The stamina bar isn’t a new concept by any means. Shadow of the Colossus used to great effect in order to make climbing massive monsters feel more harrowing. Sports games have had such limitations on actions at least since Track and Field on the NES, and role-playing games have had similar mechanics going back to Secret of Mana or even the tabletop pen-and-paper games.
What changed things was definitely the Soulsborne genre. Once titles like Dark Souls, Bloodborne and, my personal favorite, The Surge became such big hits they invented their own sub-genre, suddenly a lot of different game developers were copying everything that could be stolen. The largest haul was definitely the stamina bar.
Soulsborne games use a stamina bar very effectively. The titles tend to based on one-on-one battles with deadly enemies who can one-shot kill a player even on high levels. Stamina slows down combat and makes the fight feel far more important. You can literally experience the strain that swinging a sword takes on your character and the pain that a missed swing causes on your fighting ability.
But now, that mechanic is being used in everything whether it makes sense or not. I just finished Unsighted, which is definitely going to be in my Games of the Year list. It has a completely unnecessary stamina bar. The game is an isometric Metroidvania about a robot warrior racing against the clock to restore a source of power before all the automatons are rendered mindless. The combat is vicious and fast, requiring constant parrying against multiple enemies to master. It’s quick and reactive, something that slows to a crawl once that stamina meter is depleted.
A game that is so clearly borrowing its aesthetic from A Link to the Past, Mega Man, and Super Metroid shouldn’t be stripping out the way those games played. Mega Man may have run out of ammo for his weapons, but he never lost the ability to jump because he was tired. Considering the fact that Unsighted has a day-night cycle but the robots never sleep, it’s just weird to see your hero staggering with exhaustion after a few dodges.
Final Fantasy XV had a stamina meter for running, something that made the already tedious exploration a grim chore. The Witcher 3 did the same thing despite the fact that stamina wasn’t really used as a mechanic for fighting. Stamina is there in both of the last major Zelda games, especially for climbing, and all it does is make the Hero of Time feel small and weak.
Sometimes this is a good thing. Lots of horror games limit how long a character can run to make them feel disempowered and vulnerable. This makes perfect sense in something like Maid of Sker or Amnesia: Rebirth, but it kind of loses the point in games where you are loaded up with weapons.
Increasingly, it seems like games are being burdened up with stamina bars because some popular titles had them, which in turn makes new popular games with stamina bars seem justified. It’s completely missing the meaning from the mechanic. A game should ask why it wants a character to be winded and unable to fight back. Otherwise, it’s just depowering players for no reason.