TikGames aren’t shy about Hamsterball’s roots, a sensible decision seeing as how both Super Monkey Ball and Marble Madness are unmistakably the spiritual parents of what is something of a bipolar game. Split firmly into two main game types (plus a third, multiplayer only ‘Sumo’ mode) the studio’s latest title is very much part racing through a downhill course from one camera angle and part carefully negotiating a downhill course from another. Brazen, bold and openly flirting with SEGA’s sensibilities, Hamsterball offers PS3 owners their very own Monkey Ball – the only surprise is that it’s taken 9 years for somebody to ape the glorious Gamecube classic.
So, to Hustle mode then, a one or two player race down increasingly dangerous levels full of pits, spikes and barriers but mostly missing much of the charm that distinctly formed the style of the game it’s desperately emulating . Gone are the lush jungle backgrounds and delicate texturing and in place are garish patterns and formulaic tunnels – Hamster Ball might control as if it’s powered by Monkeys but it certainly doesn’t look like it. It’s also too fast, with too much emphasis on speed as opposed to precision, which makes the multiplayer races a giggle but the single player too much of a battle with the clock when it should have been more about the level design.
Regardless, despite Hustle being billed as the game’s ‘main’ mode, Hamster Ball is all about ‘Stunt’ mode and the follow-on ‘Trial’ mode, played against the clock (and by extension, the times of your online friends). Leaving to one side the behind the camera view, Stunt mode is played almost exactly like the aforementioned Marble Madness – from above and almost at an isometric angle. Carefully (but quickly) edging your hamster down the course, avoiding the various traps and enemies along the way is a tense and challenging experience, enjoyment heightened by the smart track layouts and continued introduction of ever more clever mechanical dangers.
Both modes are presented with the same visual identity, but it works much better in Stunt mode than it does in Hustle because in the latter everything’s flashing past you as you pinball along the courses – the strict challenges laid out in the former mean that although the action is a little slower the sharp clarity of the graphics makes it easy to focus on the job ahead. Sixty frames a second is essential for smooth control and thankfully the game keeps up the magic framerate across the board, with only two player split-screen race understandably dropping to thirty. The only real bugbear visually was why the game disgards the decent character art for a generic, ‘realistic’ hamster in-game.
The final mode is one cribbed from another Nintendo-originating game. The one to seven player ‘Sumo’ mode comes straight from Mario Party and whilst it’s great fun for a short diversion it’s obvious that it’s only intended to be exactly that. Unlocking additional areas to battle on is a must, but once you’ve got a few under your belt to choose from it’s well worth a shot post-pub with a few mates, although the AI puts up a decent attempt if you’re a few Dual Shocks short. At the very least, you can’t fault TikGames from trying to cover all bases, although I’m shocked that there’s not a side-on platforming section and a bit where you sail around in a boat looking for 8 pieces of treasure…
- Great framerate.
- Stunt mode is addictive, should have been the game’s main mode.
- Visuals can lack identity.
- Hustle mode needed to be slower paced, or make it a straight ‘race’ mode.
- Great, cute character art disregarded in-game for a real hamster model.
- There’s not enough levels, Stunt mode in particular is over with too quickly.
Hamster Ball is clearly a display of enthusiasm and fun from a studio with a fantastic output rate on the PlayStation Network. There’s plenty to nibble at, and for a cent under ten dollars (European pricing and release date still to be confirmed) it’s well worth a punt. Hustle mode left me disappointed, but Stunt mode is fabulous and the time trials display that compulsive additive quality that gives games like this extraordinary life. There’s nothing particularly stand-out about the game, but anyone wanting a break from the norm (and who doesn’t own a Gamecube and an Amiga) would do well to take Hamster Ball for a roll. Simple, but charming.