Time Extend: God Hand

Clover Studio’s God Hand needs a preamble. On October 10, 2006, it was released at the budget price of $30 to an apathetic American public. After a meeting of Capcom’s board of directors on October 12, 2006, Clover Studio was dissolved. All of a sudden that four-leafed logo looked a little out of place, even hubristic. What on Earth happened?

Many things, not all of them financial. Viewtiful Joe, made by Capcom’s Production Studio 4 (the home for most of Clover before the subsidiary’s formation), sold well enough to warrant one sequel and a few spin-offs, but in the context of a small budget. Okami too ‘only’ sold in the low hundreds of thousands. And at some point during God Hand’s development, senior figures like Atsushi Inaba, Hideki Kamiya and Shinji Mikami decided that once the game was complete they would leave Capcom – going on to form Seeds, Inc, which would later merge with the company ODD to become Platinum Games.

God Hand could be seen as the last hurrah for this great generation of Capcom developers. But its astonishing final form comes down to a more complex set of circumstances than a goodbye V-sign. It followed on from Capcom’s great millennium experiment, the Capcom Five, that produced several of the last generation’s most original and least successful games. P.N.03 flopped; Viewtiful Joe simmered; Dead Phoenix was cancelled; Killer 7 was a ‘cult hit’. Only Resident Evil 4 was an unqualified commercial and critical success.

The presiding spirits of God Hand may be the developers behind the latter, but there are no lush environments, twisting narratives or machine-stretching visuals here. There’s a funereal tinge to its exuberance, an understanding that this kind of excess is only possible as a dying fall. Games always lend themselves to mythologising in hindsight, but God Hand’s bloody-minded and narrow focus shows a Clover determined not to truckle, especially not in its final game. It was committing commercial suicide, and loving it.

Everyone knew the game would flop. Not least at Capcom, because six months before God Hand’s release there was Final Fight Streetwise, a stillborn stinker never released in Japan, and part of the God Hand story only because of its singular failure to convincingly translate the 2D brawler into three dimensions. If there was a mission statement for God Hand, this is it. Its antecedents are Double Dragon and Streets Of Rage, and its system is based on one-on-one fighting, albeit often in the middle of a group, where area attacks are an occasional luxury rather than the cornerstone of strategy.

Almost all of God Hand’s aesthetic is concentrated in Gene, the possessor of the eponymous hand, and his transitions between cocksure swaying and one of many brilliantly modelled martial arts styles. In fact, the barely textured brown walls that meet at right angles and the palette-swapped basic enemy designs around Gene are such that you could fairly say the aesthetic is the system, a work of art as deeply conceived as any in the medium. It changes the challenge posed by inputs, allowing you to assign a string of attacks to pressing a single button repeatedly, and pin others to the spare face buttons to come into play when they’re needed: offence isn’t about anything but predictions and timing. Dodging is elegance incarnate, head bobs, sidesteps and backflips all mapped to whips of the right analogue stick. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the control system is the mapping of the shoulder buttons – L2 taunts enemies, R2 unleashes the God Hand, conferring invincibility and cosmic power for a limited time – and between these poles lies the game’s essence.

This combination of function and elegance comes at a cost: God Hand is nails. New players see the Game Over screen many more times than is encouraging, and even a cocky old pro has the smile smacked off his face every few minutes. It’s unashamedly hardcore despite having an interesting approach to difficulty, and therein lies the compulsion. There are tricks and mid-air juggles that can be learned easily, but nothing works all the time, and mostly you’re surviving by a whisker – you can almost feel the air as a punch whistles by Gene’s head. The dodges, guard breakers, sequence interruptions and swift counters are all last-minute. Come to that, everything’s split-second and last-minute. God Hand locks the player into incredibly complex loops and counter-loops of attack and defence where one blink means a black eye, and total focus means a pile of crumpled goons. Respite comes in the form of Roulette Attacks that let you kick enemies in the groin (not so useful against females and transsexuals), tap-dance on their upper body or pull a baseball bat from thin air and knock them out of the park.

The game is rammed with ribaldry and tongue-in-cheek touches. After fighting a pair of carnivalesque camp stereotypes Gene can examine one of their unconscious forms for the line: “Doesn’t look like he was packing much heat. Must have lost his balls in the war.” A fat man with drums: “That’s one loud set of man boobs.” The shop between levels is called ‘Barely Regal’. A simple chop becomes a move called ‘Pay Up’, described as “power for when you gotta get your money”. Then there’s the script. When Shannon says, pre-fight, that it “looks like this dog can be trained, after all”, Gene’s reply is pitch-perfect: “The only bitch that needs training is you!” But God Hand’s personality is more than the script, and more even than the pratfalls, comic-book sound effects and wibbling Elvis impersonations. The whole thing’s a deadpan joke, giving depth to things that were ridiculous in 2D only to emphasise their grotesqueries. Armies of identical enemies, huge bosses and oversized weapons are the critical vocabulary for this tribute. It’s neither old nor new but lies in the penumbra of other fighters, and in this murky space creates a blend wholly its own: the best side-scrolling beat ’em up ever made with a Z-axis.

If you can stand the heat, grit your teeth through the Game Over screens and come back fighting every time, you might just complete God Hand. And then the apogee, a credits sequence that Amped 3 and Portal can only view with envy from across the room. Catchy brat-rock sings about everything you just did while the cast dances in the background. “Dragon-kick your ass into the Milky Way” is one line, “God power keeps my pimp hand strong” another. The soundtrack – magnificent psycho-pop, remixed bebop mash-ups, character motifs and cowboy swinging from Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda of Grasshopper Manufacture – is one of the greatest to ever accompany a beat ’em up. The tunes Sunset Heroes and Devil May Sly are essential installs on HD console hard drives, simply to make the beat ’em ups we have to play these days a little more exciting.

Because of its slightly ropey visuals, anything-goes personality and unforgiving introduction, God Hand balances on a razor’s edge – but ultimately falls on the right side of magical. Appropriate, then, for one of the most mercurial and short-lived developers of the modern age, because what happened when Platinum Games produced a more artistically coherent and polished fighter? MadWorld, a braindead piece of style over substance, and no respectful tribute to God Hand’s legacy. Only Clover could have reimagined a genre with a death rattle, returned from the grave to drive a clumsy stake through its heart, and then produce Bayonetta – the game which needed what Hideki Kamiya calls ‘mommy mode’, the game that has a naked Sarah Palin quiff-flicking planetary fairy monsters to death. In a console industry defined by artistic compromise, God Hand, and indeed the ongoing story of Platinum Games, is somewhat heroic. Even if it is all just dragon-kicking at windmills.