During my time as a gamer, I've experienced many sensations. I've been a plumber, a hedgehog, a bandicoot, a ninja, a Shaolin monk, a bounty hunter, every flavour of wizard, mage and magician you can envisage and a bouncy, big-breasted gun-toting animal rights dissenter called Lara. I've been around. But it wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that I took my first steps as a hamster, ladies and gentlemen.
This is because Hamtaro is a craze yet to penetrate pre-pubescent youth culture here in the UK, and across Europe. Apparently Hamtaro: Little Hamsters Big Adventures has started screening in the US - and may even be on some of our fringier digital screens over here for all I know - but it hasn't built up the same sensational momentum that Pokémon achieved at its height. Not yet anyway. But with Nintendo at the helm of the first unashamedly Pokémon-esque GBC adventure, and strong marketing rhetoric coming out of the unusually lively publisher, we felt the need to ride the spinning wheel and see if the hamster's still kicking.
Kicking and squealing
Hamtaro: Ham-Hams Unite! enjoys the questionable distinction of being the first GBC game we've reviewed this year, but if this is the quality we can expect from the other two or three titles we end up with then, well, the kids are all right! Hamtaro is a very lubby-dubby game made for youngsters and the young at heart. It's a very simple RPG, really, starring a little Hamster with a name of your choosing, (Mugrat for me), whose job it is to guide all the other little hamsters back to the newly constructed clubhouse, where the hamster boss wants to make the grand unveiling. On the way, Mugrat will have to learn the 85 words of the Hamspeak language, which, when used via the A button's pop-up menu, perform particular actions used to unearth seeds (currency), solve puzzles, open doors and, most obviously, converse with other hamsters.
The language is everything from amusing ("Hamsolo") and obvious ("Digdig") to childish ("Go-P") and bespoke ("Tack-Q"?), but you won't get anywhere if you don't speak to every hamster you encounter to pick up more dialogue. Generally, if you run into a puzzle, yapping to the other hamsters in the vicinity (by trying various words on them, from your "Hamha!" greeting to "Tack-Q" which smacks 'em with a rolling attack) will unearth some new word appropriate to the situation. When you hit A and your options for Hamspeaking include question marks, that's a sure-fire hint that you need to find another word nearby to plug the gap and solve this particular problem.
Other than that, the graphics are simple, line-drawn cartoons reminiscent of Pokémon with a palette of greens, browns and beiges, animations consist of walking, running and performing Hamspeak actions, it takes over 10 hours to collect together all the Ham-Hams (which is goodly length, although perhaps a bit much for the kids), and Nintendo has been sure to offer a few distractions along the way. Obviously your principle goal is to collect all 85 words for your Hamspeak dictionary (accessed by Start at any time), but there are also several hidden stars to collect, a few mini-games to unlock (Ham-Jam, a sort of dance game based on Hamspeak and Tack-Q Bowling to name but two), and a 30-item wardrobe to fill with items from the Boutique Ham burrows located around the game world. Buying items like chef hats and so on with your sunflower seeds here enables you to dress up in front of the mirror and take pictures of yourself - which can be used to replace the graphic on the title screen.
When all's nibbled and done, Hamtaro is a very childish game which isn't meant for adults, but which could happily occupy a few hours on a tedious plane flight or car journey for someone of any age. Admittedly it was made for the GBC - as evidenced by how rubbish it looks stretched to fit our GBA screens, and the need for the GBC's IR function to swap clothing items with your Hamtaro-ing buddies - but I doubt the kids will mind, and Nintendo deserves a bit of commendation for translating the game so superbly - as a 10-plus-hour-long Japanese original based around a language barrier, this must have been pretty daunting!
I guess what I'm trying to do is confess that I enjoyed Hamtaro a lot more than someone of my age really should have. It's a silly, childish little game made for kids which I really shouldn't have spent a whole Sunday afternoon playing - at the expense of you-don't-even-want-to-know-what, but despite sweetness to rival a pulse-quickening, heart-threatening Starbucks concoction and a challenge akin to shuffling a deck of cards, Nintendo's abilities as a child's developer shine through here. And whatever the legions of Cube-bashers say, it's not something they should be ashamed to embrace.