god hand

a review of God Hand
a videogame developed by clover studio
and published by Capcom
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation network
text by Ario Barzan

4 stars

Bottom line: God Hand is “the video game killer.”

A while ago, the suggestion was made — well, it was more of a request — to have twenty-five reviews for God Hand up on this site. This, then, is review number two. And this is the best video game I’ve ever played, the only, only one I can still keep at when I really believe that I’m about to sit up and shut down. The more I think about it, the less — and more — the whole thing makes sense. The unreal fact that this type of thing was able to just be released is heartbreakingly balanced out by its status as Financial Failure, possibly brought on by purveyors or players who’d make remarks such as, “The running animation is weird,” or, “Why can’t I jump?”, or, “The camera is going through the building behind me,” or, “All of the bad guys sound the same” (note: these examples have not been fabricated out of thin air). It was Clover’s last game; it was Clover’s best game. God Hand’s not-so-secret secret is thus: it is as complex as any video game needs to be. In a world where the “Casual” and “Hardcore” labels are eagerly applied to both people and product, the first as an excuse for talentless design (because, apparently, people who don’t want to play video games for two hours each day (or whatever the amount is that “serious” people engage in) deserve trash), the second as an explanation for obtuse presentation, God Hand simply is. It is difficult not because it is “hardcore,” mechanically accessible not because it is “casual,” but because it respects us, the players. It wants us to know that, hey, it’s here for us, though we shouldn’t expect it to take care of everything, because life’s hard, you know, and it’ll do just as much as it needs to do — no more, no less.

As the original Super Mario Bros. was a game about running and jumping, God Hand is a game about dodging and punching. It is, as well, a video game that is intent on being a video game. Elsewhere, this self-consciousness has sort of backfired with titles like No More Heroes, a game that plays up its format-awareness to hell and back — though it’s not a very enjoyable video game. Some have said that this “isn’t the point”; I’d argue that if the banality of design serves as a one-note statement of something I’m already aware of (empty power lust), then I have better things to do with my time. God Hand is a super-aware video game that manages to not be a hateful experience. I resent the notion that a video game needs to be “challenging” — that one must force oneself into liking the product — in order to say something about a medium (or that a video game needs to say something, often scathing, about its medium to be important).

It’s been said before, somewhere in the world , somewhere in the Internet, that one probably needs to have a pre-existing appreciation for fighting games to truly dig Devil May Cry 3’s combat. Whether that is true or not, I’m prepared to say that God Hand as entertainment, doesn’t require any pre-requisites. There is, essentially, nothing to get, except for the game itself, whose core is so solid that it can keep adjusting enemy packs, their positioning, and remain moving and crunchy like a boulder shuttling itself down a hill, exploding everything in its path with tart, candy-like pops. Nothing is said to be what it isn’t: the back of the box exclaims, six different ways, that you can beat the stuff out of people. “Level design,” taken literally, exclusively, doesn’t work with God Hand, whose own definition adheres more towards the iconic positioning of sneering punks and whip-wielding women. The game’s level are its goons. Each punchy, crunchy arena translates itself into a new type of pop art; set pieces aren’t incidental — they’re Situations, Events. Good things should be memorable, and I’m not even slightly lying (though, perhaps I wish I were) when I say that I can map the entirety of this game out in my head, bit by bit, until the very end, daydreaming of How I could do things, Where, When. If just thinking about God Hand is exciting, watching someone’s YouTube video of them playing is torture of a kind – which is excellent, as we’re all aware of the rule, “Watching someone play a good video game should make one want to play that video game.” It creates an anxious, arm-straining itch to get your fingers around the controller and partake in that physicality, akin to the passive viewing of Mario’s increase of running speed and sudden, blinking, diagonal shot of flight via raccoon tail in any video of Super Mario Bros. 3 invoking The Desire. God Hand is about that physical connection, the direct, chest-to-chest immediacy of breaking through an enemy’s guard and landing a series of hefty blows with your bare fists, about being able to turn the Playstation 2 on and Just Play the Damn Game. It is about being the most audacious math problem known to man, variously solvable, variously challenging, brutally sexy to entertain in the head.

