we realized there was really something here. We obviously knew it had fighting game elements, but when you spend any time playing it you realize that it also shares a lot with shooting games, because of the perspective. Once we saw these things coming together in a unique way, we realized that we might actually have a completely new kind of fighting game.

The game communicates the fact that your opponent is about to throw a punch really well. The body language it conveys actually feels like it might in a real fight. That's quite a surprising sensation. Was the game always intended to be so deep and nuanced?
Kosuke Yabuki: The idea of when you punch, you're really open. We wanted to convey that there's a cost to opening yourself up as you're throwing a punch.

Do you box or fight in real life?
Kosuke Yabuki: No! Not at all.

Once the basic mechanics were known – the extending arms, particularly – what was the first character to come from that?
Kosuke Yabuki: Actually, the arms didn't extend at first. In the first prototype the characters were holding these kind of hookshot things that had these extendable parts that flew out, but it just didn't look right on the screen. It didn't feel responsive. Things felt like they were going way off into the distance and it just felt all wrong. So Mr. Ishikawa suggested that rather than extending from the hands, we'd do it from the shoulder. We'd take the sleeves off completely, and stretch out the whole arms. In doing that, things wouldn't feel like they were too detached. That's ultimately how all of these characters came about. Before, when it was the characters holding these extending devices that just shot something out, it just felt too much like the sensation of holding the Joy-Con. What you were doing in real life and what your character was doing on screen – you were both holding something in your hands – it just felt off. There was too much of a lag. When we changed it to extending from the shoulder and then steering the punches with your hands, it felt closer and more intuitive. It made more of a connection between what you were doing with the controller and what was happening on screen.

When you're designing a character, what are you looking for? What are you really trying to achieve?
Masaaki Ishikawa: The most important thing is that you get an idea of what the game is meant to be at a glance. We wanted to make sure that the arms of all the characters were actually very expressive. Also, because you're viewing the whole thing from behind your character's back, we wanted to make sure that they all had a lot of personality, even when you're just looking at the back of their head and torso. You need to be able to get a feel for who they are, even if you can't see their face.

Once you got the stretchy arm mechanic nailed, who was the first character you designed? Was it Spring Man, who's fairly simple? Or was it something more complex? What was the path from the more obvious characters to the more elaborate, like Helix?
Masaaki Ishikawa: Spring Man was the basic character at first, so we started off with him, along with Ribbon Girl and Master Mummy. They were the core, and then other designers came in and started playing with the idea and seeing if they could take it in some unusual directions. From that exercise we got characters like Helix. It was all really about trying to build off the fundamentals of those original three characters though. We can't just endlessly create characters. Rather than keep making wildly different stuff, we wanted to focus on making 10 that were really strong and distinctive.

You're adding more too, right? Will you just keep adding for as long as the game is popular?
Kosuke Yabuki: Yes, we're adding more. We have a specific number in mind, but we're keeping that secret for now. That said, if Arms is still very popular after all those characters have been rolled out and people are still playing it after all that time and they want more characters – I'll definitely think about it.

Do you think of this as an esports game? Is it something you intended when you were making it?
Kosuke Yabuki: Maybe it's a little early to say, because it's not even out yet. Right now there aren't many people that really understand it. We have to raise awareness and get people to really understand the game and master it. We're actually doing a tournament here at E3, and maybe that will be the start of something bigger. For us the most important thing is to make something that's fun to play – at the same time there has to be a lot of depth. We want the community to keep discovering things about it and learning new ways to play. If that leads to tournaments eventually, then that would be great.

I'm thinking about backgrounds and stories, but if it gets in the way of the game – it has to take a back seat.

Is there a backstory to the game? Are you going to explore the lore in more detail somewhere other than the game like Overwatch does?
Kosuke Yabuki: We're doing a bit of that right now. So far it's only happening on Japanese social media, but it's starting to provide some background on where the arm abilities come from, and we've started to talk about why people have stretchy arms in the game. That's the kind of thing we're creating to bring a greater sense of reality to the game. We're hoping to do a lot more of that as time goes on. That said – if you really want to know why they have stretchy arms? The real answer is: because Nintendo.

Masaaki Ishikawa: The most important thing for us is that it's more fun if the arms extend. So that's what we did. We are preparing a proper background story though. Don't worry.

When you're designing the characters, are you thinking of a story? Does that live somewhere and we just haven't been exposed to it? Or does the gameplay come first and you worry about that stuff later?
Kosuke Yabuki: He thinks about it a lot.

Masaaki Ishikawa: It's a matter of priorities. Fun is more important than anything. The setting and the story has be fun too, but has to be subordinate. I'm thinking about backgrounds and stories, but if it gets in the way of the game – it has to take a back seat. We have a lot of fans that really get into the lore of the game. That's a powerful thing.

The art style is very distinctive, and is in a similar vein to Splatoon in a way. What's the inspiration for the design, and is there a connection between the way the current Nintendo games look?
Masaaki Ishikawa: Dragon Ball was definitely an influence on what we're doing. I've loved that since I was a kid. The other big influence is Akira.

The game is very hard – is that intentional?
Kosuke Yabuki: Are you playing with button controls or motion?

Buttons. Should I be using the motion?
Kosuke Yabuki: I do recommend motion controls – but it will also be hard. There haven't been many games that really ask people to hold a controller in each hand and master the controls like this. I think in some ways it's almost like asking someone to sit down at a piano and play. When you finally get used to it, you'll definitely appreciate what it allows you to do. You'll reach a point where you won't want to go back to using the buttons.

So the best players at Nintendo use motion controls?
Kosuke Yabuki: Oh yes. Absolutely. You need to stop using the buttons.