Friday, 15 June 2018

Switch Review - Henry the Hamster Handler

With a bizarre name and a child pleasing aesthetic you’ll likely have dismissed ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’. But for less than £3, is there more to enjoy than many realise?

Developed by Pocket Money Games
Released in 2018

In an attempt to make me understand the value of money, my parents gave me pocket money for chores. The more jobs completed around the house the more I’d have to spend at the weekend. I would always aim to get at least 79p per week as that was the amount required to buy a game from the ‘16 Bit Pocket Power Collection’. These were cheaply made or old Amiga games that were sold as individual 3 1/4 inch discs wrapped in plastic. They were usually found hanging on a display looking dubiously like bar peanuts. As is often the case, cheap in this case didn’t always mean good. There was a reason shops stuck to 79p for some of these games; after playing, people would have felt conned if they’d paid any more. For a young boy they presented a way to buy a game a week but for the team at Pocket Money Games, these 79p games were inspiration for a company ethos. 

“I remember them” company director Frankie Cavanagh once said on Twitter, “My first job was selling these!” Years later, as their name implies, Pocket Money Games are once again selling (and now creating) games that children will want to spend their Pocket money on. “The intention of all of our games is to be affordable” claims Cavanagh. However, while their output is suitable for children, PM Games are keen to point out that their titles shouldn’t be over-looked by older players. “Our range is designed for kids and kids at heart, [those] that remember spending their last 50p on ‘ghost and goblins’ in their local arcade” explains Cavanagh.

According to their website this fiercely independent game development studio “are dedicated to creating fun and exciting titles at a price that won't break the bank.” After dabbling in VR Titles on Steam, PM Games have now started producing Switch content. For Cavanagh making games for any Nintendo console was always the dream growing up. “I had to do it” he jokes “it’s Nintendo they made the consoles I played as a kid”. 

Their first Switch exclusive game is ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ which offers gameplay that’ll be familiar to anyone who has played ‘Mario Vs Donkey Kong’, ‘Troddlers’ or ‘Krusty’s Super Funhouse’. “All of our games are influenced by our love of classic arcade and console games” admits Cavanagh. “‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ comes from my love of ‘Lemmings’”.

 
Each of the game’s 300 levels is presented as a single static screen, on which a stream of Hamsters wander along a set route. This journey will lead to their death unless you, presumably as Henry, Handle them. Without intervention the adorable rodents will be crushed, cremated, melted, electrocuted or will plummet to their death. You have no direct control over the Hamsters themselves, you’re only able to modify the stage they inhabit. For them to survive you must disable traps, and activate support items like teleporters and inflators to move the critters to a safer part of a stage. Each level feature has an assigned button that must be pressed when a Hamster is in its radius and a player must protect them on every step of their journey to an escape pipe. As the number of hamsters on screen increases, the more you have to divide your attention. It quickly feels like you’re juggling plates, as you continually scan your eyes over the screen to make sure everyone is safe. A minimum percentage must make it to the exit to progress onto the next stage and pressing a button too early or late deducts an additional percent from your total. This means you can’t just hammer buttons and hope for the best, timing is everything in ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’.

 However, it’s not really a puzzle game, as there’s no real choice for a player. Every level has a single solution and provided a button is pressed when needed you will complete each stage. In this way, despite appearance, ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ is more like a rhythm action game than a ‘Lemmings’ clone. Direction and action button prompts fall down the screen and you simply have to press them at an optimal time. A vocal alert even accompanies these, meaning I could actually complete stages without looking at the screen. 

While it may not be the gameplay you’d expect it’s still a fun and ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ certainly echoes mid-nineties Amiga games. However it’s definitely not a game without fault. Throughout stages there will be repetitions in traps that require the same button to be pressed. While the majority of times a button press will disable the trap that’s closest to a hamster, on some occasions two animals may appear equal distance to danger. In this situation it’s never clear if you need to press the button once or twice. Often you’ll let a hamster die simply because it was a pixel further away from a trap than you’d realised and on that occasion two taps were required.