At the menu screen, the title’s text glares in front of a dark background as break-beat surf-rock plays forever. Start a new file, and the cinematic’s not much: You have arrived at a town with a girl. There are bad people in the way. Beat them up. The opening level serves as a tough, introductory welcome mat. Your first fight involves two “basic” enemy types, similar to one another, but different. Your inclusion makes for a triangular ideal; one-on-two-ing serves as an intro to the game’s core, that being crowd control — your man against many others. After, a fat man (let’s call him the “heavy” type) stumbles out of doorway at a distance. This situating caters to the possibility that he might, like a chubby torpedo, shoot at you with E. Honda speed – provided you make visual contact with him from afar. Of course, you can dodge this, counter it, or run up to him as he’s recovering from his fall and strike while the iron’s hot. As these things happen, you are near structural supports and roofing that might be destroyed as the combat proceeds, showing that the environment can work to your advantage, or disadvantage. Further on, three thugs are beating on a crouching villager. It’s your first real taste of taking on a “crowd,” and a little lesson in how saving villagers yields rewards (provided you don’t accidentally kill them). Nearby, a small Moai head rises from the ground, giving up an item if it’s attacked enough before retracting, demonstrating the secret edge stages may harbor. Once you’ve taken out two more goons who run from the adjacent building, and have entered the building itself, there’s a man sitting at a table. Defeat him, and a teleporting, super-fast, fireball-hurling demon sprouts from his corpse. This, besides a few other points in the game, is the only spot where a demon will always appear; otherwise, it can happen anywhere (repeated playthroughs, however, allow observation of where the likelihood is higher).

The neat thing is that all of this analysis – that the initial level is a progressive tutorial – is personal interpretation; anyone else could play Stage 1-1 and not once have these things cross their mind. And good for them. The only literal, existing “lessons” are a couple of floating holograms near the start point which give tips that are already in the manual. Viewed from an experiential, rather than critical, state of mind, God Hand’s first level is just the opener to many more of its kind, just Stage 1-1, just one locale within a video game, separate, yet intimately enmeshed with the rest. In some hateful bizarro land, the game’s concentration on doing what it does might be taken as a flaw. In the land of the living and the loving, though, God Hand can be recognized as a rock-solid unit that’s in love with what it’s been born to be, where absurdities are everywhere, just so, and can be taken as such. The sprawling unspecificity of Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field made the tutorial-ish contrivances of your elf-kid village dissonantly pop out; God Hand’s world is structurally consistent until the end. One could painstakingly analyze every stage in the game and come away with a perceived methodological framework to the structure . . . which is actually pretty fascinating. Mapping things out in your head and then seeing them through, seeing each event brought on by your hands, still subject to playing by ear as the permutations demand, hook into the next feels amazing. I’m going to quote myself from a previous review, here.

You run up a short hill and there’s a cage blocking access to a cave. Pull a bar out of the cage – you now have a space to walk through, as well as a weapon – and run forward. In front is a cowering hostage, and on your left is a mohawk-goon with a plank of wood. Hit the goon three times with the bar, and then twice, strong-attack, to kill him. Turn around: a woman is standing against a wall with a whip. Throw the pipe at her, instant kill, and pick up the wooden plank the guy dropped. Continue on to a tunnel with two more goons. Get the closest one’s attention by taunting, and when he’s close enough, do a strong-attack and follow it up with a throw when he rebounds. That guy will drop a sledgehammer. Chuck it at the remaining goon for a swift K.O. All of this simple and crunchy, and none of it mandatory.

Of course: none of this is going to matter if you’re turned off from the get-go. On the flip-side of the tough-but-fair caretaker analogy in the first paragraph, God Hand is a parent who’s willing to read the same story over and over again to the demanding child. We’re just happy to be stuck in this perpetual, hellish heaven of punches and kicks – maybe. Again, this is one unapologetically “repetitive” game that’ll be a brawler until the day it dies. It isn’t about flipping itself upside down or donning different outfits – save for the end. I don’t really subscribe to Tim’s idea that it is the behavior of the best games to shapeshift prior to closure (Halo 3 becoming an off-road racer, for example), though God Hand seems to fit the bill if you do. Unlike Shinji Mikami’s Devil May Cry series, where white-haired punks regularly trash-talk monsters ten-times their size, God Hand’s bosses are pretty evenly scaled, even when considering the True Forms of various primary antagonists – until the final match, where it’s you versus a screen-hogging demon lord that might as well be called a malicious, sentient building.

