A tumbleweed rolls across the plain, a man and woman walk into a dusty western town. The man falls to his knees, “Water!” The woman chimes in, “Gene… this place reeks.” “I know… Wait, you don’t expect me to mop up.” Huh? “Come on those guys are cake.” Bad guys? “Not to mention much sexier than you.” What? “Well looks like your sexy little friends are coming for a dance.” Thugs approach. “They’re still sexier than you are.” And then we’re punching guys.
So begins God Hand, Clover Studio and director Shinji Mikami’s swan song and ode to brawlers, slapstick, suppressed sexuality, tank controls, Mike Tyson, and just about every other goddamn thing in the world.
It’s been on my mind since I first laid eyes on the striking cover/promo art* more than ten years ago, and a recent replay has all but confirmed a sneaking suspicion of mine: God Hand is probably my favorite game of all-time. If not, it’s certainly the best game ever developed. Of that I’m sure.
But how could a game assigned a 3/10 by the illustrious journalistic outlet IGN possibly be the greatest video game ever developed by humans? Well we’re gonna break it down like Zach de la Rocha and by the end you will no doubt agree: God Hand is the best video game ever.
(*Memory is a weird thing. I remember one of my first impressions of God Hand being from an image not unlike the standard US/European cover art, but instead of the fist merely brushing past the goon it went straight through the poor sap’s mouth. That’s the kind of shit an adolescent doesn’t forget. The fist/mouth image was apparently issued as a part of the digital press kit promoting the game, as per the game's page at the Capcom FANDOM. Though I wasn’t able to find direct quotes on as to why this image wasn’t featured on the cover art, I think we can all do a little guesswork: That shit’s horrifying.)
So we boot up the game and the aforementioned scene plays out, and we’re in it. Alright, that was weird, you might think, but I guess this is just an action game. Right you’d be. God Hand is a third-person beat ‘em up in which you, Gene, find yourself in possession of the much-mentioned God Hand--literally an arm--which bestows great fighting prowess upon its holder. Gene’s acquisition of the armament ties in with his traveling companion, Olivia’s backstory, as well as the overarching premise of the game: In a world plagued by the demonic subjects of Angra, a long-banished superbad, the God Hand is worshipped and protected by those who seek to repel Angra’s forces, and champion a hero who can wield the Hand and defeat Angra as he looks to return to the world. Pretty standard stuff.
Angra’s return is provoked by the Four Devas, a small band of doity demons looking to bring the big man back. So Gene and Olivia are on their merry way, casually punching through the ranks to take down the head honchos.
Melville it ain’t, but Shakespeare it might..? Where our story is straightforward, God Hand’s cast of clowns is anything but typical. Elvis, one of the Devas, is a pot-bellied hispanic man, prayer beads around his neck and cigar planted firmly between teeth. He says “cabron” a lot. We’ll also meet Mr Gold and Mr Silver, mini-bosses (oh yes, there are plenty of mini-bosses in God Hand) wearing… Well you can see. Wearing very little. “He’s such a sexy man,” one remarks upon first meeting. “I’m not that kinda guy!” So continues Gene’s struggle with his sexuality. But more on that (maybe?) later.
You get the point: God Hand follows in the footsteps of games like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden in repelling the forces of hell, as well as movies and animation like Mad Max and Fist of the North Star in depicting a wild, frontier-esque post-apocalyptic world. But a game about punching people, basically. How is this going to be fun for (the ten or eleven hours a playthrough might take)? Well it’s called technique.
You know I’ve never seen The Karate Kid? I’m not sure I’m allowed to make that overt a reference. Anyway, God Hand’s gameplay, for a dozen hours, consists of you, Gene, punching various degrees of leatherbound lackeys and grumpy gorillas (actually). Though there are moments in which you’re thrown a curveball lookout! in the form of brief shooting gallery interludes and some quick-time events (thank you, God of War), it’s really the Gene vs. the goonsquad action that propels the game.
Now whereas a game like, say God of War couples Kratos with a string of sword slashes to accompany the mashing of the square button, God Hand is too cool for that school of thought. I’d like to think it’s also just a little too dumb and aloof, but that’s a part of the act, babe.
Bringing up the pause menu allows you to navigate to your techniques. What are… What are all these things? ‘Left Jab 1’, ‘Barrel Roll Kick’. Under techniques you’re started with a basic slate of attacks, played out to the side by Gene and an accompanying statistic of the attack’s damage. Yeah cool, but I can upgrade my attacks in God of War, too. Oh no, not quite like this.
