Fighting games are a form of puppetry. You pull the strings, an insensate doll animates, videogame violence ensues. Most of the puppetry has gotten really complex because most of the puppeteers have gotten really good, and therefore more demanding. They expect long deep learning curves and literal split second timing. Those learning curves get deeper and that timing gets more precise as brawlers like God of War and Devil May Cry lure away the more casual players like me.
But One Finger Death Punch believes we should all be puppeteers.
It believes in as few layers as possible between you and your puppet. You don’t need complex input sequences to make a fighting game. You don’t need the production value of a God of War or Devil May Cry. You don’t even need a second finger. If three of your fingers and your thumb had been sheared off in an industrial accident or firecracker mishap, you could still play One Finger Death Punch 2.
The glory of One Finger Death Punch is that it’s no less spectacular for its simple controls and 2D stick figures. These aren’t West of Loathing or xkcd stick figures. They’re alive with elaborate animation, effecting their puppet dances with confidence and fluid grace. Behind them, the background throbs with artwork and activity and routinely breaks into the foreground. Sometimes a semi sounds its horn and comes barreling through, running all the bad guys over. Sometimes it’s a freight train or a herd of bulls. Sometimes a red-headed dude rides in on a fire-breathing lion. I think it’s a dude. But he’s no stick figure. Sometimes some hot chicks show up and have a party and they’re all, like, “Yeah!” but I’m fighting some bad guys so I can’t join you right now, ladies, but thanks for showing up. I shoot a finger gun at them and wink while I use my other fist to smash a bad guy’s face. Sometimes a chicken is pecking around for a while and then a crate of eggs appears and if I’m not careful, I’m going to smash it up. Sorry, chicken. Sometimes some Dark Goddess of the Orient rises from below and blesses me with a mystical shield. Hey, lady, next time maybe bestow that shield on that chicken’s eggs.
And that stuff is just the background. In the meantime, downstage, sometimes I brace myself for a pattern-matching boss fight, but instead I just take the guy by the collar, pull his face close to mine, and shoot laser beams out of my eyes through his head. Sometimes I get on a horse and lop off heads while riding by. The horse eventually gets tired and sinks into the ground. Thanks, horse, it was fun, let’s do it again soon. Sometimes I get a chainsaw. Oh, yes, I get a chainsaw. The limbs fly, the blood splashes, the chainsaw snarls. Sometimes I get a lightsaber. It makes that Star Wars lightsaber sound. Try and sue me, Disney. Go ahead, try. You can’t sue someone with these moves. You just can’t. You’ll never even get close enough to issue a subpoena.
When I fire the last round from a pistol, of course I throw the pistol at the nearest bad guy’s head. Not doing it would be a waste of a perfectly good empty pistol. I might as well do the same with shotguns and sniper rifles, so I do. Sometimes I fight with an axe or sword. Sometimes a broom. Sometimes numchucks. Sometimes a tonfa. I haven’t had to know what tonfa means since seventh grade, playing Wasteland and Top Secret around a dining room table on a Saturday night. Now I’m using tonfas like a stone-cold pro and I know they’re tonfas because One Finger Death Punch 2 told me so. My sensei chuckles proudly. I like when he approves. I crave his approval.
“Don’t button mash,” he reminds me in his borderline racist sensei argot. Then he slams five stars down onto my post-match ratings screen. “Perrrfect,” he purrs.
It’s called One Finger Death Punch 2, so obviously it’s a sequel. This new one has unlockable abilities. Tons of new activities and modes. The finger trickery is less demanding. The action slows more frequently to let you take a breath or get your bearings. More animation, more crazy stuff in the background, more levels, more online support. A crazy survival mode. A mode where a black cat named Luca walks in front of your monitor. More and better, like a sequel should be.
One of the best new features is a skill system that lets you weight the frequency of your favorite gameplay bits. Do you like the sequences where you shoot lightning at someone? That can happen in the course of playing normally, but slot three of your earned skill tokens in the lighting attack skill and now it happens more often. Do you like the weapon racks? Do you like the horse riding? Do you like the lightsaber? Do you like the sniper rifle or shotgun? Do you like the monster that freezes everyone or the earthquake slam that clears the screen? Use your skill tokens to make these more frequent or more effective. Or don’t. You can freely swap them in and out. Want to go back to the basics? Take out all your skill tokens and let them sit in your skill token bag while you play with all things equally likely.
All this action is divided into tiny packets. Literally hundreds of levels and challenges. Kill 120 guys. Beat 20 guys with ranged weapons. Kill 200 guys. Kill these guys with a bouncing medicine ball. Kill 150 guys. Kill 240 guys. Each one is barely minutes long, then you’re ready to go again or set it aside for the day. These are to fighting games what animated shorts are to movies.
The action is decidedly R-rated. But for gore, not tone. Gore can go one of two ways. It can be funny, or it can be disturbing. Trying both just makes it dumb and discordant. Mortal Kombat’s grim earnestness and it’s overblown gore go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise. But the gore in One Finger Death Punch is hilariously and joyously over-the-top and self-aware. The blood, the screaming, the burning, the dismemberment, the hearts ripped from chests and hurled back into faces as if they were pies. It’s like Stephen Chow by way of Tex Avery meets the love child of Herschel Gordon Lewis and the Three Stooges. One Finger Death Punch lives in its own world of cheesy action heroes, karate movies, slapstick shenanigans, and flesh-rending blood-spattered righteousness. Grand Guignol Commedia.
