We all do it (don't we?): Buy video games we don't need because they're on offer, because we've read that they're absolutely essential additions to our collections. We'll get around to them, sometime. The "classics", so called. Your Final Fantasy VIIs, your Half-Life 2s. Your Chrono Triggers and Ocarina of Times. And God Hand? Ask the right people—or the wrong ones, depending on your perspective—and yes, God Hand is on that list, too.
I bought God Hand, I guess, six or seven years ago. I didn't get it on release—the PlayStation 2 exclusive launched in Japan in September 2006, came to the States a month later, and the UK in February 2007—because I only got a PS2 fairly late in its lifecycle, after the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were doing the numbers.
Once I had Sony's biggest-selling system to date, though, I greedily accumulated the games I thought I needed. Some I even played: Shadow of the Colossus, Gitaroo Man, Rez, GTA: San Andreas. But God Hand, for whatever reason, remained acquired but unloved, at the back of the cupboard beside that Christmas gift copy of Too Human. What company to keep.
Seeing its tenth anniversary coming up—and knowing all about the wildly varied reviews from the time, ranging from an infamous IGN 3/10 to the BBC TV show VideoGaiden's claim that it's one of the best games ever—encouraged me to dust it off. The final project of Capcom subsidiary Clover Studio—which officially closed in March 2007 only to be "reborn" as PlatinumGames—is supposed to be knuckles-bleedingly rock hard, so I opted for an "easy" mode slap-about for an hour or so, to see if I'd get sweaty.
And I did, just a bit, even on the game's lowest difficulty—because every one of the game's enemies, even the gruntiest of goons, can dish out telling damage if you're not quick with a right-stick flick. And I cackled, too, and cursed, because God Hand is both an innovative game even when played today, and a (by modern standards) broken-feeling beat 'em up that can easily drive you up the walls. Not that you'll always see them, the walls that is—they tend to disappear completely when protagonist Gene is too close to them and the camera's positioned just right/wrong.
There's a whole bunch of things that Don't Quite Work here—and I appreciate how the game's age is a factor in its general presentation, but that the camera is a constant chore to keep on top of, with two analogue sticks available on the DualShock 2, is initially maddening. The right stick dodges left and right and backflips, so it's with the left that you need to both position Gene and keep track of the surrounding faces he's supposed to be pummeling. Pushing up steps forward, obviously; but there's a Resident Evil-like tank controls thing going on when you try to turn around. And that takes practice, to say the least, especially when the bad guys are swarming and your health is precariously slight.
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God Hand is entirely fighting focused—that is all there is to it, save for between-level breaks to shop for new techniques or visit a casino to make money (or, if you're me and you've never understood poker, lose it). So that the game makes it so damn fiddly to line a boot up with an enemy's supposed-to-be-broken jaw is just, what kind of design is this?
But then you get it. I get it. I actually like how God Hand makes you work, really work, to get the most out of its combat, even if I'm not so hot at it. It's intriguing design, a very deliberate choice—it's supposed to feel awkward in your hands, like no other fighting game. Gene—the titular God Hand is actually his whole right arm, which has magical powers and can be charged up to dish out incredible damage—can be quickly torn apart by any level of enemy, if you're not sharp on the sticks and quick on the buttons. And because the control scheme is so unusual, it keeps you frosty. Mapping new techniques into the combos is fun, and even when you're larking about on the game's easiest difficulty, there's still a challenge here. As evidenced when its first sub-bosses, a pair by the names of Mr. Gold and Mr. Silver, cause me to select continue for the first time.
The battle with Mr Gold and Mr Silver
But Mr. Gold and Mr. Silver also give me pause for thought, just a moment to ask myself: How would this go down in a game released today? The tone has already swung from genuinely laugh-out-loud outré to kinda, sorta, basically not okay (uh, the camera lingering on Gene's companion Olivia's bottom and chest, uh). When Gene comes up against a pair of bosses that the unofficial Capcom Database describes as "homosexual identical twins" dressed "in bizarre, flamboyant Las Vegas-style costumes," he chides them: He's "not that kinda guy." The pair attacks Gene with their butts, not even kidding. Like, they thrust towards him with them. Once you've knocked them out, you can press circle to check their prone bodies. "Doesn't look like he was packing much heat," our hero observes when looking at Mr Silver; "Must have lost his balls in the war."
This questionable taste extends to a cutscene with an antagonist barely covering her modesty with the sort of "armor" that is built for the viewer's eyes, not the character's defense. She's evidently designed to titillate, and shamelessly so. (Looking ahead online, because I can't help spoiling stuff for myself, she's later encountered spinning around a piece of scaffolding like it's a dancing pole, while Gene calls her a bitch. Lovely.) I'm no further, yet, than Gene's face-off with the first major boss, a cigar-puffing, club-owning giant by the name of Elvis—but I'm debating whether or not to go on.
God Hand has me torn right down the middle: It's got quirky stuff going on that I like, such as a poison Chihuahua because why not, and apparently there's a lucha libre gorilla later on (which I badly want to see, and punch, repeatedly). The leveling system is fascinating: Gene will go up from level one to two, and three, and finally "level DIE" based on how well you're playing, and enemies then level up with him. Likewise, if you're sucking, that level will drop back down with a depressing thud. It's an effective motivational system, dynamically altering the game before your eyes.
But Gene is so unlikeable as a leading man. And while there's unquestionable quality in the game's credits—director Shinji Mikami was fresh off RE4 and would soon steer Vanquish towards excellence; while producer (and Clover CEO) Atsushi Inaba has Bayonetta 2, Ōkami and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance to his name—God Hand is a confused sum of its parts, rather than a coherent something more.
So you tell me, God Hand advocates: Do I stick, or do I twist? I really admire the game's dogged determination to be quite unlike anything before or after it, although there's a violent spirit to it that definitely carried over into Platinum's Inaba-guided Wii-exclusive MadWorld. I like rather less its forced-feeling "wackiness", which blows both enticingly hot and uncomfortably cold—which I know is a big part of the appeal, but seen through 2016 eyes, there's already been enough on screen for me to think: pass. But will I be missing out if I return the game to the cupboard of shame? I'm leaving it, and the PS2, out for now—it's a trip hazard in front of the TV, but you can't miss it when it's on (and you thought your PS4 was loud?). And at the very least, while it's out, I can celebrate Ico's 15th anniversary (wow) by playing it again on the original hardware.
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