22 November 2017

God of War 1 | The Perfect Video Game?

Browsing through Youtube one might stumble upon a playthrough of the original God of War, released in 2005 on the Playstation 2. Despite being an old game, the comment section is packed with a few individuals commenting on the inner workings of the game and how these could’ve - or worse, should’ve - been implemented by the player. Diving into forums one might find the God of War sections to be dead, but one post is all it takes to bring dozens of recurring names back into the fold. Familiar faces roam the pantheon’s halls, eager to taunt but also teach newcomers. While these players might not seem much, they have given this game as much life as the man who created it: David Jaffe. So what is it that makes God of War and its community so prevalent and resistant against the sands of time?
It started with a thought: Make the player feel brutal, letting their inner beast free and just going nuts" - David Jaffe. During development director Jaffe noted that he looked at contemporary titles like Onimusha and Devil May Cry, both also on the Playstation 2. So instead of making a title that would have to compete, God of War was to complement the already existing library.

Its combat exists out of light and heavy attacks, supplemented with grabs, magic and cinematic finishers; this appears simple on paper. While the genre generally targeted a more arcade like crowd, this was an opportunity to provide an action title that also spoke to the more casual player so having the combat be accessible yet rewarding to play would have been paramount. As such protagonist Kratos wields the Blades of Chaos’s which, unlike its counterparts used by Ryu and Dante, are focused on ranged combat. Aside from being powerhouses at a distance, attacks also have bounces built in making juggling enemies happen almost automatically for the more casual player. But these options are expanded with numerous more complex inputs, launchers, infinites and loops - providing depth for those that wish it, allowing skilled players to trivialize strong enemies by keeping them airborne or stunlocked for the whole duration while less skilled players can just whack foes to death; the feeling of empowerment is never gone. The aforementioned simplistic appearance of the combat was exactly what they were going for.

Should the enemy get close, pressing circle will see Kratos hold the poor sod while he decides how to end his life. Enemies can be ripped apart for a quick kill, punched to death for extra orbs, used as a projectile and more.

In terms of grabs, God of War has no equal in action games. There are tons of options throughout the series, with grabs having some genuinely distinct properties - they tend to have invincibility frames, deal the same damage across all difficulties and ignore super armor properties - supported by a great collision system and environmental hazards. There's ground to ground, air to air, and air to ground cases, alternate grabs, instant kills, moderately damaging attacks for sufficiently reducing an enemy's HP, reversals, option selects, grab specials and more. Like any good contextual ability, most grabs are optional, quickly executed, virtually every enemy has one, and being a powerful option but not rendering other approaches pointless.

It is here that an underlying system of decisionmaking appears. See, while every enemy can be grabbed, some have to be weakened first. Once weakened a flashy icon will appear above them, press the button and you’ll do a cool cinematic kill. Depending on how you kill your enemy you’ll be rewarded with a variety of orbs. Using a cinematic kill on a Minotaur will give you a lot of green healing orbs, while a Medusa yields blue magical restoration orbs. End their lives normally and you’ll get red upgrade orbs. During a fight a casual player will enjoy seeing enemies dying left and right, while a more professional player is constantly considering how to kill the next foe. Decisions like “the minotaur is already weakened, so I can play a bit more reckless, his death will heal me” and “I’ll use this enemy as a projectile, I really need to clear this area” as opposed to “I’ll grab this enemy and punch him for extra orbs, I need that upgrade” are constantly present. This is deepened by using the environment to your advantage: spikes, cliffs, traps and more can be used for a quick kill. Strategy and efficiency start becoming key terms in God of War’s combat.

How the game handles blocking also sets it apart. The focus in most Japanese action games is to kill enemies up close while nimbly evading attacks. In God of War dodging, done with the right stick, is more an addition - the emphasises lies on blocking. Nearly every move in the game can be blocked. You might even parry by accident thanks to its very royal timing. Yet by dodging an opening might sometimes reveal itself that is not there when holding block. Jaffe stated that the game "is not innovative or unique, and that's intentional", an interesting quote that again highlights how the game wasn’t targeted at the hardcore crowd, but aimed at the audience that Devil May Cry, Onimusha and Ninja Gaiden had missed.   

The camera on the other hand was very similar to those titles. Jaffe was very adamant about making a game that he personally liked, and he liked those. “If you don’t like those games” he said, “you won’t like this one”. The always zoomed out camera gives a complete overview of the battlefield with a cinematic vibe. To not turn this into a disadvantage, off-screen enemies will not attack and, if they were already attacking, will stop doing so if they go offscreen. A kind gesture to casual players and a mighty weapon for the more experienced player to abuse. Levels vary from linear to maze-like. Statues, caves, temples and more look sharp even today, in part due to the camera never getting too close to show the game in its true low-resolution light. While starting on a boat without much room to diverge, later areas allow for more exploration and searching for secrets to boost Kratos in numerous ways.