With a combo string assigned to the mashing of square and five other individual attacks for the other face buttons and variations of their input, Gene is, right off the bat a bit better equipped than most macho man murder machines. What else ya gonna use those buttons for? There’s no ‘press X to pay respects’ here, folks, with the quick dodging needed for avoiding the occasional fist assigned to the right analog stick.
But back to these techniques. God Hand allows the player to collect and unlock 114 different attacks. I’ll temper that and then blow it out the roof again: Several of these attacks are damage stat-based increments of the same move. ‘Left Jab 1’, ‘Left Jab 2’, and so on, pretty much the same thing, only one hits harder than the rest. But let’s pull a Flava Flav and hype this thing: 114 individual attacks. These three-digit thrusts can then be assigned to any of the aforementioned face buttons, and, truly the kicker, any of the moves in your basic square combo. I unlocked… ‘Pay Up NOW!’ is the move..? Can I have that string into… ‘Double Spin Kick’? Go to town, kiddo. God Hand allows you to string together either A: A series of carefully-curated attacks that compliment each other for speed and damage, or B: A wildly impractical combo of scissor kicks and karate chops. You do you.
The endless possibilities of God Hand’s technique system are layered further by moves that break enemy guards, ones that juggle an enemy, and so on. Some moves, like my favorite ‘Drunken Sweep’, act as a dodge in themselves, avoiding an enemy attack if timed correctly, dealing damage while staying safe. It’s like paid vacation!
Couple the deep customization of basic moves with God Hand’s version of supers, or ‘roulette moves’ and you’ve got yourself a brawler, buster. The roulette system uses orbs of power (picked up from fallen fools and broken boxes), trading balls for brawls. The moves highlight Gene’s God Hand, resulting in the insane ‘Home Run God’ (summon a magical baseball bat and hit your target into the sky) or the ‘God Stomp’ (use your imagination).
And I haven’t even mentioned the God Hand itself. What the Gold Star is to Mario, the God Hand is to Gene. Only he’s doing a different kind of plumbing. Activating the God Hand, by way of a meter, sends Gene into an invincible state, capable of dishing out his combos at Roadrunner speeds, with Popeye power. It’s a sight to behold.
Having just revisited the game, God Hand's approach to difficulty is a surprisingly refreshing affair in 2019, in a world with Sekiro and cries for accessibility. Where the game's mechanics are tight and unforgiving, its world isn't so harsh. Stuck on an encounter? Again? And again? ... And again? Well, keep trying, champ, at least your health is refilling! At least all that money you're picking up isn't vanishing into the ether with your spirit! God Hand's enemies might be out to get the player, but God Hand itself isn't.
Difficulty is one thing, though I find often God Hand faces some criticism or frustration for its movement and camera, which is one of the few things you cannot punch. Gene has a standard movement speed, and a sped-up cartoon run should you quickly push forward twice. Speed, not precision, because the camera is sort of like wearing horse blinders; you’re always locked in on the direction Gene is facing, with L1 serving as a quick 180 turn to face any foes sneaking up on you. With no manual lock-on (Gene chooses which sucker is closest to clobber) many might find this frustrating. It only dawned on me recently, but an interview from 2006 between GameSpy and then-Clover Studio Producer Atsushi Inaba brings an awful lot of clarity when Inaba mentions the “core of development was done by the team that made Resident Evil 4.”
God Hand is all about tank controls! You face forward, you move forward. It’s an evolution of the third-person, over-the-shoulder shooting pioneered by Resident Evil 4, except here we’re trading guns for fists and inanimate objects to be hurled. The further lack of camera manipulation from Resident Evil to Gene’s journey heightens the sense of a one-on-one brawl; when you’re punchin’ and kickin’ your everything is the poor slob on the receiving end of said punches and kicks. The need to know your surroundings is somewhat mitigated, though dodging other enemies looking to take a cheap swing becomes the issue, forcing you to position yourself such that your chops and sweeps hit multiple enemies, or simply to do a damn backflip and disengage, only to leap back into the fray.
Dressed to Impress
So God Hand can walk the walk with its deep combat, but can it… talk the talk? “You’re not Alexander?” Who, me? “I’m Alexander the Great!” Well that clears that up but-- “My style is impetuous!” … God Hand has its goons quote former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson liberally. The lines, thrown off the cuff by scrappy thugs, ring out as some of the more memorable quips. But really, what the hell?
