The first time you play God Hand, you will either hate it or think it's 'okay'. The second time you play it, you will probably have a similar opinion. Somewhere between the second or third time you experience the game, however, a switch will flip in your brain and you'll need to cope with a disturbing reality: As an opportunity to press buttons and see things occur on a screen, this game is perfect. On every other level, it's an indecent example of everything shameful about video games.
Oh well, you can't win 'em all.
What is God Hand?
God Hand is the clearest look at what's happening inside the mind of game director Shinji Mikami, who also fathered Resident Evil. Unsurprisingly, it is totally insane. Legend has it the game's design document consisted of two raised fists drawn on the back of a napkin. On its surface, this is a game about punching people in the face. At its core, this is a game about punching people in the face as hard as you can.
It did not sell well.
Okay, but what is it
Basically, it's a fighting game, but the camera is rotated 45 degrees so it sits directly behind and slightly above your character's shoulders. You manipulate the joysticks to move that character (his name is 'Gene') through a series of levels populated by murderous people and a slightly smaller number of murderous demons. Gene possesses the 'God Hand', a super-powered arm that makes him very good at punching things that want to murder him. The face buttons on the PlayStation controller cause Gene to punch and kick, and you can change which button corresponds to a specific punch or kick by pausing the game and screwing around in the menus.
Over time you earn new moves and assign those to the controller's buttons in a way that suits your personal play style. Each of the game's enemies features a specific moveset, and it's your job to observe how they fight and then use the tools are your disposal to systematically take them out.
Whenever people talk about God Hand, they talk about the way you can customize all of your moves, and it is a cool and nearly unique part of the game. But all the focus on that mechanic obscures the essential truth that makes God Hand so special: Even if you removed the ability to customize your moveset and build unique combinations of punches and kicks, the core action of pressing a button and watching an enemy react to your character would still outstrip practically every other game in existence. Remapping the buttons just makes it easier to complete the moves your thumbs find most satisfying.
About the punching
It's incredible. Really, truly, shockingly great. Kicking opponents is pretty enjoyable, but for a quick hit of endorphins, nothing matches putting Gene's fist against an enemy's jaw. Many things make the punching in this game staggeringly perfect, and I don't have the technical knowledge to identify them all. Everything coalesces to make this game the most responsive thing you can put on your TV.
When you press a button Gene immediately takes action with a big exaggerated movement. He probably grunts or groans, his fist makes a 'whooshing' sound as it goes through the air, and even before your finger has left the button it's clear whether or not you picked the right move because you've already heard the sound Gene's fist made when it hit the enemy. Blocked attacks land with a thud while a successful swing elicits yowls of pain and broad reaction animations that leave no doubt you connected.
Modern games are rarely this sharp, and older games are rarely this polished. This game is a decorative butterfly knife that's illegal in most states but too pretty not to keep in your collection. God Hand's devotion to being itself and providing you with the most appropriate tools for its mechanics can be off-putting: The camera feels clumsy at first and the game does not suffer fools. You must learn to use the camera because this is a game about observation. Every animation and sound effect is built to reveal an enemy's weakness or a quirk of your own moveset. Using the camera correctly puts you in a position to see what your enemies are doing, and once you see their patterns, you can capitalize on their mistakes.
Oh, the places you'll punch
God Hand is presented as a journey through several different locales, which are textured to look like, in no particular order, an Old West town, a carnival, a medieval battlefield, a different Old West Town, ancient Egypt, and The Future. I'm probably forgetting at least three environments, but that doesn't matter because their appearance is totally meaningless in the context of the game. They look like 'places' because they have to look like 'something', but the truth is they're a series of three dimensional boxes of varying sizes that provide a visually interesting environment for fighting.
With rare exception, the enemies in an area are a more concrete sort of 'level design' than the environment itself. The game has a consistent pattern in which it will show you a single enemy in isolation before shuffling that opponent and other foes you've seen before into groups of varying size. These groups are level design in the same way that a particularly devilish series of platforms in Super Mario are level design. The game is about moving forward through an environment, and because the actual environment is little more than open space, the enemies are the element that prevents your progress.
Honestly, I'm consistently surprised by the stylistic variety in the game's levels. It's completely unnecessary and yet it provides a sense of movement. Make no mistake, I'd play this game forever if it only contained the drab cave environments that crop up about halfway through the campaign. The environments don't matter, and the journey between them makes no linear sense, but the mere fact that they change indicates just how much effort went into this tremendously stupid game. The people who make this are the smartest idiots you know. And that's kind of the problem.
In 2010, Mikami gave an interview to Edge magazine and said of God Hand, "I was given too much freedom to make that game just as I liked...It didn't sell too well." Here is where the good vibes provided by playing God Hand start to conflict with the sad reality of loving God Hand. With the freedom provided him, Mikami made a game that is unambiguously retrograde and bigoted. For a moment, forget everything I wrote above (or remember it and feel bad) and consider that this is a game where
- Progression is rewarded with photos of Gene's girlfriend in various scenarios. Some of these scenes involve taking a bath and being asleep.
- The first boss enemy you encounter is a pair of gay men who want to have their way with the protagonist.
- Anyone who isn't white is a stereotype.
This is just a taste of the unpleasant stuff in this game; basically every cutscene that pops up between levels features something objectionable, and anyone with a shred of decency will be tweaked by the fact that while certain moves provide the chance to 'pummel' male opponents, those same actions result in the opportunity to 'spank' female foes.
And so God Hand is the worst. It's the worst both because so much of the content is gross and because it's overwhelming quality in every other arena forces you to reckon with its bigotry. I'm not proud of liking God Hand, it reminds me that video games remain a cultural gutter where people like PewDiePie become king, but the fact is every other game would be improved if the designers incorporated elements of God Hand's serrated gameplay.
The Devil Hand
At the start of this piece I said you wouldn't like God Hand during your first play session and I stand by that. What I didn't say is that you'll keep hating parts of it even as you return to it for hundreds of hours over a number of years. This is a game that's too full of itself, too confident in its own sense of humor, and too myopically oblivious to everything but itself. Its worldview is the worst, and it can't be defended. But the sad truth is that I will always play this game. I regularly regret using time to play other games because I could have played God Hand.
I don't think I'll live to see someone make a better game, though I wish more people would try. I want a version of this game that welcomes everyone. As it stands, God Hand is the best, it is the worst, it is too much freedom, and it is not enough. ★