I also found the difficulty curve to be too erratic. Thinking back to ‘Lemmings’ you had 20 “fun” stages that slowly taught a player the basics. In ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ by the 8th or 9th stage, you’re already expected to be comfortable juggling four or five different simultaneous button presses with very little margin for error. However the difficulty isn’t consistent, as a following level could be harder or significantly easier than what you’ve just completed. There’s probably the right mix of challenge across the entire game it’s just the levels don’t seem to be presented in the best order. Pocket Money Games have said this is to allow for a respite; “people got stuck around level 27 and never played again” says Cavanagh. “But if you know you only have to survive a couple of levels then it will dip you’re more likely to play on”. It makes sense but I personally prefer a more linear difficulty progression. Level 11 should be harder than level 10 but less challenging than level 12.

With 300 stages in this game it’ll last at least 10 hours to finish, but prolonged play sessions makes ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ feel repetitive. Cavanagh acknowledges this though saying that “it's designed to be a pick-up, kill a couple of mins and put down” type of game. This certainly means it works well on the move, or in my case as a treat to my children. “We can play three stages before bath” were words uttered while we played this game.

 Child video game addiction has once again caught the attention of the mass media. it’s nice to have a game that’s so clearly segmented and ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ allows you to easily pick up where you left off on a subsequent play. That being said, a level selection screen is notably absent from the game’s title screen. You can simply “start” which continues with the next uncompleted level or “delete save” which puts you back to the beginning. It would have been nice to retry levels to see if you can get a 100% score on each. The ability to replay favourite’s stages would also have been welcomed as some are far more creative than others. The developers have said this’ll be added in a later patch and it’s reassuring that after release Pocket Money Games are still supporting ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’.

Obviously as this game is intended to be accessible to children it felt only right to play it with mine. My two daughters fell in love with the visuals, which are adorable and cartoony. At various points a Hamster strolls closer to the in-game camera obscuring your view of the level. My youngest in particular found this hilarious even if her older sister was shrieking at the TV for this perceptibly giant hamster to “get out of the way!” Some of the more complicated levels proved too taxing for my girls on their own, but the beauty of the Switch is that the two JoyCons are separate. This meant each daughter could take one and then they had less button prompts to concentrate on. This also, entirely accidentally, turned ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ into a co-op game and there was a real sense of group achievement when they completed a stage. Sadly it was also pretty obvious who had let the side down when a level was failed, which meant a lot of angry finger pointing! 

Tragically the retail world I knew in my youth no longer exists. My daughters can’t take their pocket money to a shop and physically buy a brand new budget game anymore. Everything is now digital and online market places have a habit of disguising the real cost of their content. Free games are very rarely truly free and I can’t be the only parent concerned by which adverts my children must watch to be permitted to play. I would much rather pay an upfront fee and know that my daughters are enjoying a complete game without the danger of them accidentally spending a fortune during play. This is why I’m pleased that companies like Pocket Money Games exist and are committed to bringing more modestly priced games to the Switch. Better yet, they’re making games deliberately for a younger player. “We have three ranges” notes Cavanagh. “Our ‘Lil Kids’ Games will be 7 downwards and the action range is 13 plus”. ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ sits in their “everybody” range and considering it kept my daughters and me amused that’s certainly fair claim. 

You can of course say that the music is repetitive, the backgrounds loop frequently and the story makes no senses at all. However, for the price of admission it isn’t fair to be so critical. I first played ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ drinking a coffee that actually cost more than the game. Is it as good as ‘Breath of the Wild’ or ‘Mario Odyssey’? Of course it’s not, but it’s a twenty times cheaper! It’s a budget title and a significant improvement on the 79p games I kept buying thirty years ago. Intriguingly, allowing for inflation, these games would actually be more expensive than ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ although admittedly you did get a disc and a funny plastic case for your money back in the day. 

I am really excited to see what the 11 person team at Pocket Money Games do next. My children didn’t mind that their ‘Hamster’ game lacked variety or polish, their giggles reminded me of the joy I used to have playing a new game I’d bought with my pocket money. It’s proof that you don’t always have to carry a premium price tag for a short burst of fun and if pocket money games’ goal is to “keep you smiling” they’ll likely succeed with their modest Switch debut.



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A download copy of this game was provided for review. The developers and publishers have not seen the final version of this review prior to publication nor did they have any influence on its content. 


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