Last Updated on July 13, 2019
Picture this: a young lad who grew up playing beat-‘em-ups in arcades who then progressed to playing beat-‘em-ups on the Sega Genesis. Ninja Turtles, X-Men, Streets of Rage, Final Fight, Double Dragon, Golden Axe. The list goes on.
Now, fast forward to when arcades in America become blasé and played out, the only real attractions anymore being the new House of the Dead or Dance Dance Revolution.
This lad looked on with a sigh at the progress of games. Sure, some good came from it. He had found a love for home consoles and the exclusive, non-allowance-draining experience of a game which wasn’t built to kill him unfairly in order to force more tokens out of his pocket.
But still, an old charm was missing.
When the Sega Genesis was released with Streets of Rage 2, he had spent days on end playing it with his friends, getting the arcade experience once more, but this time at home, but his was just a brief respite from the dreary lack of high-octane challenges that to which he had become accustomed.
The PS1, N64, and Dreamcast generation of consoles had come and gone, and the next generation was here. Again however, these consoles failed to scratch that very specific itch of an old arcade gamer.
Then, one glorious day, he found a game at the video store. It was an odd-looking game. The cover was graphic and surreal but to the point. It featured a mohawked man with his mouth wide open in a scream as a fist was being punched into his mouth and out the back of his head.
The boy was intrigued and decided to give the game a try to see what he was in for. Using the few dollars from his allowance for the rental, he returned home, popped the game into his PS2, and began the experience.
His eyes widened. He pushed the buttons he was instructed to, began learning the controls, and realized it was finally another beat-‘em-up! A 3D beat-’em-up at that! For the PS2!
That game was called God Hand.
To the uninitiated, a beat-‘em-up might not seem distinct from your generic action game, such as Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, and Ninja Gaiden.
But that’s where you’d be wrong. A beat-’em-up is a style all its own, with its own gameplay.
While an action game throws enemies at you, and your goal is to kill them as stylishly as you’d like with jumping, flipping, and juggling, the enemies in these games aren’t built the same. In a beat-‘em-up, every single enemy has the potential to kill you if you don’t treat them seriously.
Stand still for a moment in Devil May Cry when you encounter your first enemies, the puppets. They’re essentially punching bags given to you so that you can learn the controls
Compare and contrast this to the first stage of God Hand, where you’re thrown against enemies who already know how to combo you. They surround you and fight you all at once. You can’t block; you can only dodge, and some dodges don’t work for some attacks. You can be grappled and you can be killed immediately because every enemy is its own individual challenge.
The difference between an action game and a beat-’em-up is an action game’s challenge lies in a room full of enemies. A beat-’em-up’s challenge is every individual enemy.
God Hand is an unremarkable game in many ways. The graphics are average. The animations are pretty, but not wholly impressive. The voice acting is 80’s action movie cheesy. The story is bland at best and hilariously convoluted at worst.
But it’s one of the best games to have ever come out for the Playstation 2.
Before God Hand, the concept of a 3D brawler was unthinkable.
Why? Because the enemies must each be a challenge. So if we have a 3D brawler, especially one where the camera is always pointed at your character’s back, it would theoretically be a terrible idea. You would have to keep track of all the enemies around you, and you can’t see the whole battlefield. Therefore, you can’t see all the enemies, and controlling the battlefield becomes incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
So how does God Hand get around this? For one, you can turn the camera 180 degrees instantly with the press of a button, allowing you to keep an eye on what’s going on around you fairly easily. That’s not all, however.
The game has an extremely intricate method of difficulty. When you start a new game, the game asks if you would like to start on easy or normal difficulty. The main character, Gene, becomes slightly snarky if you choose easy, “What, do I gotta hold your hand for you?”
In all honesty, normal is all you need to play because the difficulty isn’t based on your decision here, it’s based on your performance in the game. The difficulty goes thus: Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, and Level Die.
The better you perform in the game, the higher your level. The worse you perform, the lower your level. The game adjusts itself to your skill level constantly, and you can even decrease the level manually by using one of your Roulette moves, Grovel.
At Level 1, the enemies will never attack you when you can’t see them. Most of the time, you’ll be able to fight enemies one-on-one without having to worry about their friends, so long as you keep the camera off of them. They also rarely block, and when they do, it’s easy to break with a Guard Break.
At Level 2, enemies won’t mind taking you on two-on-one. Still, they’re relatively slower, their attacks are somewhat easy to see coming, and they don’t do much damage. They block more often, but their blocks are still pretty easy to break.
At level 3, enemies start to team up on you and do much more damage. They don’t mind being rather rude and will hit you when you can’t see them. You’ll have to be more aware of your surroundings and dodge frequently. Blocking is somewhat frequent, and if you don’t react quickly, they’ll counter you.
At Level Die, things really ramp up. Every enemy is 100% faster, their hits do double the damage, and they block your attacks far more often. If they aren’t caught immediately, they’ll counter you.
Is there a purpose to these different levels outside of difficulty? Of course! High risk, high reward. At the end of every stage, the more enemies you beat at higher levels, the more gold you get to purchase different attacks, HP, and Power Upgrades, basically everything that makes the game more intricate.
A game that tailors its difficulty to the performance of the player was a novel concept, especially at the time. The game also gives you the tools to overcome any challenge without having to buy any additional attacks, techniques, or power-ups. You can dodge any and all attacks, provided your reflexes are good enough.
You already have the damage output to handle anything in the game. You have the tools to win at the beginning, and everything you get to increase your damage output, powers, HP, etc. only serves to make the game more manageable, varied, and enjoyable.
