In the mid-nineties I had a unique problem when it came to television and video games. As I punched away at Ken in Street Fighter II or tapped my foot along with the mechanical whirls, beeps, and slides making up the soundtrack for Phantasy Star IV, a curious phenomenon took hold of my body. Without knowing, I rose from my seat at the edge of the bunk bed I shared with my sibling (bottom bunk, because I wasn't the 'cool' one) and stepped toward the thirteen-channel tube. I would stand there, gazing into worlds of vibrant colors as heroes danced with villains to an eventual defeat.
Trapped in the allure, it took a concerned mother to snap me out of this daze, wherein I would return to my place on the mattress. But like a heart beat or a sleeping breath, I would subconsciously rise and walk forward again, fully absorbed in the action on-screen.
I cannot explain why I did this. But I know, sitting here twenty and less years later, the Genesis cartridges were portals into realms enhanced by my childhood imagination.
Besides the aforementioned titles (and saving my favorite game of all time for another entry in this column), I played two Genesis games more than any other in my collection: Streets of Rage and Golden Axe. Both were sidescrolling beat-em-ups. Both featured narratives beaten in an afternoon. In Golden Axe, I could escape as a barbarian, an Amazonian, or a dwarf. In SoR, I could play as one of three cops looking to save their city. I loved these games so much because they were violence-fests, one-man showdowns against armies of punks or skeletons leading up to the final confrontation with their boss or dark lord.
I engrossed myself in the intricacies hidden in the characters' movesets. Adam from Streets had a killer high kick useful for pushing an entire group to the opposite side of the screen. If you stored up enough magic, Golden Axe's Amazonian could unleash the most powerful spell of the warriors trio. I memorized enemy attack patterns, learning when to counter attack and with what combo.
Beat-em-ups died quickly. When the console manufacturers moved onto 3D, when Sony entered the scene with the PlayStation, I lost access to my violent releases. I still played on, engaging with colorful characters in platformers, from Naughty Dog's Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped to Argonaut Games & Virtucraft ltd.'s Croc: Legend of the Gobbos.
But Crash didn't allow me to unload on waves of enemies. Ditto for Croc. When I picked up a handful of sports and racing titles, I stepped into them, but I did not care enough to tinker with the car parts of my Formula One in Andretti Racing.
Recently, I found the lull in my gaming sprees to pickup Hyrule Warriors, a Nintendo-version of the popular Dynasty Warriors games by Tecmo Koei, set in the The Legend of Zelda universe. It finally satisfies that feeling I got running pixelated fighters across enemy swarms. But I'm thinking more about another game these days. A true follow-up to the beloved series that groomed me, but with fully rendered 3D characters and far more content than was possible for ancient Genesis cartridges.
That game was God Hand. Developed by the legendary Clover Games, God Hand released in 2006 for the PlayStation 2 and flew so far under my radar that I didn't hear about the game until 2011. After hearing its name whispered in the most niche message boards like an unspeakable and glorious secret to the universe, I poured myself into YouTube videos looking for information. What I found was the most exciting purchase I would ever make. I ran immediately to my local GameStop for their last remaining copy.
God Hand was an abysmally low-selling game with an infamous IGN review giving it a 3 out of 10. I won't say that IGN killed interest in the title; instead, I think its odd Japanese humor and late release date (two months before the PlayStation 3) are responsible.
I feel bad for people who've missed it. God Hand is a game without equal, whose probability for a sequel is null. Platinum Games - the company formed by ex-Clover employees - produced two similar games in MadWorld and Anarchy Reigns (of which I'm a huge fan, even though the overall response was negative). But they failed to get that particular itch that God Hand has been so successful at scratching (imagery intended and I'm so sorry).
Those Genesis classics never had the capacity to allow much customization for your fighters. Dynasty Warriors and Anarchy Reigns offer up a multitude (upwards of fifteen!) unique fighters to play. Their input commands - moreso the former - may be similar, but their abilities combo differently or target a wider/shorter area. It gives a breath of fresh air to the same legions you'll face, but God Hand manages to beat them all in replayability.
