Genre: Scrolling Fighter
Format reviewed: PlayStation 2
Developer: Clover Studio
How Clover Studios reinvented the scrolling fighter
When a world-renowned game designer – one whose last project is widely credited as one of the greatest titles ever created – steps outside of his comfort zone to make a 3D update of the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up, the results of that kind of stylistic switch are always going to be fascinating. Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil who reinvented the franchise (and the third-person shooter) with its fourth instalment, next directed something that couldn’t be further removed from survival horror.
God Hand was a beat-‘em-up put together by the Capcom veterans at subsidiary Clover Studio, which became notorious due to its much-loved but poor-selling softography. Rather than making it straight-faced as convention usually dictates, though, Mikami opted to lace the cut-scenes, combos and setting of the game with a freakish array of funny touches, ranging from Quick-Time Event arse spankings to a poison Chihuahua.
The title turned out to be a commercial bomb and Clover was shut just months after its release. From that gesture of closing a studio whose very name was a portmanteau of ‘Creativity Lover’, Capcom veered towards the often flavourless pro-Western design philosophies that dog its current output. The spirit of Clover Studio lives on in Platinum Games, of course, yet it’s unlikely anything as bizarre or brave as God Hand will ever emerge again. It was a product of its time and the experimental mindset of its creator.
God Hand is more than just a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up – it’s an invisible RPG; one of the most customisable action experiences released on a mainstream console. A lot of this is easy to miss upon first putting the game on, yet anyone who sticks with it and explores the content outside of the levels will discover that there are in fact hundreds of entertaining and energetic combinations.
The game’s most ingenious stroke isn’t immediately obvious: the combos in God Hand are entirely customisable. Every button command can be adjusted to your liking, so if you want your basic square combo to be composed entirely of power moves or karate chops, it can be. Using this system, players can adapt to the challenging mechanics of the game in any way they see fit, as new moves are dotted around the game world and can be purchased in between levels. The idea that the entire pace of the fighting can be adjusted completely on the fly is what made God Hand such a revelation to hardcore players – no game of this genre has ever been so ambitious in the way it opens up its mechanics, while hours upon hours can be wasted in tweaking the system perfectly. It’s possible to juggle enemies without ever taking a hit.
That’s for the very best players, though – a striking part of God Hand’s appeal is its difficulty, which is prohibitive to most players and somehow pleasingly elitist. Everyone can complete it, really, since there’s nothing particularly complex at work in terms of interface, nor does anything require grinding to level-up. When those enemies hit, though, they hit bloody hard. Even on Easy, God Hand is punishing.
But you endure it. Why? Well, the story is utterly bonkers and it’s hard not to be sucked into its whirlwind of unbridled lunacy, from boss fights with the large, chain-smoking maniac Elvis or a stand-off with the inexplicable Power Rangers parody group the ‘Mad Midget Five’ (the game’s words, not ours). There’s a sense that a lot of the humour comes from the translation, yet a lot of it is also intentional – none of Mikami’s games have ever translated
like this. There’s a buoyant rawness to the tone of God Hand, as if the designers didn’t worry about anything but giving everyone who plays it a silly, great time.
There’s also an entire economy sub-game hidden away, as well. Hitting the casino in the breaks between areas lets players gamble their precious gold away. Simply put, there’s so much game in God Hand that it’s almost overstuffed – but it’s really easy to manage and a lot of it is tucked away beneath the funny cut-scenes and bullock-smashing attacks. There’s no better tribute to the hardcore gamer on the PlayStation 2.
Why It’s A Future Classic
There was nothing like God Hand before and there never will be anything like it again – the mixture of humour and the depth of its combat made it among those few games that marked Capcom at the pinnacle of its creative power, alongside Devil May Cry 3, Okami and Resident Evil 4.
God Hand was, in some ways, a throwback, yet it had enough depth to feel contemporary and generous helpings of leftfield humour to ensure it left a mark on the audience that found it. The timing of its release led many to conclude that the game sealed Clover’s fate. If, indeed, God Hand was partly responsible for the demise of one of the most exciting studios to ever emerge out of Japan, at the very least Mikami and company went out fighting.
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