“It’s a dude with a big head and an even bigger hammer, how could it not be awesome?” Such was my response when the cashier at my local retailer asked me why I picked up Hammerin’ Hero for the PSP, an obscure Japanese title brought over by Atlus. A throwback to the old Hammering Harry titles, the game is a 2.5D platformer touting stylish visuals, a wacky storyline, and an old school difficulty level. Remarkable on some levels and mediocre on others, Hammerin’ Hero rises above its obscurity to become a title worth checking out for fans of classic 2D platforming.
The game stars Gen, a young carpenter who loves to help others. One day he notices the treacherous Kuromoku gang terrorizing the city and decides to take action to foil their plot. As Gen your first task is to expel the gang from your hometown using your hammer. The controls feel awkward at first, particularly the jumping which is never a good thing when it comes to platformers. The X button jumps, square is a vertical swing and triangle delivers a slow but powerful horizontal attack capable of smashing foes to the background. The D-pad feels better for movement though analog control is also available. During your first few minutes with the game the controls will feel too slow and unresponsive, but after the first couple of stages they should become second nature and you will come to accept the unique pace of the gameplay.
Like most 2D platformers you traverse the stages from left to right, confronting enemies and obstacles in between. Each stage is different with backdrops ranging from abandoned hospitals to baseball stadiums. You’ll encounter a different variety of enemies on each level and different civilians who need Gen’s tough love to smash away their problems. Throughout each level characters in the background will appear with emotion bubbles over them; by knocking them away with your weapon you help them get over their problem and are rewarded with extra points, special items, or their help taking down enemies. Each stage also features either one or two boss battles taking place at the middle and end of the stage respectively.
Combat is fairly straightforward. Most enemies only take one hit to defeat but you must first avoid their attacks long enough to reach them up close. Enemies are drawn with bold red outlines to let you know when they are attacking. Because you die after one hit, it is extremely important to recognize enemy attack patterns and which attack from your arsenal will be most effective. Gen is also armed with a special attack which he can perform up to three times by pressing X, down, and triangle. This special move can be quite handy if you’re in a tight spot. Much of the combat requires you to fire back projectiles at your enemies with a swing of your weapon.
Gen is a man of many talents, as such you’re not restricted to playing through the entire game as a carpenter. Along the way you will unlock different jobs for Gen to take on such as being a baseball player or the most adorable DJ ever. Each occupation feels one of a kind coming complete with their own unique attacks and animations. A few levels require you to play through with a certain job, but for the most part you are free to choose from any you’ve unlocked so far.
The game’s most noteworthy feature happens to be its excessive difficulty. When I say difficult, I mean I died over 100 times over the twelve short stages playing on normal, difficult. The game is never cheap about the difficulty though, you’ll never be attacked by off-screen enemies, but one hit KO gameplay and a limited number of lives means you will quickly familiarize with the game over screen. Perfect timing is a must if you wish to clear any level. You will be forced to memorize enemy behavior to overcome the staggering challenge. When you die you’ll realize it was likely your fault; perhaps you were greedy and tried to attack an enemy too soon. This is where Hammerin’ Hero becomes addictive as you’ll be determined to try again and again until you’ve cleared a level. The boss battles can be particularly nerve wracking due to their length. The challenge is a big part of the game and makes the sigh of relief you’ll breathe after each level feel extremely rewarding. Luckily you receive some help along the way in the form of powerups that increase your defense or attack power. These items will either be littered throughout the level or prepared beforehand by Gen’s would be girlfriend Kanna.
This adventure is a pretty short one. Each level features a time limit but you’re almost never in any danger of it running out. Each of the 12 stages is short and would take less than five minutes to complete if played perfectly. In fact it’s the difficulty that extends the playtime of the game overall. It took me about five hours to beat the game on normal, and the playtime of the two harder difficulties are up from there. A multiplayer mode is available where you race through stages against a friend but it is a dull experience. There is a fair amount of replay value stored onto the disc. Replaying stages with different jobs can be fun and may yield secret items or portions of a level. There are a ton of collectibles to be found including souvenirs that are awarded for completing certain in game tasks, like destroying 200 enemies or unlocking alternate jobs.
Visually, the game looks great. Most of the game is rendered in 3D with a few 2D sprites mixed in the background. The bold lines that comprise the game’s art direction are eye pleasing and look great in motion. The hand-drawn visuals used during story segments look particularly sharp on the PSP screen. Everything is well animated and colorful, Gen in particular. Sadly the splendor of the visuals is bogged down by frame rate hitches which are especially frequent in the game’s multiplayer, making it almost unplayable. The game’s winsome charm ultimately comes through for it though.
The story, while not exactly coherent, takes many humorous twists and turns along the way. Gen and his supporting cast are memorable, bringing you wonderful moments such as fighting Kanna’s bubble of jealousy as a boss when Gen is caught on a trashy reunion TV show with another beauty. The localization seems spot on with full audio in either English or Japanese. The soundtrack is appropriately whimsical even though it isn’t exactly notable.
I had a pretty good time with Hammerin’ Hero but it is obvious this game isn’t for everyone. The difficulty will be too high for gamers with a casual interest in platformers, and the easiest setting is too simple to be satisfying. Others will be turned off by the brevity which even for a $30 game feels short. Pile on top the lackluster multiplayer, awkward controls and constant slowdown, and you have an experience that is only for the most patient and dedicated gamers. Still, if you’ve been dying for an old school platformer on your PSP, this just may be the hero to come to the rescue.