Gamers with excellent memories may recall an old Irem arcade game called Hammerin’ Harry. If you don’t recall that one, then don’t feel bad; I don’t remember it either. According to hardcore gamer lore, it was a westernized version of Gen the Carpenter. North American players controlled a burly construction worker who smashed the evils of capitalism with his mighty mallet. Even though the PSP sequel’s title — Hammerin’ Hero — makes a sly nod towards the western arcade game, it’s actually a faithful translation of Irem’s portable sidescroller . . . so instead of managing a manly man with a hard-hat, we’re controlling a Goemon-ish carpenter as he challenges the Evil Kuromoku Corporation.
The basic concept is about as simple as simple comes. Our mighty Gen stands on the left side of the screen. He walks towards the right side of the screen, jumping over obstacles and smashing enemies with his hammer as necessary. In other words, it’s what we used to call a “platformer”, and if it had been released back during the platformer genre’s heyday — the days of Kid Chameleon and Shinobi 3 — I doubt it would have made much of an impact. Gen’s limited to three attacks, he walks slowly, and most of the enemies spread throughout the game’s 12 very short levels aren’t particularly challenging.
That doesn’t mean Hammerin’ Hero isn’t fun. As proven by their cult classic Gekisha Boy (aka Polaroid Pete), Irem knows how to make an amusing action game. The artwork is presented in a cartoony, colorful style sure to attract the bright eyes of children and nostalgic adults. The wide PSP screen is put to excellent use, providing plenty of room to maneuver while admiring the elaborate boss’s antics, such as the evil volleyball champion who challenges Gen to a deathmatch on the beach. I defeated his scoundrelous serves by passing the ball to a lovely lady who set me up for a hammer-iffic (and blatantly illegal) spike.
All of the bosses are a joy to battle, but the normal enemies — nicely animated as they are — don’t behave nearly so elaborately. Nonetheless, the game challenges players to seek out and hammer all enemies to unlock “personnel files” which reveal curious traits about each Evil Corporate Employee. For example, according to the personnel file, the robotic BLACK GILL has the most detailed fish AI ever. Ever!
As the game progresses, as Gen smashes mechanical fish, titanic battleships, and devious Men In Black with his hammer, he learns new jobs, such as “sushi chef” or “baseball player”, that let him smash things with his . . .
Gen’s not quite as cool as Mega Man — he can’t switch between jobs infinitely — but his girlfriend Kanna cooks him box lunches that provide transformation power. She’s such a nice girl; she even cooks after Gen’s gone on dates to haunted hospitals with older women. Appropriate selection of occupation is important because, as Gen saunters through each brief level, he’ll encounter a number of troubled people. Some of these people are innocent citizens, some are Kuromoku employees, and some are dogs. These troubled individuals are denoted by an “empathy bubble” that Gen can smash away with the appropriate occupation.
Or the inappropriate one. Yoshio Shinoda’s one dream was to build a home for his family, so that they could all live together again. I saw his “empathy bubble”, depicting a picture of a home, and I smashed it. With a baseball bat. Yoshio collapsed to the ground and grabbed my legs, wailing “MY DREAM! MY DREAM!” as tears streamed from his eyes. This slowed me down, so I wiggled the D-pad around until the sniveling fool let go.
After the level was over, Mr. Yoshio Shinoda sent me a “thank you” note. Ahem:
STOP! HAMMER TIME!
Since I could replay levels, I went back and tried a new approach. Instead of smashing the poor man’s dreams with a baseball bat, I used the carpentry hammer to help him build a house. The ensuing thank you note was decidedly more positive. Some grateful citizens actually joined my fight; enemies occasionally give up their evil ways and seek redemption.
So, in this basic platformer where Gen travels from the left side of the screen to the right, smashing things with a hammer, Gen can rejuvenate peoples’ empty souls with his unique brand of tough love. It’s a bit weird, but incredibly cool, and it adds some incentive to experiment. Just earned a new job? Great! Go back and replay earlier levels to see if whacking those dreams with new weapons earns a different note!
This is the kind of game I’d normally play through once, but Irem has provided some nice and unusual motivation for repeat play, proving they’ve learned a thing or two since Gekisha Boy. And at harder difficulties, the already-entertaining boss fights become even more challenging and require new tactics. Hammerin’ Hero isn’t the rebirth of the classic platformer, but it’s a charming and genuinely witty diversion.