'One Finger Death Punch' and the Zen of Combat

One Finger Death Punch puts the art into martial arts.

One Finger Death Punch

Publisher: Silver Dollar Games
Price: $5.00
Developer: Silver Dollar Games
Platforms: PC
Release Date: 2014-03-03

The last time that I wrote about One Finger Death Punch, I wrote about it from a purely mechanical perspective -- about how its deceptively simple premise hid a wealth of excellent design decisions that all work in perfect harmony with each other. I also talked about its mechanics, but from a philosophical point of view more than anything else.

Going back to the game in preparation for a Moving Pixels podcast, I've been reminded how excellent it still is, but also that that excellence stems from more than just mechanical harmony. There's a purity of focus to the game. It's the only action game that I'd think to describe as zen, but why? What makes this game from such a "disreputable developer" so much more immersive than every other action game ever made?

Ambition. It may be a tiny game from a tiny developer, but it has a much grander and a more esoteric goal than its peers. It's an homage to martial arts movies, and an important part of that homage is making you appreciate the art in martial arts. This means that it's not concerned with difficulty, it's not concerned with style, and it's not concerned with the power fantasy that most other action games emphasize. Instead, it's more concerned with how those things impact the art of combat.

One Finger Death Punch doesn't care about challenging you.

Don't get me wrong, it is a challenging game. It starts off simply enough as a two button fighter in which enemies come in from the left and right. You have to hit a button corresponding to each side that enemies approach from once they get within your avatar's range. It's an easy concept to explain, and the game feels easy for maybe the first few fights. However, it then begins adding enemies that can dodge or block your attacks. You'll now have to pay attention to the color of enemies as each color represents a different combo: green is right-right, blue is right-left, yellow is right-right-left (with those directions switched depending on which side they come in from). This becomes a lot to handle, and then the game starts speeding up, forcing us to handle inputting this set of commands more quickly and more efficiently.

But it’s okay if we don't get better and faster. The game has a variable difficult, so that it speeds up when you win and slows down when you lose. Other games have changed their difficulty on the fly before, but One Finger Death Punch doesn't wait for you to lose multiple times before it does this, and it doesn't treat this change as an admission of failure, like the being forced to wear the tutu in God of War or the chicken hat in Metal Gear Solid V. It's okay for things to get easier because the challenge is not the point, the point is to enjoy and appreciate the fight in the moment.

That said, One Finger Death Punch doesn't care about you looking cool.

Don't get me wrong, the game is stylish as hell. The characters may be pulled straight out of MS Paint, but this is a deliberate aesthetic choice and the game runs with it. The stick figures help keep the animations focused on the movement of bodies. This game isn't concerned with realistic light diffraction or soft skin texture. This is a game about martial arts, and the art itself highlights the movement of bodies above all other aesthetic considerations.

But you won't notice any of that while you are playing. You'll be too focused on the approach of enemies, too focused on hitting the right combination of Left and Right buttons, too focused on a narrow slice of the screen to notice that the fighting animations actually change between battles to reflect different styles of martial arts. It's an impressive attention to detail, but it's a detail for an audience, not for the player. The player is focused on the fight itself, not the aesthetics of the fight, and this is exactly what the game wants.

(In this way, One Finger Death Punch reinforces my gaming-action-theory that the idea of an action in a game as being more important than seeing that action performed. I have written about this regarding SUPERHOT, but it applies here too. I know that I'm beating the crap out of guys because I'm hitting the buttons and watching their corresponding input bars disappear. I don't have to see the action to know that it looks cool, it already feels cool.)

That being said, One Finger Death Punch doesn't care about your power fantasy.

Don't get me wrong, each fight does makes you feel like a badass. Whether you get through a fight untouched, feeling invincible, or if you struggle in a brutal battle that leaves you with only one health bar by its end, victory is always elating. With its excellent soundtrack that makes every fight feel like a climax, and the random mid-fight close-up kills that show you punching a guy's heart out or breaking his neck with a kick to the chin, the game more than sells the idea of you as a martial arts master.

However, your ranking after each fight is based on your hit combo, not on your health. The game wants you to focus on landing your attacks rather than on avoiding enemy attacks. In fact, when action starts to speed up a little too fast, it's actually preferable to take a hit, which stops time for a half-second, giving you a brief window to catch your breath and refocus to ensure that you don't hit a wrong button. It's better to get hurt than it is to break a combo.

This is the game telling us that it's okay to get hurt. That pain is part of the dance of combat. A good fight scene shows the hero getting beaten and bruised, eking out a win. This is just part of what makes for a good martial arts fight. If you want to play each level to perfection, that's your prerogative, but the game doesn't ask you to be invincible. It would actually prefer if you got hit every now and then. It's odd for a game to put the needs of the fight ahead of the desire of the player, but that's what makes this game so singular. It cares more about the story of the fight than your personal empowerment.

One Finger Death Punch is a challenging, stylish, power fantasy of an action game, but all of those traits are secondary to its main concern. It doesn't focus on any of them, and it doesn't even necessarily try for them because those traits are really just a byproduct of its main concern. One Finger Death Punch wants you to enjoy the act of combat purely for itself, not because of how it looks, not because of how it makes you feel, not because of how it tests you skills. It wants you to lose yourself in the act, to disappear into the rhythms of the fight, to simply be in that moment unconcerned with anything else.

Any additional mechanics or systems would ruin its hypnotic attraction. Worrying about stamina management, button combos, or limited ammo would take us out of that moment because we'd be thinking about the larger meta context of the fight, how this one battle fits into a larger series of battles.

One Finger Death Punch is an action games that believes the movement of bodies is beautiful and engaging and compelling on its own, devoid of any additional context. The challenge, style, and fantasy of it are necessary for such a high-concept appreciation, but they're not the end goal, just steps towards this larger goal. A good action game needs those traits, but a great action game is about more than just those traits. A great action game uses them to achieve a state of zen during combat.

One Finger Death Punch achieves that zen; it shows us how to put the art into martial arts.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.