Sunday, April 01, 2007


Hamtaro: Ham-Ham Games

I suspect, though I can't prove, that Hamtaro was brought to America in the hopes that it would rock our world in a manner similar to Pokemon. Whether that was the intent or not, it never happened, and I can't say I'm especially sorry that it didn't.

I mean, fair enough, I was never really Hamtaro's target audience. But somehow, I managed to get involved in the Hamtaro games for Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance. And I'm not especially sorry about that either.

Ham-Hams Unite! and Ham-Ham Heartbreak are surprisingly solid games, head and shoulders above typical "children's cartoon tie-in" crap. And with Nintendo at the helm, I wouldn't expect anything less. They're set up as adventure games in the spirit of the old King's Quest series. There's plenty of entertaining dialogue, huge sprites, and wonderful animation. The best part is how deeply implemented the game worlds are. Some game developers would use a rollercoaster in a theme park world as static scenery. In Ham-Ham Heartbreak, it's a fully-implemented ride, complete with lots of custom animation. They are, for the most part, games that reward your curiosity.

So yeah. I was actually slightly disappointed when Rainbow Rescue never got an American release date. Instead, we got a track and field game that's based on the characters from Rainbow Rescue. Hooray?!

Hamster Olympics

There aren't many sports games that I'm especially interested in. There aren't that many sports that I'm actually interested in, and even fewer that translate well into a video game experience, at least in my opinion. Why play a video game when it's just so much more fun to go outside and play?

But there's always been a special place in my heart for track and field video games. I blame it on the pitch they gave me -- it's a video game that actually requires real-world physical endurance in order to do well at it. That's the sort of thing that speaks directly to me.

It's not actually an especially useful gameplay mechanic, but it speaks directly to me.

So Ham-Ham Games features fifteen Summer Games events that have been shrunk down to accomodate the cute and fuzzy competitors. There are bite-sized renditions of Tennis and Beach Volleyball, but most of the games you play are timing games (and not button-mashers). You know the kind -- push the button with the proper timing, and your character will be animated doing something with an appropriate degree of success.

And here's the first point in Ham-Ham Games' favor -- no two games are exactly alike. Every event takes the same basic idea and tweaks it just a little. One of the things that bugged me about Activision Decathalon is that every event was exactly the same deal -- twiddle the joystick back and forth, then press Fire. You won't find that in Ham-Ham Games. Even the two pure running events -- the 100 hm Dash and the Marathon -- control differently.

What's more, the games are actually fun. I've been known to do a quick High Dive or Syncronized Swimming when I've been bored.

Every game has three skill levels. The control is, as far as I can tell, exactly the same in all three skill levels. The only appreciable difference is how well you have to do to place well at the event. Although the overall package is definately aimed toward the kids, even an adult like me can find it challenging to do well enough to earn a gold medal on Hard mode.

All of the games can be played in Free Mode or sequentially in the Tournament. There are no real multiplayer options, unfortunately.

But let me tell you about the Tournament.

This Section is About the Tournament

A less ambitious game would simply present the game's fifteen events in sequence and call it a tournament. Ham-Ham Games is more ambitious than that.

The fifteen games are divided into a week-long schedule, complete with cut scenes for the opening and closing ceremonies. (That kind of attention to detail really tickles me.) Every game day, Hamtaro wakes up at the clubhouse, and he has free time before, between, and after the day's events. You can wander around the game world, talk to other hamsters, scrounge for sunflower seeds (the game's currency), and find costumes that you can use to dress up your hamster avatar. In the clubhouse alone, you can watch television (a different show at every time of the day), ride a basket back and forth in the loft, play a basketball Game & Watch game, alter the message that everyone says when they say hi, tumble down a slide, or take a nap so that you can stay up late and catch a secret TV show. This mini adventure isn't really the focus of the game until the second time you play through the tournament, when Prince Bo charges you with collecting a "Hamigo Card" from all of the game's characters -- which turns out to be quite a feat!

It does a good job of emulating the experience of a real Summer Olympics by giving you the feeling of passage of time. Every morning, the game explains the schedule for the day. Most evenings, you get to see a cute little cutscene about what goes on while you slumber. Sometimes Crystal the Hamster Fairy will ask you a question, and your answer is incorporated into the game's dialogue.

And, of course, sometimes you'll lose. The AI is terribly basic -- most of the time, Team Rainbow will get a gold medal if you don't, so the only way to win the entire tournament is to capture eight or more gold medals. If you don't manage that, you'll lose the tournament. I guess it's just kind of refreshing to play a game where you have more options than just "complete victory" or "restart from save point".

It's not a work of art, but I like it. Track and field games have a pretty narrow audience, but if you like that genre and you can stand to play it with hamsters, I don't see how you can go wrong with this one.


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