A delightfully retro deflectathon: You should be playing The Counter of Death

What is it? 

A straightforward, two-button action game that captures the glory of a perfect parry. 

Play it if you like... 

Fighting games, classic kung fu films, and fast-paced mobile games with speedy, responsive controls 

  • Format: iOS / Android
  • Price: Free
  • Release date: Out now

A well-tuned counter system can elevate a game's melee combat from 'decent beat-'em-up' to 'exquisite ballet of glorious brawling'. Think back to all those exhilarating moments from the Batman: Arkham series, when you flawlessly fought back against a legion of thugs through precise taps of the counter button. Or those times in fighting games like Dead or Alive and Tekken when you read your opponent's next move and countered their incoming attack to clinch the match. And nothing tops the pristine parry system from Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike, which facilitated the greatest fighting game moment of all time. Now, take all those fond countering memories, give them a splash of retro paint, and simplify the control scheme down to an intuitive binary form. That's the essence of The Counter of Death, a superb action game which revolves around the art of the carefully timed counter.

The premise is the classic arcade quest for revenge: a date goes south when an evil martial arts master sucker-punches you and kidnaps your girlfriend, keeping her captive at the top of an ominous tower straight out of The Game of Death. If you hadn't already guessed from the name, The Counter of Death is one giant homage to the kung fu stylings of Bruce Lee. Our pixelated hero is the spitting image of the late action star, complete with unlockable costumes that replicate his most iconic looks (with the legendary yellow jumpsuit saved for last) and high-pitched yelps accompanying each knockout punch. Everything about The Counter of Death has been carefully designed to achieve maximum action flick nostalgia, from the VHS color bars that greet you when you open the app, to the film grain overlay on all the stellar pixel art. The presentation is perfect in every way: catchy chiptunes set the stage for each fight, punches all sound like wood being smashed or wet towels being snapped, and the smoothly animated 16-bit visuals make this feel the mobile port of some long-lost Super Nintendo cartridge.

Two buttons is all it takes to counter your way to victory: an up arrow to counter high, and a down arrow to counter low. These buttons are positively giant, taking up half the screen; that may sound like a drawback, but it ensures that the touchscreen never thinks you tapped the wrong button or fails to register your input entirely, which is easily my biggest pet peeve with mobile games that rely on twitch reflexes. Gameplay is incredibly simple to grasp: not-Bruce continuously walks forward until he reaches a one-on-one duel with a lowly goon or imposing boss, at which point you need to counter their incoming attacks successfully so that you'll automatically punch back and smack them to the ground.

The catch is that there aren't any DDR-style scrolling arrows telling you exactly how and when to counter - you need to study the enemy's animations to know if they're coming at you with high or low swings. Early enemies will clearly telegraph their movements, but with each floor you ascend up the pagoda, your opponent's offense becomes increasingly tricky to read correctly. That doesn't mean you'll be getting smacked around by cheap hits; whenever you go to parry the wrong way, you always know it was your mistake and not the game's. It's just that, like any full-fledged fighting game, you need more practice to carefully study the subtle, telltale signs indicating which way you should speedily counter. Also, as you fight your way across each floor, you'll occasionally need to deflect incoming shuriken with your bare hands. No big whoop.

You may not make it very far during your first few runs, but that's merely the start of your challenging ascent to counter mastery. As you continue to sharpen your skills, you'll come to realize that parrying with pinpoint timing triggers the titular Counter of Death, which will instantly fell any lesser enemies or cut through one of the bosses' multiple health bars. With each attempt to scale the tower, you can feel yourself adapting to the progressively cryptic tells and breezing through the baddies you once feared. Best of all are those amazing moments when your muscle memory takes over, your thumb instinctively flicking to the correct button while your brain catches up to try and process what's even happening.

If you do manage to successfully scale the tower (something I'm still working towards after hours of enjoyable play), the fun's not over - that just means it's time to switch your attention to The Counter of Death Turbo, which is essentially Hard Mode. Your enemies attack way faster, bosses take more hits to knock down, and everyone's sporting spiffy, palette-swapped new outfits (with color schemes that cleverly reference Kung Fu on NES). It's the perfect extension of a perfect mobile action game, which delivers the sheer satisfaction of successful counters again and again as you work your way up its impeccable difficulty curve. For my money - or lack thereof, considering this app is free - The Counter of Death is the best distillation of fighting game mastery to ever grace mobile platforms. And I'm fairly certain it's going to stay that way.

You Should Be Playing celebrates innovative, unexpected games that belong on your radar, with a new game every Monday at 0900 PST / 1700 GMT. Follow @gamesradar on Twitter for updates.