When I think of the gaming industry, I’m immediately gripped by the multitude of voices within it. Video games, in this era, have taken monumental leaps forward compared to their infancy nearly forty years ago. One can tell a tale that will grip millions with its evocative dialogue, while others can create simple foundations to assure continued entertainment. People are given the opportunity to go wherever they wish, and many have taken full advantage. Hamsterdam feels both a little old and a little new—all repercussions attached.
To be forthright, this game troubled me when starting it for the first time. Conditions in an arcade-inspired action title invokes many generalizations, but the limited amount of leniency in combat made for repetitive first impressions. Fortunately, as time graced itself to pass, the access of progression opened new means to an otherwise dull formula. Even through a limited scope, Hamsterdam trains rigorously to save itself from the bowels of mediocrity. How far it achieves this could depend on one key factor: size.
One may think that “Hamsterdam” is the name of the main character in Hamsterdam. Actually, Hamsterdam is the name of the town the player resides in, and the hero’s name is the ever-sexy “Pimm.” Pimm sets out to thwart the malicious plight of Marlo, a chinchilla who is evil because yes. With his army of vermin, Marlo ravages the town for his own amusement and kidnaps Pimm’s grandfather along the way. His goal set, Pimm ventures onward to save his grandpa and the town through sweet kung-fu. A pretty straightforward story for a pretty straightforward game.
Expectations placed on the story are likely dubious in this scenario, seeing as anything “arcade-inspired” won’t harbor much of a developed storyline. Like Whip! Whip! before it, Hamsterdam does only the minimum requirements to flesh out a basic storyline. Good vs. evil. Progressively more dangerous until the ultimate showdown with the big baddie. Nothing of the sort that will have avid readers clawing for more. Even still, a matter of presentation makes the already-simple story feel a little rushed.
Before each important confrontation (mini-bosses and bosses), still-frame cutscenes will play out situations that lead to the inevitable battle. Most of these consist of vermin drinking “Marlo Tonic” to boost themselves to dangerous levels. While the artistic styling of these caricatures are nice (more on that later), it seems repetitive to have the same situation play out over and over when the general story is already so predictable. At the same time, the decision to go with hand-drawn still-frames over in-game animation allows an unfinished air to fester. To have an accessible hub world, shop, differing level designs, and so forth all done in-game makes the drawn bits feel like shaky drawbridges into what’s supposed to be seen as the most integral parts of story.
Let’s tread back to my comment on size. Size is an important factor in many ways with regards to video games. The size of a game’s entirety in relation to its pricepoint is a large contributor of interest to the general consumer. Howevewr, size can also relate to the quantity of things one can do in a game, as well as the size of individual factors like story, gameplay, or visual precedence. Hamsterdam, like Pimm, our furry hero, is pretty small.
Completing this game took me under two hours. A fairly lenient difficulty curve made blazing through the adventure a smooth process. As for the adventure, it is all one is able to do in Hamsterdam, relegated to a hub world full of levels where one can fight vermins, face bosses, or play bonus levels. From what I could tell, no other measures of postgame content became available, either. One must be prepared to fight, fight, and fight a lot, with some retro-gaming antics along the way.
A majority of what awaits the player in Hamsterdam involves a pattern of button-inputs at specific rhythms. Almost methodical in its approach, there becomes a flurry of things to recall to maximize efficiency in combat. As stated previously, in the beginning, there is next to nothing, making gameplay feel boring and unchallenging. Essentially, one needs to hammer a single button and occasionally tilt the control stick in a certain direction. It isn’t until farther along that Hamsterdam becomes more stimulating in its fluctuation of hazards. Enemies begin to require specific button inputs at certain times, and the player’s arsenal becomes more handy as the enemies become stronger. In the later stages of the game’s adventure, I felt keenly aware of how absorbed I was in decimating enemies in even proportions.
Something to note when describing the gameplay is that the player never technically moves while in battle. Pimm is placed on the right side of the screen and the enemies come in hoards on the left. To do battle is almost like reacting to QTE prompts, counterattacking incoming blows with precise fingers. It’s actually necessary to counterattack in order to get an enemy in front of Pimm for him to attack. Again, the concept of size comes into play with the limited scope of the battlefield. Confined to almost always playing defensively, it’s more of a battle of attrition than all-out demolition. Perhaps with kung-fu that is the point, but I never found myself at odds with this philosophy. Others may.
Any relief from constant battles come in the form of bonus stages, mini-bosses, and boss stages. What originally seemed like a duke-a-thon from beginning to end, Hamsterdam surprised me by changing up its core genre. These three outlier stage types involve more dodging by hopping in one direction than fighting. Each world (three in all) has one mini-boss and boss stage along with a couple bonus stages. Mini-bosses serve as an introduction of what to expect from the boss, with each revolving around dodging bombs while traversing the streets or climbing things. While nice that the developers included a break from all-out fighting, a core complaint with bosses is that their patterns never change, at least from what I could tell. The first boss specifically felt so repetitive that I felt the need to move maybe once or twice in a ten-second span.
With each stage comes a variety of challenges to strive for to unlock gear and seeds used as currency for said gear. Gear in Hamsterdam is both cosmetic and beneficial to battle, though to say the player needs more help with this game is somewhat insulting. I was pretty high on looking like a gothic absurdist, paying no attention to whatever benefits each thing gave me. The main challenges for each stage are used to collect stars necessary to advance through the game and unlock bonuses. The seed-specific challenges offer some motivation to retry levels and earn gear, but frankly, it’s not worth it. Unless one is enraptured by the game and is a starving completionist, I don’t think there’s enough there to warrant a 100% playthrough.
Graphics & Audio
I don’t see why one wouldn’t at least try a game with a kung-fu fighting hamster. That’s just smart marketing. Hamsterdam may have its fighting spirit worth in its aesthetic detail alone, as vibrant as it is. While the overall graphical detail is nothing to write home about, it’s the energetic detail that really captures the mood of the game. Running smoothly at just about every juncture, there’s such a satisfying feeling of kicking vermin in the face. The flashy attacks, the brutal finishers, the way Pimm rolls in on a scooter before every battle; all are but stars in a sky full of bright, lovely lights. Animation here is at a sweet spot that elevates the game with lovely cartoon violence. I can never get enough of those finishers.
Ordinary soundtrack notwithstanding, I was also fairly impressed with the impact of Hamsterdam‘s auditory elements. Combined with the animation, the impact of landing blows provides a sweet crunch of catharsis through Pimm’s soulful screams. Despite high-pitched “chipmunk” voices being generally annoying to me, Pimm was just quiet enough to have me tolerate it. And when he decided to let it out, it felt necessary. All the finishers and all the techniques were emphasized in power by a squeaky echo that resonated with power. It’s great. I absolutely adore all the high-energy kung-fu prowess that went into Hamsterdam. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the overall soundtrack, but it almost doesn’t matter when all that sticks to my mind is Pimm’s carnal screaming.