Hammerin’ Harry: the name of an unimaginative yet enthusiastic male porn star? Possibly, but that’s not what we’re looking at today. Obviously. Instead, it’s Tamtex and Irem’s 1993 Game Boy stop-hammer-time-em-up Hammerin’ Harry: Ghost Building Company!

So, is that a building company that’s staffed by ghosts or a company that builds ghosts?

Oh, I see, it’s the former. I shouldn’t be surprised, this is a cutesy Game Boy platformer. It’s unlikely to feature villains who build ghosts, because you know what we call someone who builds ghosts? That’s right, a serial killer.
If the title didn’t give it away, in this game you’ll be playing as a young man named Harry, and he’s got a hammer. He used to have a girlfriend, but she’s just been kidnapped by ghosts. It’s the standard videogame set up, except your abducted girlfriend isn’t a princess and you play as a humble carpenter rather than a mighty warrior or similar.

If there’s something strange with your home’s structural integrity, who you gonna call? Ghost builders! Like all building work, their prices are spookily scarifying! I really like the opening to each stage being both framed as an audience watching in a theatre and beginning with a structure that seems normal at first but then becomes possessed by ghosts. I’ve gotta say, Hammerin’ Harry: Ghost Building Company seems to be going all-out with the presentation and so far it looks really good – cartoony, chunky, with a good sense of fun to it and lots of ghosts. All things worth celebrating, so let’s hope the developers keep it up during the actual gameplay.

Things are off to a good start. The first stage begins with a hockey-masked maniac carrying a saw running towards me, and what else could be better for a game on the Halloween Spooktacular? Not much, if I’m honest. Fortunately these psychos don’t have the immortality of the Jason Voorhees that inspired them and Harry can deal with them by clobbering them with his mallet. Much of the game revolves around clobbering things with your mallet, in fact, so at least the title’s accurate. You can swing your hammer in a very obvious “normal attack” kind of way, and you can hold up on the d-pad to lift the hammer above your head and both poke airborne enemies with it and use it as a kind of wooden umbrella to protect yourself. You can even slam your hammer on the ground, and if you do this just as you land from a jump you’ll send a shockwave along the floor so Harry even has something of a ranged attack.

Much of the game revolves around using Harry’s hammer to bash your way through relatively standard platformer stages, often clonking ghosts or at least items that are possessed by ghosts, like these haunted nails that fly towards Harry’s face and can be swatted aside with your mallet. It’s got that familiar “Game Boy platformer” feel, specifically of the kind where the developer has attempted to compensate for the Game Boy’s technical limitations by using big, easy-to-see sprites and slowing the action down to limit the suffering caused by screen blur, and early impressions are that they’ve done a decent job.

After a little while you’ll face a skeleton construction worker. I had trouble capturing a decent screenshot of them, because they’re shy, bless. You can just about see him peeking in at the edge of the screen, if you can tear your eyes away from the enormous mace that Harry’s now carrying. That’s a power-up you can find, and boy is the mace useful. It can create shockwave attacks without having to jump, for starters, but mostly it’s useful because it’s sheer size means you can use it as a shield and hide behind it. You lose the mace if you take damage, so try not to let that happen.
As for the skeletons, they fight by backing out of Harry’s attack range until they’re far enough away and then firing a projectile at you. That forces them to stand still, so you can jump over the projectile and attack them. Enemies that use this exact same fighting style pop up with great frequency during HH:GBC, so get used to it.

Halfway through the stage you’ll enter the haunted building itself, where the maniacs are (disappointingly, I must confess) replaced by more traditional sheet-type ghosts. They’re still vulnerable to a thorough hammering, mind you, and that’s why he’s called Hammerin’ Harry. Except he’s not always called Harry, and this game is in fact part of a Japanese game series called Daiku no Gen-San. It’s a title that translates as something like Mr. Gen the Carpenter, and HH:GBC is the third game in the series after the arcade original and a NES game. Most of the games are action-focussed bash-em-ups, but they do include a quiz game, some pachinko spin-offs (of course) and even a short anime series. Knowing that he’s originally a Japanese character means some aspects of Harry’s design make more sense, like his hachimaki headband and his belly warmer. Those are called haramaki, and you’ll sometimes see them in games and anime being worn by the “gruff older man” type character. The Kingdom Hearts version of Cid Highwind wears one, for instance. Also (and this is my favourite bit of trivia for a while) according to the haramaki Wikipedia page a modern resurgence in the wearing of haramaki is attributed to Shigesato Itoi. Yes, the bloke responsible for designing the Mother / Earthbound games.

Hey look, a doughnut! These sweet, tasty treats restore a block of Harry’s health, although unusually you only start with three out of your five potential hit points, so you can “overcharge” your health. There are also hard hats to pick up that protect Harry from one hit’s worth of damage… and I think that’s about it for power-ups. Oh, there are extra lives here and there, too. Okay, now that’s all of them.

The game wastes no time in bringing back the construction skeletons. I told you they would, and while in later stages they’re at least given different sprites even if they fight identically, here it’s just Harry versus two skeletons. Well guess what, you bony bastards? I’ve got the mace, so I can use the shockwave to hit you from halfway across the screen. Try cautiously backing away from that.

