Flying Hamster HD is a re-release of The Game Atelier's wacky ode to the arcade SHMUP genre for the PlayStation Vita. As the HD subtitle suggests, the game's 2D visuals look gorgeous on the Vita's 5 inch screen. Besides the optimized graphics, the game's charm comes from its persistent difficulty and nonsensical level design. The narrative, told through gorgeously drawn animation stills between levels, depicts Newton the flying hamster on a quest to save his girlfriend who is abducted after finding a golden acorn.
The controls are simple. The Dpad and analog stick can be used to move Newton the flying hamster left, right, up, and down. The X button is used to fire single shots of your selected weapon and fire charged shots when held for a few seconds. The circle button is used to launch rapid fire shots. This is just the most basic and (for me) comfortable of the 4 available control schemes. Other options take advantage of the touchscreen, the rear touchpad, and the motion sensors. These all work well enough but I get the sense that they are only available to differentiate the Vita version from the rest.
You only have 3 hearts that represent your health. Occasionally an item pick-up comes along that will replenish one heart. Once your life is depleted you get to continue if you have any remaining credits left. If you run out of credits then it is game over and you have to start again from square one. This can be quite frustrating but it is a type of frustration that the developers want you to experience; the path to success requires memorizing enemy attack patterns and knowing what dangers lay ahead in the levels.
While progressing through the levels you will pick up weapons that deal more damage than the default spit balls Newton fires at enemies. Weapons include bananas that act like boomerangs by launching forward then abruptly changing direction so you can attack foes behind you. You can also utilize explosive chicken eggs, streams of beer, fireballs, and more. Each weapon becomes useful in specialized situations and helps to diversify the gameplay of this short whimsical adventure.
The levels are strung along in a very disjointed manner. One minute you will be zooming through the pyramids of Egypt and not long afterwards you will be exploring the innards of an alien spaceship. The variety of enemies is similarly diverse. Common foes include gun-toting penguins, heavyset mermaids, and what can only be described as floating spermatozoa. That is not to say anything of the boss battles capped off by skirmishes with a leather-clad rat in the streets in Tokyo and a juvenile alien that is toying with you just as much you are playing with it.
One unfortunate side effect of the game's credit system is that the main adventure only lasts 5 levels. This means it is manageable to beat the game in one sitting but also that most of your playtime is spent replaying the levels until you clear the final boss. The game costs $3.99, which is fair in relation to the amount of quarters you would throw away on credits if this were in an actual arcade, but it's also twice the price of the already-available Minis version which is compatible with the Vita. Then again, this is a re-release, so some added value is to be expected. This comes in the form of 15 new trophies and two leaderboards. Once you beat the game for the first time you unlock hard mode and the ability to cycle through your weapons at will. Overall, Flying Hamster HD will not put a huge dent in your digital pockets but a bit more content would have sweetened the purchase.
Flying Hamster HD is a fun, though at times frustrating side-scrolling shooter romp that harkens back to a largely forgotten arcade niche. If you are not in the mood to go through the whole adventure in one sitting again you can just play small sections of the game's free play mode, which is a nice compromise. It's not exactly a gaming experience you will remember for a long time to come but it is enjoyable enough while it lasts to recommend for those who love their games both unbelievably difficult and unbearably cute.
This review is based on a digital copy of Flying Hamster HD for the PSVita.