You start off with a very basic combo: a jab into a straight into a left hook into a short uppercut. From there, you can purchase several other attacks that you can mix and match according to your preference. Every time you finish a stage, you unlock more attacks that you can add to your repertoire, customizing your own unique combo that suits your style of play.
I enjoy semi-quick attacks that do medium levels of damage, but maybe you’re the type of person who likes to whittle away at enemy HP with attacks that hit multiple times? A Mach Jab that hits 5 times into a Chin Music that hits twice into a Gene Combo that hits 3 times into an Elbow Vortex that hits 3 times? Bam. It’s got all you need and more.
Or maybe you just want the most amount of damage possible per hit? If you can get your rhythm down well enough, you can manage slow but powerful hits, doing immense damage and killing some enemies in a mere 2 rounds of a combo. Rewarding, if done right.
Like juggling enemies? There are entire combos for that. Need an attack to launch enemies away from you so you can focus on someone else? Big charge-up attacks are built literally just for that.
The game’s difficulty is versatile and molds to you like a memory foam mattress, and the game’s mechanics are customizable to such an extent that, no matter how you like to beat your enemies, you can do so.
So why wasn’t this game a huge hit?
It’s simple: game reviewers.
Here’s an excerpt from IGN’s review of God Hand when it came out: “The game practically encourages button mashing, enemies are extremely generic, the level layout is very uninspired, the dialog and jokes are poorly written and delivered, and most of all, much of the control and gameplay mechanics are so old-school it hurts.”
Let’s figure out why this statement is wrong.
Does the game encourage button mashing? No. The basic combo chain is done by hitting square. That’s it. If you hit square all the time, though, enemies will defend against your attacks, knock you back, and smack you upside the head. You need to predict when the enemy will defend your attack, and do a Guard Break at that moment, and that moment becomes harder to track the higher your difficulty level.
Furthermore, your square attacks do the least amount of damage. Relying on them will make the game tedious because you’ll be bee stinging enemies to death for way too long.
The game punishes you for focusing too much on the simplest solutions to overcoming your enemies. It encourages you to learn how to juggle by giving you a very powerful attack called a charged uppercut from the beginning. Charging this attack up all the way does as much damage as your basic combo done twice, but the charge up takes a while. You should try and knock down an opponent or stagger them or predict when they’ll enter your reach.
There are also slow but hard-hitting attacks like the Barrel Kick which require you to time a launch attack so that it can do loads of damage, as well as get some opponents away from you to give you some breathing room.
If you don’t attack correctly, the game will punish you harshly.
Button mashing? Hardly.
You start off fighting a couple thugs, then fight a roly-poly guy who flies through the air like a bullet trying to headbutt your gut. Sometimes when you kill an enemy, they turn into one of several different Devils that are essentially super-hard enemies that teleport around the battlefield. You fight guys who throw their mohawks at you, dominatrix kunoichis with whips, clown women with spinning top hats, and that’s just a few of the regular enemies.
Of the bosses, you fight a Mexican Elvis Presley, a nymphomaniac blonde woman with a wand that turns you into a puppy, a guy in a giant gorilla suit that fights like a luchador, five people dressed like Kamen Rider/Super Sentais/Viewtiful Joe that call themselves the Mad Midget Five, and many more.
I’ve never had a more diverse and entertaining group of enemies to beat.
Uninspired Level Layout?
Every level has areas that you don’t have to go through in order to reach the end, but that are rewarding to find. From a purely aesthetic perspective, the design of the levels is more varied than any other game.
You start off in an Old West-style area, bash your way through a luxurious mansion, kick your way through a circus that emphasizes BDSM aesthetics, then you move on to a post-apocalyptic hellscape, a graveyard, and a mountain-sized mechanical crab fortress.
These levels are anything but uninspired. I’d say the designers probably had to be on drugs to come up with the sheer amount of creativity on display in these levels.
Poorly-Written and Delivered Dialogue/Jokes?
No way? Really? Imagine the mere notion of a game that’s mostly centered around comedy, especially cheesy 80’s action film style comedy, that is meant as a satirical take on action games in general, having poorly written and delivered dialog and jokes. It couldn’t possibly be that the cheesy groan-worthy delivery of the equally cheesy groan-worthy lines was intentional so as to further their satirical point.
In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m being sarcastic.
Painfully Old-School Controls/Gameplay?
I mean…see the entire first part of this article?
Game reviewers just didn’t “get” God Hand. They didn’t understand how to play it. More precisely, they didn’t take the time to understand how to play it. On some level, I can sympathize. Reviewers only get a few hours to try out a game before they have to write up a review, and they get so many games that they can’t really be bothered to go in-depth into each and every one.
But this was Clover Studios. Now defunct, Clover was responsible for some of the most enjoyable games of the time. The Viewtiful Joe and Okami series’ alone were, uh, what some might call art. I think they deserved a bit more thoughtfulness than this bare bones, incredibly superficial, incredibly unfair take.
Thankfully, reviews don’t have nearly the effect on public consumption that they used to, with the most recent surveys showing a 3% influence rate among consumers. Back in 2006 however, there really were only two ways to figure out if a game was worth a damn. Either your friends bought and played it, or you read magazine or online reviews. IGN gave God Hand a 2/10. TWO OUT OF TEN. One of the lowest ratings in their history.
The worst part is that they weren’t alone. Other game reviewers basically regurgitated the same nonsense, but IGN was the harshest critic.
Still, I’m not the first person to point this out. You can find the occasional article or video out there that talks about how unfairly IGN treated God Hand, and about how God Hand was a good game and people didn’t give it a shot.
I’m writing this because I have a moral duty to do so. When good art is created, it needs to be shared. Clover Studios is long gone, so the likelihood of getting a God Hand 2 is probably gone forever.
Please, if you read this: give God Hand its due.