“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” asks Lisa Simpson in a vintage episode of The Simpsons. “Piece of cake,” replies Bart, slapping his fingers into his right palm. “No, Bart, it’s a 3000-year-old riddle with no answer! It’s supposed to clear your mind of conscious thought!” says Lisa, losing her cool. Bart makes with the finger slapping again.
The Simpson kids’ dissection of the old koan springs to mind while playing Squaresoft’s long lost space shooter, Einhänder. As those down with the Deutsch will note, einhänder literally means “one-hander.” It’s the name of your blue ship. Shaped like an open hand, your little craft is the most devious weapon in a future where the now-colonized moon is at war with Earth. When the Einhänder guns down opposing ships, it can literally snatch away their weapons as they fall out of the sky. It’s the sound of one hand kicking ass.
As an old school shooter in the style of R-Type, playing Einhänder requires the same sort of mental clarity as Zen Buddhist meditation. Its first level in particular is built to draw you into a meditative state. Stage one is an all-out fight against the forces of Earth, but it’s also a furious escape from one of Earth’s capital cities. Like a koan, it evokes opposing impulses in your mind, and success requires you to enter a trance.
The opening seconds of the stage simmer. The Einhänder rushes through enormous gray and green skyscrapers while you endure an operatic of blaring sirens and authorities yelling in German. Flying police cars chase you into the city, trying to prevent your escape after a nighttime raid. Yet even these first few moments provide a certain tranquility. You can control your ship’s position to a degree, moving slightly in cardinal directions, but you can’t alter your constant path forward through the city itself. There are only so many things in your life you can control. A couple of minutes in, after you plummet straight down to almost street level, the stage pauses in front of a billboard of a nude woman. It reads, “Leben?” (“Life?”) before the woman decays into a skeleton and the word changes to, “Fallen?” Death is inevitable, so all you can do is live well.
The slow burn transforms into a trial by fire. The heat from the fuzz amps up as you try to hide out in the city’s lower levels, blasting through billboards as you go. Even your perspective changes, as you go deeper into the meditation of the level. The camera moves, shooting the action from slightly behind your ship rather than directly from the side, giving you a better look at what’s ahead.
In actual meditation, the key is to bring yourself to a place where thoughts can’t penetrate your conscious mind. It’s not that you stop thinking. That’s impossible. Instead, you learn to let thoughts slide away without allowing them to take over. Einhänder captures the essence of that practice in how you fight. The ship has a basic firing mode, shooting out little bursts of yellow light from the front end, but the only way to take out the heavier ships that bear down on you is by taking their gear. Cannons, rocket launchers, even an “Ark Gun” that shoots lightning—these can all be wrenched away from your foes.
They’re impermanent, though. The ammunition in your newly acquired toys always dries up almost immediately, so you move from one to the next, never settling into a single mode of resistance. One second you have a spread shot that fires slowly in five directions, the next a rapid-fire “Vulcan” gun that fires in a straight line. Become reliant on one mode of attack means the end of your ship, so you have to let every new stratagem flow away as soon as it arrives. Meanwhile, the authorities keep on encroaching in greater numbers, so you have to be even more nimble dodging them and their unusually slow bullets.
When you finally blast your way out of the city, flying over long stretches of highway and passing through a red tunnel, the small cop cars pull away. Those little distractions give up the chase, and you escape into the wasteland where there’s only one obstacle standing in the way. The stage’s boss at first looks like a sort of mechanical dinosaur, with an elongated neck and a claw for a head, but opening fire on the screeching hulk severs that appendage pretty quickly. What’s left, the bulk of the boss, looks like a camouflage-colored, bipedal brain. It’s a blunt but effective metaphor: All that stands between you and the freedom of the desert beyond is your mind. If you stay nimble, maintain steady fire, and keep your mind flowing, the fight’s over in seconds. The Einhänder flies out into a dark wasteland, surrounded by silence.
Einhänder doesn’t erupt into some nirvanic paradise after that first level. This opener is only the beginning of a taxing quest with a killer soundtrack and some devious, ingenious fights waiting on the other side. None of the levels that follow are as arresting as that first one, but they don’t need to be. That level is there to put you in the state that’s required of you to actually get past the challenges beyond. Revelation isn’t the point. Like Lisa said, it’s just the riddle meant to clear your mind as you pilot your one hand through the rest of the game.
(Screenshots courtesy of Emuparadise.)