It makes sense to start a retrospective of God Hand with the E3 trailer, since that was half the fun.
In the summer of 2006, when this trailer was released, it effortlessly raised eyebrows across the entire games press. We had no idea what to make of it, except that we probably should be making something from it because it was from Clover, developers of Viewtiful Joe and Okami. Both the dance in the trailer and the phrase, "It's a ball-bustingly hard game / But a fair game" became memes among my friends straight away, and I kept thinking back to that bit where the protagonist kicks a guy into the sun.
Then God Hand surprised everyone by actually coming out. More eyebrows were raised first by reviewers, then gamers. Then IGN gave the game 3.0 out of 10, causing even more eyebrows to pop up across the industry like stray dirt blown upwards by a landmine. Even now eyebrows bounce when anyone who played God Hand remembers the thing.
This is how we gamers react when a game doesn't take itself seriously. We have absolutely no idea what's going on. We become a gaggle of pillheads at a rave, half of us leaping around and dribbling in excitement while the other half search for a quiet corner to wait for it all to end. It's embarrassing.
God Hand was, and is, more than just a 'funny' game. It's important to make the distinction between a game not taking itself seriously and a game that tries to be jokey and adopt a laissez-faire tone to show that it's a casual cavalcade of laughs. Not taking yourself seriously isn't about having a sense of humour or being relaxed, it's about not giving a shit. It's about having a sense of humour and not caring if people find you funny. It's about being relaxed and not caring if people think you're a waster. And in the case of our industry, it's about putting the enjoyment of the developers on a par with the enjoyment of the players.
Where God Hand gets its cult status is in both having this attitude and actually being a good game. As a third person fighter God Hand is tight in a way I'm sure plenty of developers lack the innate talent to achieve, and the ridiculous difficulties available once you've finished the game reveal the robustness of the mechanics. Better than this, God Hand manages the trick of never once letting you slip into unthinking routine, endeavoring and succeeding to be ceaselessly engaging. Even when taking on the weakest enemy the moment you stop paying attention is the moment you get panned, and that's something even God of War or some of the finest scrolling fighters don't manage.
The point is, the fighting is transparently excellent and the few journalists who failed to see that because they were incapable of seeing through the jokes should be pilloried and give up their jobs, whether they reviewed this game or not. I'm serious. If you genuinely can't see through comedy and (admittedly confusing and potentially non-existent) Japanese irony when it comes to judging a game then you're an acne pimple on the face of this hobby; you're one of the anxiety issues slowing this teenage industry as it wades towards adulthood.
So, that setting. To anyone who didn't play God Hand (and you should, because it has aged well) the game takes place in the future. Or possibly doesn't. And it's the apocalypse, or maybe it isn't. And you play a guy called Gene who is actually definitely called Gene who has his arm cut off in a flashback but has it replaced with a hand of God! Or a God Hand! Or... Something! And you have a nemesis called Devil Hand but all this hand stuff is really confusing because it's actually entire arms you guys have. Anyway, you can both punch and kick things very hard and very fast. With both hands. Or arms.
What do you punch? Oh, this and that. Fat men. Skinny men. Hot girls with whips. Hot robot girls. Seven-foot-tall punks, and then later on seven-foot-tall punks who throw their Mohawks at you then grow them back in a flash of light. Rock musicians. Midgets. Clowns. Gorillas. Japanese samurai master stereotypes. Offensive Japanese gay stereotypes. Tiger Joe. Who is Tiger Joe? Who can say. Who can truly understand the mystery that is Tiger Joe?
But you fight them all. And you really fight. Gritted teeth, sweaty palms, wincing at every blow you take. Because it's a hard game, a ball-bustingly hard game, but a fair game.
The overwhelming agreement when God Hand came out was that it was a funny but cruel game, which is a statement like a completed jigsaw puzzle with all the edge pieces missing. Here's the finished thing: Yes, God Hand is a funny game that you laugh at, but it's a funny game because it's always making fun of you.
Everyone talks about the level gauge, how doing well in God Hand unavoidably racks up the difficulty through levels 1, 2 3 and DIE, netting you more money but making playing the game like being sat on a sled that's gaining lethal momentum. But I prefer the example of the demon on the first level. Scattered throughout God Hand are certain perfectly ordinary fodder enemies whom killing causes the music to stop, the sky to turn dark blue, a peal of thunder to echo around the level and the spawning of a terrible, spiny, lightning-fast demon with a massive health bar which will slaughter you unless you've got what it takes to bring it down.
There is no explanation for these terrifying things and they show up quite rarely. But Clover chose to put one in the first level. More than that, they put one in the first five minutes, and I have yet to see anyone playing that first level for the first time survive it. You're trundling along still learning or remembering the controls and this thing bursts out of the ground and savages you to death with ten elongated razor-sharp fingers. It's horrible and hilarious because for once the joke is on us.
To understand God Hand you need to imagine the designers at Clover giggling like idiots at the decision to do this. They were imagining the tens of thousands of gamers that'd have fun beating up that nobody and then the terror on their faces as the plinky guitar soundtrack faded away and a creature from their nightmares was revealed. Maybe they were imagining some players running. I'm sure some did.
Bad game design? Well, yes. But as we've already established, God Hand didn't give a shit. There's enough brilliant design in the game's combat to prove the team knew exactly what they were doing, they just didn't care. It's therefore arguable that Clover wouldn't have produced God Hand if they hadn't known they were going under.
Isn't that a nice thought? It's enough to bring tears to your eyes. Or maybe that's all the kicks to the balls.
In any case, Clover is dead, long live Clover. Owners of God Hand! Let's make a ceremony out of this. I'm going to dig it out, start a new game, and see if I can beat the demon first time around. You should, too.