The Mike Tyson lines are about par for the course for a Japanese game that clearly emulates a Western, predominantly American, aesthetic (the aforementioned ghost town opening levels are straight out of a hokey western film). But beyond this, God Hand’s rogues gallery is just odd, but in familiar ways.
I’ve thus far made sole mention of the “leatherbound lackeys” in Gene’s way, but really, these guys are into kink.
The fetishism on display in God Hand’s “throwaway” enemies might seem out of place or unique for a video game, and paired with the absolutely overt sexuality of the characters and game (dazed female enemies can be spanked repeatedly; the ‘Baller Buster’ roulette move taps your opponent just where the sun don’t shine, and is ineffective against women!) you might be right. But the homoerotic overtones are only the evolution of years of undertones.
Some Final Fight regional differences.
The images above come from classic brawlers like Streets of Rage, Double Dragon, and Capcom’s own Final FIght. Between the bulging, bare muscles of the player characters and the scant S&M getups featured by some of the lady-thugs, there’s a whole lotta skin to share. Of course, many of those games take inspiration from action films of the era; First Blood and its sequels, Commando, Conan the Barbarian. The insistence on giving the audience sweat-glistened biceps and scantily-clad damsels is a sort of filmic sexuality that I think naturally translated to the aforementioned video games. Simply due to the age gap of the mediums, film is marginally more sophisticated in its aesthetic than video games are, especially when Streets of Rage 2 was punching around on the Genesis in the early ‘90s.
Not losing my train of thought too much: God Hand’s playful gayness and sex jokes stem from a long line of hyper-masculinity in games of this ilk (read: punchpunchpunchpunchemall), which in itself often has ties to suppression of sexuality. I won’t get all Freudian in that sense, but certainly worth noting that Gene’s offhand remarks (examining an early boss’ defeated body, he muses that he may have “...lost his balls during the war.”) have a history of goofy, muscled guys who punch their feelings away.
So we’re talking God Hand aesthetic and haven’t even gotten to the comedy! Or the music! Jeez… Well, the music is simple: It’s awesome.
Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda composed God Hand’s eclectic blend of metal and surf guitars, funky slap bass (a must for any self-respecting Capcom game; I dream of an alternate score for the Resident Evil 2 remake that’s more-or-less a Bootsy Collins album) and more. The wild arrangement consists of quality throughout though, instilling a hardcore pace for some levels, while submitting to God Hand’s lackadaisical vibes during others. God Tracks! Is the soundtrack album, which I believe came packaged with the game as a standard for the Japanese release. We Westerners weren’t so lucky, but it’s readily available for digital download. It’s a humdinger…
… and a zinger too! What’s funnier than some goof writing about a brawler for this long? That’s right: Physical comedy! God Hand features moves like the aforementioned ‘Home Run God’, or the classic ‘Pimp Smack’. The bit here speaks volumes though:
There’s a gleeful want for running in front of flying fists present that to me immediately recalls the Marx Brothers,or Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton’s willingness to take a hit for a laugh. Not only in the cutscenes, God Hand’s minute-to-minute gameplay is often characterized by comedic cries of pain from foes, and the actual appearance of wailing on some guy with a wood 2X4 has all the repetitive rhythms of whack-a-mole. God Hand is dumb and it knows it, and it owns it.
Special Sauce, or: Like Things Because You Like Them, But Also Because They’re Cool to Like
If you’re still with me, one: You’re a real trooper. But also two: Hopefully at this point you’re thinking to yourself hmm, if anyone could be so convinced that this God Hand thing is this good, maybe I should give it a whirl! There are layers of magnificent gameplay beneath Clover’s oddball romp that could be lost on a casual audience as being “just weird.” But still, there’s something magnetic about God Hand for me, and so we enter a slightly more subjective (and hopefully significantly shorter) part of this in which I try to calculate some odds and ends that really get me. Feel free to remove your 3D glasses, hit the lobby for a snack, etc. at this junction.
You really are in this for the long game! Well, to get sporadic, I think there’s an allure to “trash.” Is he going to turn around after this nonsense and reveal it’s actually a bad game? Not quite.