The titular hero, Gene, is a bit of a clown and a show-boater. His moveset is reckless at times, more focused on spectacle over finesse. But as you play through the (weak) story, you have opportunities to unlock new attacks for him. Using a one-of-a-kind fighting system, God Hand presents players with four slots (with two upgrade slots) to place any move, be they purchased from the in-game store or discovered in chests across the stages. With each press of the Square button, Gene will begin the next attack, meaning you can start from a straight punch, continue on to an uppercut, to a roundhouse kick, and end with a soft left hook. Any of these moves can be interchanged, meaning you end up with either a series of blows like martial arts choreography or disjointed spasms of the arms and legs.
Other face buttons can be set to single moves. A standard setup I use for the game includes placing a guard breaker move on the Triangle button for quick access. But that could easily be set to a jab or barrel kick or the hilarious "Granny Smacker".
It's truly a shame that both MadWorld and Anarchy Reigns could pull influence from God Hand's design while leaving behind this feature.
The titular God Hand - a heavenly arm belonging to an ancient hero who fought the fallen angel Angra (yeah, I know, I know) - gifts Gene with two abilities: God Roulette and the God Hand itself. God Roulette is a list of special moves (that you can customize!) ranging from fastball pitches to nut shots to angry stomps. The God Hand, however, is a sort of "super" mode for Gene. As the player successfully lands hits on enemies or breaks through their guards, a Tension meter builds until Gene can unlock the full power of his right arm. In God Hand mode, attacks are devastating and the standard Square combo becomes a blur as Gene pummels his opponents into a dizzied stupor.
As Among Elusions' self-proclaimed writer, I cannot talk about a video game without feeling compelled to analyze its story. This is where God Hand suffers greatly, but the game was created to mimic the styles of classics a decade older than it. The game begins with an out-of-context cutscene and fills in the blanks as you progress. In fact, to get any sense of who Gene is and why he follows around a girl named Olivia, you have to read the manual. It's an obvious throwback to the "press start to play" arcade games of the nineties, but even for the release year of 2006 this choice seemed out of place, out of time.
Like most Clover joints, God Hand is funny and knows how to get the player chuckling. Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil fame directed this title, so you know from playing Resident Evil 4 what kind of dialogue to expect. And I mean that as a compliment.
However, I have to criticize the first area bosses, as their nature and demeanor are in poor taste. Let me preface this by saying that I'm not attacking fans of the game (remember, I am one!). It has become all too common lately to put too much of oneself into entertainment products. The first bosses are a couple of gay stereotypes that flirt with Gene as the camera provides us with gratuitous ass shots.
They're effeminate and unsettling, prompting Gene to utter the phrase "I'm not that kind of guy" to their suggestion that they have some fun with him.
Viewing this in 2016 - hell, viewing this back in 2011 - I am taken aback by the choice to include characters this offensive. It does not detract from the gameplay experience, although one of their attacks involves charging at Gene butt-first, but over the years I've thought and considered how different this could have been approached.
The game touches briefly on duality. Gene's arch nemesis Azel is a suave cat who wields the Devil Hand, the left arm sister to Gene's right. Azel is a human who stole both God Hands from a secret tribe that guarded them for centuries. He lost one to Olivia, and Gene found himself wielding it after an unsuccessful rescue attempt against the game's funniest demon trio.
Azel is Gene's dark counterpart. Whereas Gene acts goofy but finds moments of heroism for captured villagers, Azel is all dark and brooding, hanging out with the demon villains and hoping to surpass their power.
The bad guys want to unleash the Demon King Angra onto the Earth and enslave humanity. Azel wants to be his (left) hand. Gene wants to stop them all.
That's the crux of it. There is a small arc for Gene. He pretends to not care for Olivia and humans, but can't stop himself from standing up to the big bullies, the demons, plaguing the land. Gene learns to wield the power of the God Hand for the benefit of mankind, taking on the mantle of the unnamed hero of old who wielded both hands in the first place.
It's a classic tale of responsibility and growing up, although it's difficult to give it too much critical acclaim. At the end of the day, the narrative serves the gameplay and stage progression more than takes the focus. But that's just alright to me.
God Hand harkens to a time when you could sit down for an afternoon and push your fist into faces until you're satisfied. It asks you not to worry too much about what it means, framing itself in a stable tale of good versus evil.
At the end of the day, I wish that it had revived beat-em-ups. But I'm just glad it exists as a swan song for a generation of gaming that lives in our memories, waiting for another visit.
- Johnny Toxin