Let me teach you how to play One Finger Death Punch so you, too, can have these cool things in your life. It’s only a 2D game. Bad guys only ever run at you from the left or right. When a bad guy comes at you from the left, left click to kill him. When a bad guy comes at you from the right, right click to kill him. There. You now know how to play One Finger Death Punch. Don’t take the title too literally, even though I said that thing earlier about industrial accidents and firecracker mishaps. I use two fingers, one for each mouse button. I play it as if it were called Two Finger Death Punch.
Oh, wait, there’s one important thing I didn’t teach you yet. Timing. You have to watch your timing. You have to wait until the bad guys enter a brightly colored area along the bottom of the screen. Blue to the left, red to the right, of course. If you click too early, you will miss, which is the worst thing that can happen. Getting punched when the bad guys get too close is no big deal. You can take a lot of blows. You’re the hero, after all. But missing? What kind of hero does a cool attack move only to discover, oops, no one was standing there yet? How humiliating. That’s what’s going to cause 99% of your failed rounds. Don’t miss. Which is to say, don’t click too early.
It might look like a pattern matching game — left, left, left, right, then right, right, right, left — but it’s not. It’s really a test of dexterity. Not necessarily speed, although that comes into it, especially if you’re trying to climb the leaderboards. But agility. Response time. It tests your capacity to click left or click right based on simple visual cues, which are never patterns but always beats, more jazz than melody. These visual cues are nestled in all the color and activity, discreet but bold enough to catch your eye. A color, a shape, big, bright, visible in the corner of your eye. Your stick figure dodges an arrow to the left, but then catches a shirken to the right and throws it back at his attacker because you know the colors and shapes, you know the cues.
In fact, you’re not really playing One Finger Death Punch 2 until you’re admiring the fight instead of watching the cues around the edges of the screen, usually at the bottom. You eventually learn to see them out of the corner of your eye and they become hand-eye coordination, learned muscle memory, not in the sense that you’re counting frames in a fighting game, but in the sense that you respond in different ways to different cues.
For example, let’s say someone shoots a gun at you. It’s going to happen. Some cowardly bad guy at the edge of the screen will refuse to advance, hanging back and waiting for his opportunity to shoot you. When he fires the bullet — and this is true of shuriken, arrows, throwing knives, anything ranged — it will be one of three colors. The color tells you how you’re going to react when you press the mouse button. If it’s yellow, you simply block the bullet and it’s gone. You kicked it aside with your knee or smacked it down with your palm or something cool. So you learn that a yellow projectile is just like an incoming bad guy. The mouse click will stop it.
But if it’s blue, that means you’re going to deflect it back in the direction it came. It will then hit the next bad guy coming at you. So an incoming blue bullet with a bad guy right behind it only takes one click. You deflect the bullet, it kills the bad guy, now you don’t need to punch him because he’s dead by bullet. So if you’re button mashing, and you see two things coming at you without registering that one of them is a blue bullet, the second click will end up whiffing. When you swing at empty air, sensei reprimands you. “Miss,” he says and you can hear him judging you. If you glance at the top of the screen, you can see you’re one strike closer to failing. So you necessarily learn that a blue projectile is sort of like clicking twice.
But now let’s consider the purple bullet. You’re going to duck under that one, Matrix style. It will continue travelling past you and it will kill whomever was behind you. So if you’ve got a left-right-left-right-left-right groove going, as often happens, and you left click a purple incoming bullet and then immediately right click to kill the guy behind you, you’re going to whiff because the bullet you ducked already killed him.
And I didn’t even mention green yet. If someone throws a knife or shuriken at you and it’s green, you’ll grab it so you can throw it back with your next attack. Not deflect it, mind you. Green isn’t blue. Instead, you snatch it out of the air and now you’re holding it, ready to throw it left or right whenever you click one of the mouse buttons.
I don’t mean to make it sound complicated. One Finger Death Punch 2 is never complicated. It’s just that you can’t help but learn its visual cues in the course of messing around and watching cool stuff happen. The cues and colors insinuate themselves into your eye-hand coordination as surely as you know to start writing on the left of a page, to drive on the right side of the road, and to push the mouse up to look down. And you never even had to play some training mode, or watch videos on YouTube, or learn from your friend who’s really good at Street Fighter. As surely as blue is left click and red is right click, bright signals go directly to your brain without taking up a lot of bandwidth. Your visual and mental bandwidth is free to appreciate what you’re making your puppet do with impossible skill and gratifying grace. There’s never been a fighting game like this (One Finger Death Punch 1 excepted) and you’ll never be as Jackie Chan or John Wick as you are here.
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The best of 2019:
10. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
9. Transport Fever 2
8. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
7. Phoenix Point
6. Field of Glory: Empires
5. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
4. Void Bastards
3. One Finger Death Punch 2