Eventually you’ll reach the first boss, which is a large, sentient nail wearing a babygrow. The pointed tip of its nail-body sticks out menacingly between its legs, which is probably why the boss looks so shocked.
As you’d expect from the first boss of the game, it’s a fairly straightforward battle: you hit the boss, it takes damage and causes a rain of debris to fall from the ceiling which you can either avoid, or you can lift up your hammer and hide underneath. That’s about it, although the fight is saved from being too tedious by the boss nail flying across the room and sticking into the wall when you hit it. It’s a very fun touch, and so far HH:GBC has had a few of those even if the gameplay has been a bit obvious.

Then the head ghost pops back up just to zap Harry with a ghost laser. What a dick. Dick Dastardly, specifically - the ghost seemed like it was already long gone and if it’d just tried to put more distance between itself and Harry its evil (yet vague) plans would be better served than by returning to the scene of the crime and ecto-zapping our hero.

The what now?

Oh, right. The air fight. Of course. Yes, it’s a side-scrolling shooter section, and I have made my feelings about platformers shoehorning in side-scrolling shooter sections plain many times in the past. To reiterate: it very rarely feels like anything but lazy padding, with none of the excitement of a real shooter. This is definitely the case with HH:GBC’s shooter segments, which are slow, cumbersome and just not interesting. Not on a gameplay level, anyway: as seems to be a running theme with this game, they’re saved by the presentation. The chainsaw-wielding air-ghosts are cool, but best of all is that Harry is still suffering from the debilitating effects of the ghost laser and when you’re not touching the controls he flaps about in breeze like a damp hanky.

Even a boring shooter segment that only provides the bare minimum amount of gameplay required to be a shoot-em-up has to have boss battles, and this one is no different. I’ve got two options for how to describe this thing: it’s either a flying totem pole, or it’s the back end of an airship and these skeletal faces are the engines. I like the latter option, because then I can pretend that this airship is propelled through the air by the constant, agonised screaming of these mummified skulls and that would be terrifying.

Stage two is the Ghost Factory, and the name is a cruel trick: I was hoping for an endless array of spooks and spectres being built on an assembly line while “Powerhouse” plays in the background, but what I got was an underwater level. Yay, everyone loves those. Okay, so this one isn’t too bad. I think it’s because the usual problem with underwater levels is that they make your character move far more slowly, but Harry moves slowly anyway so it’s not that much of a change. You’re still moving slowly through the levels and hitting things with your hammer, it’s just that now you can hold the jump button to swim all the way to the top of the screen.

Turns out Harry’s plan was to sneak into the ghost factory by swimming through the sewers, and he’s almost made it into the main building when he’s attacked by what I think is a Frankenstein. It’s the flat-top that’s doing it, this thing is either a reanimated creature made from human parts or someone dropped a clothes iron onto its head during childhood. Whatever it is, it fights in exactly the same way as the skeletons from the first stage, except instead of throwing a stone projectile at Harry it vomits up an eyeball. Look, in the packed marketplace of horrible videogame monsters you need something that makes you stand out from the crowd and if that thing is “the ability to projectile vomit eyeballs” then godspeed to you, buddy.

Finally, it’s the “factory” part of the ghost factory! This is a videogame, so you know what that means – conveyor belts, and plenty of them, often positioned over bottomless pits. The main thing this section taught me is that any time I jump in a platformer I attack by instinct. Decades of videogaming mean my brain is now hard-wired to attempt jumping kicks / jumping fireballs / jumping hammer-blows, and I didn’t even realise I was doing it until I reached this stage in HH:GBC. That’s because swinging your hammer in mid-air causes Harry to lose some momentum, and if you attack while you’re jumping over a death-pit it’ll slow you down enough that you’ll fall and die rather than easily clearing the gap. That was a lesson it took a lot of unnecessary deaths for my brain to register, let me tell you.

Here’s the boss of the ghost factory – or should that be foreman? - and it’s disappointingly non-ghostly. It’s a robot, that’s what it is. A robot with bombs. The bombs have timers on them, and you can knock them around the room with your hammer. Now, I’m sure that you, being the wise and perceptive person you are, have immediately realised that to beat this boss you need to hit their own bombs back at them. Indeed, that is how you beat this boss. However, I did not figure this out for an embarrassingly long time, and I just kept trying to smash the robot with my mallet. You know what they say about how every problem looks when all you have is a hammer.

Then there’s another flying section, after Harry is launched out of a cannon, circus-style. It’s the same as the other flying section even though you’re not in an aeroplane. Harry doesn’t need a plane when he can fire missiles out of his face. I feel like they cold have given Harry a more carpentry-inspired ranged attack, like rapid-firing nails or dual-wielded caulk guns, but missiles is what we’ve got and I suppose they’re good enough to take on this boss. I’ve got no idea what the boss is supposed to be, but those things sticking out of its back are missiles and when it attacks it reaches behind itself, grabs one and throws it at you, which is a good way of giving a bit of visual flair to what is a very bog-standard “avoid the easily-avoidable projectiles” shooter boss.

