Cute but deadly.
Relatively new to the game development scene, The Game Atelier has fairly quickly showed the industry that it means business. Their first game on the Vita, Flying Hamster HD is a port of the Android and iOS title of the same name. What we have here is something reminiscent Parodius on the SNES; A 2D shooter with just six levels, but the sort of addictive gameplay and punishing difficulty that fans of yesteryear will relate to. Released around six months ago in Europe and now finally seeing a release in North America I delved into the candy coloured, slightly bonkers title to find out more.
Releasing as an indie title for less than the price of a bus ticket and featuring so few levels you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a small title that will be over quickly. You’d be right and wrong actually; while the game is short in length cleverly worked out trophies are actually central to the experience and ensure that the game doesn’t get repetitive quickly. The screen constantly scrolls from right to left as you fight your way through waves of cute enemies in order to save your lady hamster friend. You see, like in Mario every time you complete a level and think you have saved your furry partner another boss comes along and whisks her off, sending you into the next level. Without a shadow of a doubt this is clearly a rubbish, done-many-times-over story but the cartoony art style you can see from the pictures gives the game an Anime feel and would even make Simon Cowell smile. Each several second long sequence is played with storybook pictures that bring the insanity to life. The Game Atelier has also been quite inventive with enemy patterns and it’s always a joy seeing the animated backgrounds, enemies and bosses come to life.
Control in the game is simple; the analog stick moves you around, the circle button auto-fires and the x button is used for single shots, or to power up a stronger shot if the button is held down (though several alternative and touch based methods are available). Being a hamster your first line of defence is spit. As you can imagine, firing spit at enemies isn’t very powerful but luckily there are loads of different pickups at your disposal that are grabbed from items of interest in the background. From berries on bushes that fire three way shots, beehives that fire homing bees, glasses of beer that fires in a constant stream and bananas that boomerang there is a lot of variation in the weapons but you are also limited in the amount you pick up and so firing constantly is not a tactic best deployed here. Enemies are similarly varied and include seagulls, chicken with exploding eggs, robots, cats that throw yarn and squid that squirt ink. As you can tell the game never takes itself too seriously but when it comes to gameplay it means business. I’m no expert at scrolling shooters but at times Flying Hamster HD is crazy hard. You are given three hearts to each “credit” and initially three credits, and once these are spent you are kicked back out to the main menu and have to start again. What I wasn’t expecting however was that this is the first title I’ve ever played that actually rewards you with more than just a trophy for unlocking one. Every time you unlock a trophy and die in Flying Hamster HD you are given an extra credit and so the more trophies you unlock the better chance you have of completing the game. This is a clever twist and really should be implemented in other games.
Once you’ve completed the game once you unlock hard mode and believe me; it’s tough. I initially thought normal mode was a nightmare within itself but after learning enemy patterns and behaviour I was able to inch deeper and deeper into the game. I do however still feel this could be too hard for some and the game is by no means perfect. Take for example the now fairly standard mechanic of when you get hit you remain invincible momentarily to regain your bearings. In Flying Hamster HD you get about half a second so if you are completely cornered you can be hit two or three times in rapid succession, completely destroying you. This can feel a little cheap at times and it’s a shame that this oversight has been made considering how polished other areas are. Also the learning curve is like Everest. I know there’s only six levels and so the developers were keen to keep things tough to keep you trying over and over but things get so hard so fast sometimes it’s pretty unforgiving. There are also moments that it’s difficult to see what is in the background and what is in the foreground about to kill you as well. There is a section where you go through the woods and there are plenty of animated characters and animals in the background and amongst them is a cat who will try to kill you. The first few times I played this section I was killed as it’s so hard to tell who is against you and who isn’t. Pretty and animated backgrounds are one thing but when they sometimes obstruct and confuse it’s a shame there isn’t more differentiation between them and hostiles. Luckily the majority of enemy bullets are much easier to see and represent less of a problem.
Music is handled well and is charming enough without ever being particularly catchy or annoying and sound effects are fairly standard fare here. Trophies are by and large very difficult to obtain so if you’re up for a serious challenge (like clearing hard mode with one credit) it’s certainly worth a look. The Game Atelier have priced Flying Hamster HD well and it’s a good little time waster that you could get a few days out of if you’re as terrible at them as I am. It’s not trying to win game of the year and while there are a few shooters on the Vita now this is the cheapest and worth a look if you have had enough of Sine Mora or Velocity Ultra. There are also leaderboards for the high score chasers out there who like the competition (not my thing, but hey) and a freeplay mode to pad things out a bit but Flying Hamster HD was never trying to be Metal Gear Solid. It’s short, it’s brutal and it’s worth a look but I fear it’s very soon going to be drowned out by the barrage of indie titles that have been announced already at E3 this year. If you liked Parodius however this is the closest thing you’ll get on Vita.