All gamers have what is known in the current vernacular as a "Pile of Shame." It's a stack of games, typically ones you own, that you have not yet played to completion, despite critical and/or audience acclaim. For the past two years, one game stood shining atop my Pile of Shame: God Hand.
Clover Studios' saved their best for last with their swan song, God Hand. God Hand puts you in the shoes of Gene, a drifter who, following an attack by some thugs, loses his right arm and awakens to find it replaced with the legendary God Hand. Trust me, it sounds a lot more serious than it actually is. The game is rife with slapstick humor, and this humor only serves to make the game that much better.
Having finally completed it, I can say that it is arguably the best beat-'em-up ever. This is because it's a beat-'em-up that manages to avoid the thing that made the genre stale in the first place. God Hand is not a button masher. In fact, button mashing in God Hand is the best way to get killed. Gene can't block, and as a result, using all the techniques at your disposal (of which there are far more than any other beat-'em-up I can think of), along with your dodge ability, is a requirement to survive past the first boss.
However, there's something about this game that's elusive... It's similar to No More Heroes (which I felt was easily the best Wii game of '08), and, I suspect the forthcoming Mad World, but in ways that're difficult to describe. They're action games, sure, but there's something about them that makes them different from Devil May Cry or Gears of War (which are quite different from each other). God Hand and its ilk seem to take delight in simply being videogames. They are straightforward, with little story, and a massive emphasis on fun vis-a-vis the satisfaction of defeating your enemies.
To wit; killing enemies in God Hand is as satisfying as it is in any game I've ever played. Compare it to, say, Contra, one of the kings of 2D action. In Contra, killing is the main action, but is it satisfying? Not unless it's a boss fight, and even then, the act of killing isn't so much satisfying as the idea that you've survived another stage. God Hand, on the other hand, makes every adversary, from the lowest peon to the final boss, a delight to dispatch.
The fun in these games is not a function of progressing the story, admiring the graphics, or exploring the world. No, the fun in these games is in defeating your foes in the most over-the-top, painful, brutal fashion possible. A secondary enjoyment comes from upgrading your character, but that's only because it serves to make the aforementioned killing that much more enjoyable.
This article is not meant to point out how underrated these games are, because I don't think they are. I understand why God Hand has a 73 aggregate at Metacritic. The graphics don't impress, the controls could certainly be a stumbling block for many, and the game is hard. God Hand, et al appeal to a very particular audience. The same audience that loves bad kung-fu movies. The same audience that loves The Dead Milkmen's music. That is the audience for God Hand. And I am a proud member of that audience. I can only hope that Mad World is half as good as God Hand.