Ham-Hams Unite!

2021-03-22

Last year I spent a lot of time in the hospital, taking care of my mother-in-law. Bundled up in a face mask, disposable gloves, and vinyl safety gown, I spent a number of restless days and nights making sure her needs were met. One of the things helping me get through these long shifts in a hospital hellscape was my little emulation handheld, a Bittboy Pocket Go:

I've loaded it up with hundreds of ROMs (which are digital backups of games I physically own, of course) and it's been a great way to explore systems and titles that have gone underappreciated. Case in point...

Hamtaro: Ham-Hams Unite!

I don't have any nostalgia for Hamtaro, so I'm unsure why I even tried this Game Boy Colour hamster simulator. I've only ever had one pet hamster. Her name was Samus, and we were "gifted" her from our next-door neighbour when we were in college. Our neighbour's kids had fought over the hamster, and one of them had injured her left front paw, causing her to constantly have it curled up like a little nub. She still used it to climb the roof of her cage, and loved to chase our cats from within her pink hamster ball. Rest in peace, Samus.

Anyways, this Hamtaro game is a top-down adventure in a secret world of free-roaming talking hamsters. Your goal is to explore playgrounds, shopping centres, junkyards, and "sky cafés" in order to bring all your hamster friends back to the clubhouse for a dance party. Also, you need to learn the hot new lingo, HamChat, which is about 80 words of stuff like "Hamha!" and "DigDig". These words are both language and action, and the core mechanic around which the entire game revolves.

Starting with just a few basic words, you take your hamster out into the world and explore. At any time you can bring up your HamChat menu, which typically has four (but sometimes more) options for you to choose. Use "DigDig" on a patch of loose soil, and you'll dig yourself up a tasty sunflower seed! Walk up to another hamster and say "Hamha!" to greet them. Want to try climbing a tree? You can't, until you learn "Scoochie" from another hamster. Learning new HamChat words literlly expands the game's vocabulary and opens up what you can do. It feels and works a little bit like learning new Pokémon moves, but instead of telling your electric rat to fuckin' body that giant goldfish, you're helping Ham-Hams overcome their self-esteem issues or find some yummy food.

The game's challenge lies in patience rather than skill. There's no death or game overs, no missable Ham-Hams if you make the wrong choices, just exploring and trying out as much HamChat as you can until something happens. Honestly, this is what I found so appealing: as I sat in a place surrounded by death and suffering and the very real fear of catching COVID-19, I could escape into a world of cute furry creatures who all just wanna get along and help each other out.

It helps immensely that the game's animations and sounds are cute as all heck. Each HamChat word has its own animation, and while that can make the pace of the game very deliberate as these animations play out every time you try a word, I never found myself resentful or trying to skip past them. The running animation is the best, though, with a chunky little hamster butt scooting along in a way that made me smile every time I saw it.

This could have been some mindless cash-in game tied to a license, and I bet a lot of folks might still dismiss it as such if they try it today. But honestly, I love HamTaro: Ham-Hams Unite! (the exclamation mark is part of the title and therefore important). It's a window into a world of games I'd like to see more of: using mechanics from genres usually based around conflict, but in a setting where all you do is help each other out, learn new things, and dance party. Especially dance party.