One boost he can’t miss though, breaching the gap between God of War and its contemporaries, is the Blade of Artemis.

It is an oversized hunter's knife. I like knives and big ass 'swords'. Glowing energy off it helps, too. I'm about big, heavy blows causing massive reactions from enemies, to shaking the screen, sending them flying, and more. Casual play with Artemis is terrible outside lower settings. But then what's to like? A Glitch FAQ will note places to sequence break easily with the weapon and even Infinite Jump with it, but that's more a speedrun thing. What about for combat (the meat)?
The Blades have specials, but none can be canceled even with spells. Artemis has two that can be, allowing for their usage, but they're just spinning multi-hits (mostly to be cute). Given I know how foes work, Artemis is the higher damage choice when not able to just go for grabs or their damage is bad as in a select few foes. The interrupt ability it has beyond what the Blades can do and is almost on the level of spells. Cancels are the means to make up for the problem that is delayed block. This covers a lot of its defensive issues and can even help make-up for range by letting you stay in-close. Negation of attacks outright with a window that large (that quickly and easily) is nothing to thumb your nose at. You'll get a different experience fighting foes when you're slashing them to pieces with it.

Gotten half-way through, this weapon is more what one would expect from this type of game. Up close and deadly, while also serving several other tricks. It’s emphasis on launching enemies and cancels gives it a lot more crowd-control options compared to the Blades of Chaos, while losing the single-target grabbing capabilities. In the way the combat as a whole works, players can become brutally efficient. Kratos is pretty immobile compared to most other action game characters and his game simpler. Trying to kill things with straight damage via normal attacks while rolling away is a bad idea, same goes for trying to be 'stylish' or 'combo'. As a result players will slowly attach a pattern to each enemy on how to deal with them as optimal as possible and to get the most orbs necessary to continue. To compensate this, and also the fact that Kratos gains access to so many new abilities and magical spells at the end of the game, fights get bigger and longer as the game goes on, adding more combinations of foes into the mix. Nearly each combination is tried at least once, offering great variety in combat with the content available. This brutal efficiency is also seen in Kratos’s design. His red mark is instantly recognisable, making for a strong brand. Paired with his mysterious title ‘The Ghost of Sparta’, a chain sporting weapon and barely any detailing he stands out. In the making-off videos, one of the many unlockables in the game, Jaffe states: “the things I said to [Charlie, the artist], I said brutal, nasty, violent, antisocial, pissed-off; come to work angry tomorrow and see what you can come up with. That was my direction to Charlie”. His constant frown, bald head and cold white skin paired with his deep red symbol give off an air of controlled rage. A man that one shouldn't anger.

It is with all these elements that God of War could be considered a perfect game, being accessible to all audiences. It has pleasing visuals and easy to understand combat, while offering a deeper set of mechanics and higher difficulties for fans of the genre to explore. This, paired with the cinematic presentation, lead to both critical and financial success. God of War sold around 4.6 million copies worldwide, a hallmark compared to Ninja Gaiden’s 1,5 million copies worldwide (combining both the original, dlc and Black version)  and Devil May Cry’s 2,17 million copies worldwide. Playing to please both groups paid off and also resulted in a bigger community of players entering this genre they hadn’t considered before, a genre which they thought wasn’t for them and now slowly fell in love with it. As a result this community consisted out of two sets of players; those who enjoyed the story while looking cool, and ones that dove into the harder segments and eventually started self-imposed challenge runs.

  Play smarter, not harder. Many of elements of the game ignore differences in difficulties, upgrades, or enemy health, which adds to the flavor of the game, helps make up for the simplicity and makes God of War well suited for challenge runs that restrict, for instance, upgrades.

This slowly resulted in ‘runs’ being constructed, customly made up difficulties, that would challenge fans of the series further after all the general offerings of the game had been finished. While beating the game on “Normal” was the original benchmark, this soon became beating it on “Very Hard”. But once that was conquered,  try “Very Hard” without upgrading Kratos. These challenges have since expanded to a wide variety, with the most infamous being PAIN, which has Kratos play as he starts - so no upgrades or usage of magic and the Blade of Artemis - and disallows the usage of chests for healing. The most fabled part of this run is what is dubbed as “The Clones”, a segment near the end where Kratos has to defend his family from harm against a total of 101 Clones of himself. This segment, originally designed around an end-game player, is downright brutal on its own let alone with player imposed handicaps. As a result the community, afraid that players wouldn’t attempt the run, noted that beating the Clones wasn’t necessary to ‘complete the run’, instead having it be titled as bonus credit, an invisible medal to flaunt. To date only a handful of players have managed to achieve this feat.