I alluded earlier to IGN’s infamous 3/10 review of the game, and that’s stuck with me for a long time. How could someone in a position of relative power be so wrong, I thought. And really, maybe this is too much of a tangent, but that denouncement of something I hold to be so positively good I think has only drawn me closer to God Hand. How dare you call this game trash! Have you even played it? Do you understand the aforementioned points made here and elsewhere, by more-succinct writers, in defending and praising this game? This isn’t an IGN-bash, to be clear, and where that review was striking, most other critics were generally down with Mikami’s punch-em-up.
Still, the thought gnaws. Much like zombies. Much like Resident Evil, which--segway!--I hold to be, along with the Metal Gear games, the gold standard franchise for post-game unlockables. Where I’m going with this, you will hopefully soon see.
In Resident Evil 4, completion of the game rewards the player with a RCPD costume for Leon, an infinite-RPG, and some other trinkets. Further unlocks include a suit of armor for Ashley and a laser cannon. Are these in any way fundamental to the game? No. Do they even sort of break the game’s difficulty? Sure. But you know what? That’s the kind of goofy shit that gets me going. I think of the sixth console generation of unlockable trivialities and bask fondly in the glow of Ratchet & Clank’s Insomniac Museum, or Ninja Gaiden’s Plasma Saber. Life’s best moments are the smallest, most insignificant flashes of humor or irony, sadness or beauty. Why can’t a clown costume for Gene be one of God Hand’s best moments?
As another stalwart from an era of gaming plagued by fewer overt financial machinations and schemes on the parts of publishers, God Hand summons a sense of nostalgia from me that makes me wish the games we played today were just the games we play today. No DLC, no microtransactions, no game of the year editions, and on and on with the bullshit. Just… make a video game, maybe throw in some goofy extra costumes or cheat codes, and sell it to me. It ain’t rocket science!
All Good Things
I feel as if this little rant of mine has gone on long enough, but we covered enough ground here I think!
The fundamental reasons as to why God Hand is the greatest video game ever made boil down, I think, to three categories, which if they’re terribly murky here still, I’ve failed for the past thousand-some words. But in conclusion:
God Hand’s minute-to-minute gameplay is fun. Simple, right? But it’s the reason games like Pac-Man and Tetris succeed, and why people spent late nights playing the same game type over and over in Halo 2 or Call of Duty 4. Gameplay is ultimately the reason you’re playing a game, most-likely. Shiny unlockables are nice, but it’s all done by way of a gameplay loop. When a game’s core mechanics are so satisfying, so grin-inducing and deep in nuance that you truly don’t need any bells and whistles or incentives to move forward with the game, that’s when you know you’ve got something special. God Hand is a game about punching guys, and it takes the simplest of premises and creates such an absorbing, unique hand-eye experience that you’re glued by the sweat of your loins and the tension in your hand.
The second aspect is aesthetic. God Hand goes to town, becoming the poster child for “weird Japanese video game” while actually paying homage to a long line of slightly less weird gaming history. There are hints of revisionism in Mikami’s comedic cast and their scant layers of leather; a satire of the farce that machismo-fueled gaming characters had become and, really, had always been. This is 2006, remember; representation with gaming today has ways to go, but certainly thirteen years ago we were even deeper in the “muscled white guy saves the day” world. Obviously God Hand conforms to that trope, but Gene’s odd relationship with Olivia and his homoerotic hurdles of enemies, even if boiled down to off-hand remarks, paints a decidedly less heterosexual hero for the typical action romp.
I mentioned 2006, which brings us to the third point as to why God Hand is incredibly special (notice how he tries to play down the “greatest game of all time” rhetoric near the end). When it released in North America on October 10th of that year for the PlayStation 2, most eyes and wallets were turned to November. On November 17th, Sony would release the first model of the PlayStation 3 in North America. With the Xbox 360 already on shelves for nearly a year, and Nintendo’s revolutionary Wii hitting retailers just two days after Sony’s latest, the seventh generation of home consoles had arrived. Though the PlayStation 2 would continue to sell like hotcakes for some time, and with Guinness World Records listing Sony’s sophomore system as the number one best-selling home console of all time, the PS2 certainly isn’t fading from memory. But new hardware ushers in new software. The seventh generation of consoles would expand on online capabilities, and we would see early signs of trends that plague the industry today (read: questionable post-launch support, games launched with drastic flaws and bugs, and so forth). God Hand, standing on the edge of the sixth generation, embodies a simplicity that has been all but lost in video gaming today, and for that alone it deserves to be remembered fondly and hailed as legend.
Punch people, be happy.