When you fire up Small Arms, one of the first things you will notice is that the game is very polished. The opening sequence sets up the game nicely and presents us with a level of visuals we haven't really seen on Xbox Live Arcade so far. Even the loading screens look nice. I wonder if working under the 50 meg space restriction forces developers to make things interesting.
Once you get into the game, you'll be presented with 12 character choices, 4 of which are locked. Naturally, we picked Pector El Pollo, the deranged, pyromaniacal chicken. Now, many people have compared Small Arms with Smash Bros, and the influence is definitely apparent. The game plays similarly, with players hopping around trying to destroy one another. Single player pits you against computer opponents, starting with one at a time and eventually escalating to 3-on-1 matches. And, just like SB, levels have varied layouts and lots of environmental dangers. Another Smash Bros element, regular levels are broken up with target practice bonus rounds. It even costs you half your points to continue. So, yes, there are definite trappings of Smash Bros here, but that is where they end.
If you're like me, your first instinct will be to play Small Arms the same way you would Smash Bros. If you do this, you will die. First, close range fighting is an absolute last ditch effort, as your character's melee attack does very little damage. If you run out of ammo, you'd best find some more or switch guns. Second, you fall fast. If you're not very quick with your double jumps and midair dashes, you will fall to your death ... a lot. Finally, you won't find the standoffs that you do in Smash. There won't come a point that two players just stare at each other, waiting for the other to make a move. You move (and shoot) constantly. If you don't, you die (sensing a pattern here?). Basically, this game takes concentration. Like, Zen "no thought" levels of concentration. Aiming with the right stick as you avoid everything else can be pretty taxing.
I managed to clear the mission mode in about twenty minutes or so. As mentioned above, you'll fight varying numbers of CPU characters and take some time out for target practice. Once you defeat any locked characters, they become unlocked for your next play through. I unlocked 3 of the 4 on my first time through. Target practice is unlocked after a play through as well.
Of course, online play is where the real action is. I was unable to connect to the first few games I tried (this seems to be a problem with all new 360 games these days), but eventually I managed to join a string of games. There may have been some lag, but if there was, I didn't notice it. About the only knock I can give the online play is that there doesn't seem to be any way to continue an online session with the same people. Either that, or everyone always quit once the matches I played were over. After a match, players have the option to select "ready," so I assumed a new match would start up, but I was always booted back to the menu. I'll see if I can't figure out what that's about.
So, now we know a lot about Small Arms, but is it fun? The short answer is yes. That said, I would add or change a few things. First, you really should be able to customize your controls. As it is, primary fire is on the right trigger, secondary is on the left, and jump is mapped to both bumpers. Melee is B or X, dash is Y, and A is a third jump button. This all works fine, but we'd like to map some different functions to the triggers to make moving and aiming simultaneously a little easier. Then again, it seems like no XBLA title lets you customize controls. Is that another MS requirement for Arcade titles to keep them simple? Finally, the movement seems just slightly loose. There are times when it doesn't feel as precise as it should be, but that might just be because I'm so used to Smash Bros.
Overall, it's a very fun game and a great example of what an Xbox Live Arcade title should be. Is it worth 800 points? I think so, but why listen to me when you can grab the trial version for free?
Update: A reader has pointed out that you can customize controls in at least two XBLA titles (surprised I forgot SFII). Maybe Gastronaut could add it to Small Arms?