I attempted to do a No Upgrade Run+(NUR+) of God of War at the end of last year (2016) and failed on The Clones.  Anything incomplete in my mind is a failure and shouldn't be shown publicly.  I notice that some people don't mind just getting to The Clones and calling it a victory, but to me that's not a victory: it's an utter failure.  That's why I'm so proud of my God of War 2 NUR+: because I did everything that the game asked of me, and I prevailed. The first God of War asks you to beat The Clones in between two phases of Ares.  If you can't do it, then go home.  Shinobier and TazOne1 did it, and they have the right to show it. If you can't do all that a game asks of you, then stop and play something else that you can do. It's heart-wrenching, but that's what I firmly believe.  There's more honor, I think, in someone getting to The Clones, trying their hardest to beat them, failing, and deleting their guide than someone presenting an incomplete run.  I don't want to discount others' efforts, but personally, I can't live with myself if something is incomplete.  The whole point of doing something is to do it.  If you're good enough, you'll do it; if not, then you won't. I have succeeded in some God of Wars and failed in others.   You can only be so good.  Accepting your limitations will keep your ego in check.  That isn't to say that there isn't a tempest in one's heart at not being able to do the impossible.
Bick Benedict

It was quite clear from my attempts that, even if I had the method perfect and knew the exact spots to use a plume at the right time to keep all clones stunlocked at all times, there was just so much that could go wrong. You could mess up the button presses, or a clone randomly no-sells a plume and isn't juggled when you need him to, or you whiff on a grab, or a clone could simply decide to not spawn in the place you expect him to. And if one of these things get out of place even once, it can submarine the entire run since there will be too many clones for you to handle...and you need to be near-perfect for like the 10 minutes it takes to do it. At best, I could keep it going for a few minutes before things unraveled and Kratos' family dies almost immediately if you fail.

These runs have kept the community alive to this day, one new player asking a question would be exposed to a plethora of abilities and techniques, and might get curious to see if he could do it too. Players who beat PAIN love seeing others attempt it and give advice, or reminisce on their own adventures while watching another doing so. It is this part of communities that keep games alive. Go on a God of War forum, say you are willing to learn and names will flock to you ready to dive back into the depth of the game with you. And that alone is a beautiful thing, while also making God of War one of the best stepping stones into the genre as a whole.

★ opinion style ★
In this short section I switch my own style to that of an opinion and give you a little peak on what my take is on this article.

God of War, to me, was a game I ridiculed a lot growing up. Having chosen the side of the Gamecube in that war of consoles, I had decided those games were ‘braindead’ and required no thought to play. This feeling was strengthened when I entered the action genre via Bayonetta, Vanquish and later Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. I considered God of War for casual players - ironic since it gave me great difficulty to play. It wasn’t until year later that I picked up the original two games and thoroughly enjoyed them, that I wished to dive in more. One No Upgrade Run later I was itching to start a PAIN run, wishing to challenge myself even further and further. And I cannot wait to do the same for other games in the series, and meet the community again in the same way.

postscript notes
  • Special thanks to Bick Benedict, SBK91, Mister Starkiller (aka BigVee), Hotel_Security, TazOne1 and the community as a whole for contributing to this article. You keep this game alive well beyond its origins, cheers.
  • Sadly I could not reach Shinobier, one of the first to beat The Clones in a PAIN run.
  • To this day I haven’t beaten The Clones myself in a PAIN run, but have completed the rest. Sadly, the amount of time and dedication required just isn’t available to me anymore.
  • One of the biggest quotes Jaffe is known for with God of War is not present here, namey him stating “I don’t think our combat is as good as Devil May Cry”.
  • It took me by surprise just how much the title sold. Together, God of War 1&2 sold more than the whole DMC franchise.
  • I omitted the mention of most of the unlockables and secrets, some of which were very well hidden and even included a defunct phone-number that was gotten after hitting a statue for nearly 10 minutes.


Release-date:  March 22, 2005 | Director: David Jaffe | Producer: Shannon Studstill | Platform: PS2/PS3/VITA


  1. Touching article you Dutch bastard!

    R.I.P GoW gameplay...never forget...it had gameplay.

    1. Never forget, it had - had - gameplay. Here's to God of War, cheers!