Extracting depth from a simple, universally communicable concept has been an industry ideal for as long as there has been a games industry: the first commercial smash hit, Pong, encapsulates the principle. The pinnacle of such precarious balancing acts was arguably reached in the mid '80s with Tetris, soon to be followed by a gazillion imitators, but puzzle games and Breakout clones aside the balancing act of accessibility and complexity was pursued in every genre, with mixed results. One of the most refined examples of this principle is One Finger Death Punch, a hectic fighter with a two-button control scheme that first appeared on the humblest of platforms, Xbox Live Indie Games. Now, or last time we checked anyway, the game is one of the five top-rated titles on Steam. This is not surprising, because One Finger Death Punch is the perfect action game.
The premise of developer Silver Dollar's first widely available commercial release will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played games in the last few decades (or has ever watched a Bruce Lee film). A lone martial arts master, precariously positioned in the middle of the screen before a backdrop of cloud-shrouded temples and dense bamboo forests, faces an endless stream of opponents in rapid yet methodical fashion. A single bone-crunching hit is enough to dispatch the majority of those nameless adversaries and, even against their sturdier brethren, individual duels typically last mere fractions of a second, an explosion of violence followed by an eyeblink's lull as you get your bearings before, almost instantly, re-focusing on death-punching the overwhelming and advancing mob.
What differentiates One Finger Death Punch from the multitude of other titles where you're tasked with proving your kung fu's superiority is not just the rather basic visual aesthetic (whose stickmen, nonetheless, evocatively capture the dancelike postures of the art's various schools), but the simplicity of its controls. One button hits to your left, one button hits to your right. You need not concern yourself with ducking, jumping, or in fact any type of defensive-minded movement. There are no elaborate ultra combo sequences to memorise, no thumb-spraining dash cancels. When special attacks do occur, they're always contextual and chained to that same intuitive input. One button hits to your left, one button hits to your right: this is everything you need to know to play this game, even at the highest level. Which makes it sound like a fun five-minute distraction but hardly anything to warrant my 30+ hour Steam playtime. So what makes One Finger Death Punch so special?
The answer, as with all of the medium's minimalistic masterpieces, lies in the way it injects a staggering amount of variability into a seemingly inflexible concept. Working within the tight restrictions of the two-button control scheme, Silver Dollar starts you off with rudimentary battle scenarios in the first few stages but, soon enough, the repertory broadens drastically. Enemies appear that require multiple hits, often switching between the two sides to throw you off-rhythm. Spiky clubs and quarterstaffs, wrested from your fallen opponents, temporarily expand your striking range. Projectiles, launched from the fringes of the screen, require a well-timed hit to deflect or, ideally, to grab in mid-air and return to sender. Boss fights and special stages, like the insanely fast nunchaku round, are interspersed among the more 'traditional' fights.
Even more important than these embellishments, however, it is the gradually rising speed counter at the top left corner of the screen that expands everything about the game. The better you perform in each stage, judged primarily by the number of hits you've missed and the damage you've received, the higher that number rises. This serves a triple function. First, it makes previously completed areas worthy of revisiting; it's one thing going through the introductory stages at normal pace, and quite another to attempt them at 200% speed in a flashing blur of kicks, punches and the occasional flying scimitar. Second, the faster pace allows for chasing higher scores as you get extra points for chaining hits, a tactic pursued more effectively if enemies approach you in more rapid succession – a classic example of design organically raising the risks for higher rewards. Finally, as the tempo steadily accelerates, you are practically forced into a state of flow, that almost euphoric sense of heightened focus whereby you become capable of instantly responding to the prompts on screen even before the conscious mind has had time to process them.
Each of these aforementioned features alleviate the repetitiveness inherent to such a restrictive structure, but they still cannot fully account for the brilliance of One Finger Death Punch. For this, we must look towards an even more inconspicuous detail.
All the best action games tend to come with a single idea, a unique design choice or an unexpected tweak in otherwise conventional mechanics, that transforms the experience, and elevates it above mere greatness. Think for example of how the ghost in Spelunky has the basic function of stopping players loitering on a level: but also opens up the possibility of an entirely different, score-based type of play, turning each stumbling escape into a nail-biting, real-time bout of snakes and ladders if you stick around for the precious diamonds this relentless pursuer drops. Or how the slight aftertouch in The Binding of Isaac charges your defensive manoeuvring with an offensive function by allowing you to more accurately direct those tears against the game's advancing abominations. In One Finger Death Punch the defining feature, the crux on which the game's immense depth rests, is subtler still: the short step your character takes towards the direction of each of your strikes.
It seems a minor, almost trivial feature, to have your character sidle half an inch to the left or right, but that's before we remember what every top-level Street Fighter pro can readily attest to, that fighting games are all about managing space. Cumulatively, and without ever touching a stick for movement purposes, these short steps allow you to traverse the environments and spatially carve out the progress of each skirmish. It serves at once as an offensive and defensive ability, edging you closer to opponents on the side of your last strike while, ideally, taking you just out of range from those encroaching on the other. It allows you to prioritise and rearrange the order of micro duels that would, otherwise, be completely impossible to deal with through pure speed. Is this a dagger-wielding stick-dude I see before me, approaching three spots to the left? You can try to reach him and grab those weapons to deal with the heavy-duty brawler advancing on your right. Will the mace dropped near your feet help, or will the split-second delay in grabbing it mess up your tempo? Better focus on attacking the other side and create some distance, lest you inadvertently collect it.
It gets even deeper if you decide to focus on score-chasing. Since you can significantly boost your score by chaining hits, every attack becomes part of an overarching sequence, each accompanying step a crucial choice affecting your chances of reaching the next opponent in time to keep the combo going. Do you deal with that sturdy lieutenant individually, or do you finish off the lackeys behind him the moment he switches sides, then spin to resume the duel with an eye to the queue that has started to form behind him? As insignificant as it seems, it is Silver Dollar's decision to incorporate this short step that enables you to experiment with established patterns, to break the static mould of each stage and reshape it so that you can enhance your chances of survival or a high score. Early reviewers likened One Finger Death Punch to a rhythm game, believing a successful run hinged on the player becoming attuned to its inner, stable beat, but this is wrong. Silver Dollar's game has as much in common with Guitar Hero as the wild-haired composer frantically scribbling notes on a piece of paper has with the concert pianist executing their work. If there's a musical metaphor to be made here, it has little to do with the rigid demands of a scripted performance. This is a liberating opportunity to compose your own symphony of destruction.
A sequel has recently been announced, slated for next year, but there's little left to improve here. I have some tiny niggles: the fact that the arbitrarily triggered special moves, as visually gratifying as the resulting catapulted eyeballs and exploding viscera are, tend to unfairly reset your combo chain, or the lack of meaningful leaderboards. I asked Jonathan Flook, one of the two brothers responsible for the original, what the plans were and he suggested they might be shaking things up by streamlining the speed counter system and tying the score to a “survival tower tier system.” Other changes include the introduction of a local co-op mode that will allow players to switch in and out for marathon sessions. As a massive fan of One Finger Death Punch I am equally excited and worried about these breaks from the formula: it's not easy to improve on something this close to perfection. But perhaps, grasshopper, we have much to learn.