The PS2, a lot of gamers would agree, had the best library of any console yet. It was just gigantic, and it had so many gems, and so many games that dared to take chances and do new things. Whenever you ask someone what their favorite PS2 game is (assuming they’re a gamer), they may take a while to think about it, but they always have an opinion. And yet pretty much no one ever comes up with the same answer as me.
For me, though, the choice is crystal clear- it has to be God Hand. And you may now commence giving me weird looks.
It’s not that I don’t get it. God Hand is a tough game to love, really. It’s bizarre, nonsensical, ball-bustingly hard, and sometimes downright cruel. Anyone who picked it up and couldn’t stand it… I understand. But so many people never did pick it up, and that’s a damn shame- you’re missing one of the most interesting titles of the generation.
I could tell you God Hand’s plot, but that’s not what makes it great. God Hand’s plot is a pretty straightforward parody of various martial arts movies and anime. What makes the game so amazing is its delightfully bizarre sense of humor, its incredible combat system, and its perfectly tuned difficulty.
God Hand is a weird, weird game. When you first play, you can’t do much but marvel at how random things seem. But after a little while, you start to understand the mood of the game, and the jokes become apparent for what they are. You can race chihuahuas. Enemies quote lines from a psychotic Mike Tyson post-fight interview. The first boss is a pair of flamboyantly gay circus wrestlers. You can grab stunned women, and spank them to death. All this, plus nut shots, pimp hands, “kick me” signs, and so much more contribute to the game’s relentlessly zany humor. The world of God Hand is an insane place, and it’s beautiful.
Some of the jokes aren’t as obvious as others- the game mixes jokes from both American and Japanese culture, and unless you’re familiar with both, it’s inevitable that some stuff will go over your head. There are some encounters that are obviously intended to be funny that still completely baffle me. But moments like that are few, and are completely eclipsed by moments like finishing off a tough enemy with a devastating pimp hand, or listening to one of the delusional goons rant about how he’s “Alexander the Great”.
The combat system in God Hand is definitely one of the finest on the PS2, and still one of the best I’ve seen on any system. Since the game is a beat em up, you have a basic attack combo, and then various special attacks assigned to the face buttons, as well as dodging with the right analog stick, and a taunt, plus your God Hand powers. The dodging is incredibly responsive, allowing you to not just dodge to the side or backward, but if your timing is good, to dodge and weave in place to avoid each punch of a flurry of blows. You have to know what attacks can be dodged how, and then dodge them by as little as possible to put yourself in an optimal position for retaliation.
The God Hand, as well, is a delight. It has two functions- first, you have a limited number of stocks with which to perform powerful, flashy attacks- like the deadly Chain Yank (a parody of Mortal Kombat’s classic “Get over here”), the satisfying God Stomp (knock your enemy down, then curb stomp them… five times!), or the bloody Head Slicer (does exactly what it sounds like… and it’s not in the Japanese version of the game, only the American!). With bosses as tough as God Hand’s, and even some of the very challenging normal levels, you’ll come to rely on those powers to bail your ass out of the fire.
But what will really save you is the God Hand’s full power. Build up your Tension meter by hitting and taking hits, and you can, at will release the power of a god… which, in this case, means all your combos are sped up, your damage is increased, and you are fully invincible for the duration, a good ten seconds or longer once upgraded. The boss fights are long enough that it’s not enough time to deal an unfair amount of damage to them, but it’s definitely your best chance to just get in there and wail away. When it winds away, though, you will suddenly feel very alone, and very vulnerable.
These powers, however, all pale in comparison to your normal attacks. Our hero, Gene, the God Hand, can do a combo of attacks by mashing Square, or do various special attacks with the other face buttons. The thing that makes this amazing is that every move is completely customizable. You can buy various attacks- kicks, punchs, slaps, rapid flurries of blows- and assign them however you like. Want that haymaker assigned to X? You got it. Want it instead to be part of your Square combo? Drop it anywhere you like- at the start, in the middle, at the end. Any move you own can be assigned to any slot, allowing for a completely customized moveset from a list of over two hundred possible moves. You fight how you want to fight, no other way.
The final piece of the puzzle is God Hand’s difficulty. Above, I listed all your tools, and it’s an impressive fucking list. You’re well equipped in this game, you’d imagine that very little could stand in your way. You would be dead wrong there. God Hand is a viciously hard game, keeping you at your A game right from the start. Its Easy mode is about as hard as most games of the time on their Normal mode. Its Normal mode is downright brutal. Normal enemies will kill you every time you let your guard down and get careless. Bosses will kill you even if you don’t. Resources are plentiful, but not plentiful enough for the rate that you burn through your life bar. You will get very used to the Continue screen. And Hard Mode? It’s locked until you complete the game on Normal, and this is for your own protection.
And yet the game is never cheap. You never get hit by an attack you couldn’t possibly dodge, if you get hit from behind, it’s because you weren’t watching your back like a dumbass, and when a boss takes you down, you get pissed, but because you know you just didn’t play well enough. Just like Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, every room you clear in God Hand is an accomplishment, and you feel damn good about it. The game’s difficulty also adjusts on the fly- the better you play, the harder the game gets. Slip up, and the difficulty drops back down. It starts at Level 1, and then goes up to 2, 3, and finally the impossible Level DIE. It is aptly named- it will end you. But if you reach it… you’re probably up for the challenge.
In the end, these elements really make God Hand a game that you can play over and over without losing the slightest bit of the satisfaction and fun. It isn’t the most brilliant work of art, but it’s a fun game with awesome replay value. That’s why it’s my favorite PS2 game. You may be thinking, “Well, okay, you’ve sold me on your stupid Japanese beat em up weirdo game, but I won’t be able to find a copy anymore.” Ha HA, I say to that. It’s on PSN as a PS2 Classic, so you got no excuses! Go, and bear witness to the God Hand!
And when the game totally wrecks your shit, just know that I’m proud of you.
Originally published for Press X or Die on February 15, 2012.