The best action games go above and beyond their mechanics.
Lately, I've been playing a lot of The Counter of Death and Tap Hero, two mobile action games. They’re relatively simple games, especially within the action genre. Both use only two "buttons". The Counter of Death actually has two virtual buttons, and Tap Hero splits the screen in two with each side becoming an invisible "button." In each case, the simplicity of the controls belies surprisingly difficult games, but they’re not difficult because of their mechanics. They’re difficult because of my natural human limitations.
In The Counter of Death, you're a Bruce Lee lookalike trying to rescue your girlfriend from a gang. You have to fight your way up the floors of a pagoda with enemies getting harder as you go.
Combat is simple because you never actually attack anyone. You can only counter (thus the name), and you can only counter “high” or counter “low”. Enemies will draw their arm back before they punch, telegraphing which attack they’ll use, and in that time, you have to press the corresponding virtual button. This timing gets faster the further you go, and some enemies will fake you out by lifting their shoulder high when they’ll really attack low, but these twists don’t make the game significantly harder in my experience. The real difficulty is staying focused.
The game demands the totality of your attention at all times, and all that attention is focused on a single action: watching. You can’t be proactive, attacks are random so there are no patterns to memorize, and the combat is so simple that there’s no real strategy you can apply. All you can do is react, and watching is key to reacting.
It’s also exhausting, to watch a single thing that closely for that long (a few minutes, granted, but that’s a long time to stare at a screen with unblinking obsessiveness). At least demanding games like Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy spread your attention across multiple mechanics, like momentum and jump angle for the latter or stamina and attack patterns for the former. When all of your attention is focused on a relative pinprick, your mind inevitably starts to wander. It doesn’t wander far, I don’t start thinking about bills or movies or other games, but I do suddenly notice how smooth the animation is, and how that’s actually really impressive for a free... and then I get hit, which is the beginning of the end for me.
Tap Hero is similar, though it has even more going on. Enemies come in from the left and right, and you tap the corresponding side of the screen to cut them down with your sword. Enemies vary, however, and each one comes with a slightly different timing. Archers and swordsmen come in quick, but little hooded guys carrying bombs come in just a tad slower. You’d think that’d make them easier to hit, but by then you’re used to the rhythm of the faster enemies. Your instinct is to tap fast, but you have to fight that instinct. We’re actively fighting against muscle memory rather than using it. Again, the game requires a totality of focus that’s hard to keep up over time.
Some might say that this is to be expected from a simple two button mobile action game, but one of the best (if not the best) action game ever made only uses two buttons and can even be played on mobile devices too: One Finger Death Punch.
Like in Tap Hero, enemies come in from the left and right of the screen, and you have to press the corresponding button to kill them before they hit you. The difference is that One Finger Death Punch adds a few tweaks that make it far more player friendly.
The game is regularly pausing itself for a half second or slowing down, giving you a brief moment of respite to survey the screen and regain your focus. That stopping and slowing gives the fights a staccato rhythm, characterized by bursts and jumps in the action, rather than the consistent tone that defines Counter and Tap Hero. That bit of accessibility, in turn, allows the fights to move faster, which makes them feel grander and the overall experience to feel more action packed. It’s a win/win for both the player and the game.
Now, not every game should focus on the player's comfort like this. I'm a big proponent of games not kowtowing to player comfort (I do adore me some Dark Souls), but when you're making an action game, with the assumed intent of making the player look/feel like a badass, then it’s probably good to balance it in their favor, just a bit.
The Counter of Death and Tap Hero aren't bad games at all. In fact, for free games they’re pretty damn good. But in this case, One Finger Death Punch serves as a case study in how you go from “good” to “great”. All three games are very similar in control and intent, but only one goes above and beyond its mechanics to consider how the player might feel when interacting with those mechanics. Only one showcases a design that thinks outside of itself. Only one is a great game, and it's the one that goes a little easy on us.