Yet there’s so much to be said about how the game combines its primary mechanic with secondary actions, like how Gears of War 2 combines “shooting” with “doing stuff.” While one stage will have you contending with short bursts of enemies as a malevolent, two-armed crane pivots around the center of the area, slamming and scooping up anything that gets below its shovel’s shadow, another has you fighting a string of robots and maneuvering around mechanical presses, in the vein of Streets of Rage, while another has you go through a short tunnel containing two guys and a gal, exposed to a duo that’s sniping at you with knives atop an arch – potentially. The “potentially,” here, is the most intriguing thing; barring the last example, since enemies’ attacks can’t hurt other enemies (except for the “heavy” types’ body torpedo, the rockets an advanced “heavy” type shoots, and the fireballs flung by the Basic Demon), the environmental hazards have no sense of loyalty – it’s possible that you’ll want to position yourself under the crane or those presses, and then backflip at the last second, so that the enemies running up to you will be hit instead. Or, you can first focus your attack on the objects if you prefer a sequenced approach. To return to the “knife sniper” example, maybe you’ll just have it in you to lead those enemies in the tunnel along as you make your way up a staircase for the knife snipers themselves – though, you’ll also have to deal with the group of enemies atop the building, in addition to the people now trailing you. Every one of these routes is satisfying. Another stage, early on, shows a group of thugs lighting fuses connected to a pack of fireworks, itself attached to the civilian. Thus, the challenge becomes to stomp out the fuses – which are continually relit by the thugs – and to get rid of the enemies. This plays into the game’s sense of pacing, which is very nearly, for lack of a better word, perfect (barring a couple of odd decisions, where a stage will be a straight-shot to the next point – yet you’ll be returned to the map screen; this is, though, a mostly invisible complaint). When one stage – a floating pyramid in the air – has you deal with three increasingly tough and numerous waves of opponents, topping it off with a samurai-sword-wielding asshole, it’ll back off after your victory and shrink the scale down to the singularity of a concentrated (but tough) boss fight.

A “gameplay demo” was recently released on the Internet exhibiting the start to Bioshock 2 — Big Daddy avatar on a ledge, overlooking a group of enemies below. The person playing as the Big Daddy leaps from its spot and rams his drill arm into the nearest enemy. The nearest enemy has a life bar. It dies in one hit. The Big Daddy turns around and does the same thing to the enemy behind him. There’s a guy standing on a platform. The Big Daddy lifts his left hand up and shoots a torrent of fire out of his fingertips, killing the enemy. Then, he uses his drill arm to fire some bullet rounds at the last enemy that’s lurking in a nearby hallway. The narrator begins narrating again. I’m mentioning all of this because it is absolutely not worth mentioning, if you know what I mean. Whatever you do in God Hand is born out of an intuitive necessity that’s brought on by the context of the fight. Enemies have life bars because it’s relevant to how you might conserve your special moves, and just how you combatively behave in general. If there’s an enemy with a “short” life bar remaining before an incoming tougher wave, and if you’re relying on your God Hand (this game’s “Devil Trigger”: attack enemies to build up a golden bar which, when used, makes your attacks stronger, and makes you invincible, for a short period of time), you might find it within your interests to taunt for a bit – this builds up your God Bar – before going in for the kill. The variety of linkable attacks in the game exist to suit the wants of a player according to the way they see the problem as approachable — not because someone thought, “Well, they might get bored using X, so let’s throw in a Y.” It is a god-damned achievement of the human spirit that one can go through the entirety of God Hand with such a small selection of moves and be engaged the whole way. In Bioshock 2, which will at least win an award for Most Static Sea Vegetation Ever, options exist on the assumption that video games should be like the friend who can do two-hundred vocal impressions, and do none of them well. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Generation Mediocre.



God Hand could have saved us all, but it can still save you and me from the filth of this world. This is the only video game I still play with any constancy. The “love note” analogy might get used a bit too much, but that’s what God Hand is — an acknowledgment and celebration of its ancestors, but not to the point where that love blinds it. It’s a considered, good-humored love that realizes, perhaps with a bit of illogical fondness, most Beat ’em Ups existed the way they did to consume the money of children that was acquired through intense begging, and realizes that it can do things much better, and does. The weirdness that appears to be inherently invested in the thing — levels progressing from a theme park, to the insides of a giant, robot crab, to caves going through a mountainous region (and then your return to the normalcy of a hotel room after completing each) — in addition to the sexism and homophobia, might as well be a straight-faced fact of the game’s life, rather than overt humor. One night, alone, I broke open a crate and grabbed a huge floating orange to refill my health, causing my avatar to say, “Awesome!”, and I began to laugh; I can’t even begin to articulate why. Yes, you will die a lot. You will die a lot. You will die a lot. Though, for whatever “advances” that’ve been made in hiding or lessening the Game Over nowadays, there is a clearheaded cleanliness about failing for a moment in God Hand and having “Retry? Yes / No” appear, glowing, in the corner of a black screen, and getting right back up — and then about doing a flawless run-through of the stage, and having that wonderful feeling swell up in your chest: Accomplishment. I don’t give a stuff if “accomplishment” is “just” an abstract term in video games; it seems to me inarguable that are levels to that abstraction which hold more emotional weight and release, and, hell, so much of a life is built on abstractions, anyway. Let’s celebrate the pureness of victory that comes through persevering in God Hand.

–Ario Barzan


23 Responses to god hand

  1. Pingback: Journal Club: Action Button’s Four God Hands | Ludonarrative Dissidence

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