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Wot I Think: One Finger Death Punch

Kung Fu Tussle

One Finger Death Punch seems like a self-explanatory title. If it brings to mind a game in which many tiny enemies are punched into pieces using a simple control scheme, then you have understood the intent of the title. The left mouse button punches to the left, the right mouse button punches to the right. Occasionally there are swords, bows and bombs. That's about all there is to it, so why do I not want to stop playing? Here's wot I think.

Wanna fight? One Finger Death Punch is an endless stream of kung fu combat as enemies rush and attack the player from both sides.

Wanna die? You will, although not anywhere near as often as you’ll kill. Outnumbered thousands to one, the player moves from challenge to challenge on an enormous map, encountering new types of challenge all based around the initial proposition – use one finger to punch people to death.

Wanna dance? I haven’t had this much fun with a rhythm action game since the original Guitar Hero and that one night with the particularly messy Donkey Konga drinking game. Late-comers to the party thought they’d walked into an Andy Warhol get-together at the Overlook Hotel - “WE ARE PLAYING BONGOS TO COLLECT THE BANANAS YOU MUST JOIN US BUT FIRST DRINK THIS TEQUILA”.

I installed One Finger Death Punch a few days ago, expecting to spend five minutes chortling at its exploding stickmen. My decision to play it was prompted by the same vacantly morbid fascination that would cause me to read the back cover and first couple of pages of this book if I saw it in a second-hand store. Actually, if anybody has a copy of The Cyborg and the Sorcerers, please get in touch so that I can arrange to pick it up, complete with your own careful annotations.

One Finger Death Punch is an exciting, blood-pumper of a game though. Imagine if The Cyborg and the Sorcerers turned out to be a well-crafted thriller, so gripping that you turned the pages faster than a teenager with a pornographic flick book. My initial five minutes with it (the game, not the flick book) taught me everything I needed to know but tickled my curiosity by showing what lay ahead.

Enemies sometimes take more than one hit, sometimes they dodge from side to side or require rapid-fire combos to eliminate. Weapons can be picked up, still just using the two mouse buttons, and used to extend reach, reposition and make short work of tougher opponents. Metallic slaughter-balls demolish entire armies, bouncing yoyo-like from the warrior’s foot.

There’s more. Battles during thunderstorms, which not only feel like hyper-kinetic Kurosawa but also serve to obscure the colour-coded intentions of enemies. The scratchy sepia of old-school rounds has a similar function, forcing attention away from obvious warning signs and to the animations instead. It’s equivalent to having segments of Guitar Hero tracks in which the scrolling notes are obscured and the player has to watch the animated gig in the background to find input prompts.

The central mechanism is as simple as the title suggests – the left mouse button attacks enemies to the left, the right mouse button attacks enemies to the right. Click when they’re within reach and your stickman brutally executes them. The screen tells you everything you need to know – areas of the floor on each side of the avatar are marked, showing how far an attack will reach, and enemies are colour-coded to show how they will react when attacked.

Nothing more complicated than a sequence of lefts and rights is ever required, and yet later levels, even on the initial difficulty level, demand the focus and concentration of a concert pianist. I’m not belittling concert pianists by making that claim and it’s no exaggeration at all to say that by the time I reached the game’s final challenges, I was performing feats of dexterity that put this gent to shame.

The musical connection is rarely made explicit in the game, which is far more concerned with stylised ultraviolence and mildly off-putting voiceovers than any aesthetic exploration of its rhythmic roots. In fact, having only seen videos and screenshots, I would probably have assumed that the whole thing was a throwback to the stickman combat games that used to dominate Newgrounds, which was where everyone chilled out before TVtropes and memes gentrified the internet.

If you don’t think lolcats and the elevation of all anime to Great Art represent gentrification, you can’t possibly have seen what this place used to be like. Goatse and Flash-based Britney Spears torture games as far as the eye could see. In terms of its look, One Finger Death Punch is very much of that era but it’s a stylish throwback and, despite its apparently minute ambitions, certainly not a throwaway one.

Beyond the elegant nature and intelligence of the display – and I can’t stress enough how cleverly elements are communicated and occasionally intentionally obscured – the greatest achievement is the unlock system, which provides a tasty carrot to strive for. Along with new skills and enemies, the game constantly adjusts the speed at which enemies approach, reducing it after a poor round and increasing it when the player does exceptionally well. More than all the medals and achievements in the world, I wanted to push that speed gauge as high as it would go.

One Finger Death Punch takes the most basic idea for a computer game – hero fights hundreds of enemies for no particular reason – and brings it into being with a control scheme almost as basic. Then, brilliantly, it stretches that scheme as far as it will go, never deviating from its chosen system but feeling out every possible limit in which it is contained.

That is one method by which many of the greatest games are defined. The designers finds the edge of what is possible within a framework, whether technological or creative, and gropes within it, lighting every angle and crevice. One Finger Death Punch isn’t quite among ‘the greatest games’ but it is a beautiful piece of design and a far more challenging and creative exploration of minimal input than Canabalt or the many other infinite runners of the world. It's a game that may have been built, from the ground-up, to demonstrate the folly of button mashing. Your left fist is timing, your right is precision. They are deadly.

One Finger Death Punch is available now.

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