The cannon propels Harry all the way to the next stage – the Ghost Airship. It’s got airship, it’s got ghosts, what more could you want? The first portion of the level involves landing atop the airship and using your melee weapon to batter anything that gets in your way. I’ve played quite a lot of Battlefield 1 recently, so it’s nice that the zeppelin-surfing skills I learned in that game have transferred over to this one.

Then you get inside the airship and suddenly things get a lot more hectic. Without wanting to sound heartless or anything, there are plenty more fish in the sea, Harry. Maybe just find another girlfriend, one that hasn’t been kidnapped by ghosts? As the song goes, I’d do anything for love but I won’t do that, and in this case “that” means “swing along these dangling ropes which would be fine except once you’re on the ropes it triggers the advancing buzzsaws and the whole thing gets a bit too stressful for me.” It all feels rather reminiscent of the stages in Super Mario World that featured moving platforms and dangling electric blades, and I suppose if you’re going to take “inspiration” from another game it might as well be from the best. Obviously this isn’t nearly as good as the Super Mario World equivalent, mostly because the small screen size and large sprites compresses the action into annoyingly tight confines. It’s not terrible, and HH:GBC is competent enough throughout that the gameplay never really dips into absolute bullshit territory, but it’s not much fun either. Especially when the devil-babies turn up and start throwing bombs at you. That’s just not necessary, devil-baby.

By this point, it has become clear that HH:GBC is a mediocre action-platformer with dull shoot-em-up sections, but it’s trying to hide this fact by going all-out with the presentation – and when it gets the presentation right, it really shines and this boss battle is a great example of that. The “camera” zooms out at the beginning of the fight, so you get a tiny Harry sprite to control, the whole airship in view and a giant ghost to fight. The ghost attacks by dropping a torrential downpour of smaller and presumably more expendable ghosts on Harry’s head, and all you have to do is survive until you get a safe moment during which you can whack the airship, causing a chunk of it to fly up and hit the main ghost. Of course, that means you’ve got less airship to stand on with every hit you land on the boss, and of all the fights in HH:GBC I think this is the best. It’s a simple concept, but it’s challenging without being annoying and, as I say, the presentation is great.

Next up is the jungle stage. Is it a spooky jungle? I suppose so. Not as spooky as the haunted house at the beginning of the game, naturally, but it’s still got ghosts in it and anywhere can be spooky with enough ghosts. In this case, these ghosts fight in exactly the same way as the construction skeletons and the eye-vomiting Frankensteins, except they throw, I dunno, energy fists at you a la Ryu and Ken’s hadokens. On closer inspection, I’m not even sure they are ghosts. They’re wearing shoes, for starters. What kind of ghost wears shoes? Someone who died in a horrible velcro accident and this is their ironic punishment?

HH:GBC had been teetering on the edge of losing my attention for a while at this point, but this is the part of the game where I decided that, while I was definitely going to finish the game I was doing so under duress. Harry has to creep along this corridor, which is split into three narrow, horizontal pathways. The pathways are patrolled by these scuttlin’ skulls, which can’t be destroyed and can only be temporarily slowed by hammering them. If the skulls run into Harry they don’t just hurt him – they also push him back towards the left, and if you let them push you too far they’ll crush you against the left edge of the screen and cause you to immediately lose a life. At first they’re easy to avoid by simply switching which of the three paths you’re on, but eventually the skulls start covering all the paths and you have to slow one of them down to create a gap that you can use to switch paths. Sounds fair enough, and it would be if Harry’s hit detection didn’t suddenly start feeling way more vague than it did before. Perhaps it was only the added tension of it being a difficult section, but I’m sure that I was getting hit by the skull at distances that other enemies couldn’t hurt me from. Oh, and there are regular enemies patrolling these pathways, too, just in case you thought this section was too much fun.

The boss fight is much better, something I rarely find myself saying about autoscrolling sections during boss battles. Your target is the fish in the water below, and to defeat it you have to knock the spiky little creatures off the moving platforms and onto the fish’s face. That’s all well and good, but I mostly bring it up because the little spiky things were giving me intense memories of something from my childhood, but I couldn’t remember what. I’m not saying it kept me awake at night, but while I was being tortured into insomnia by all the usual mental terrors of adult life there were definitely a couple of nights that had the undercurrent of “and what the hell are those spiky things?!” Well, you’ll be happy to know that I realised they remind me of The Slinx from the Fuzzbuzz series of kid’s reading books. Now there’s a reference that’s only going to make sense to a tiny sliver of VGJunk’s readership. In fact, I think it might just be me.

Then, a volcano. It isn’t specifically referred to as a ghost volcano, but I have to assume that’s what it is because it has a face. All these other poltergeists and demonic entities are thinking too small when they’re possessing creepy dolls or little girls, they should get out there and take control of a volcano. What are the odds of the Catholic church finding two priests that are both a) well-versed in exorcism and b) fit enough to climb a volcano?
This might look like a boss fight, but it isn’t, not really. All the volcano does is fire loads of boulders into the air, and Harry is almost entirely safe if he hides under his hammer. What you do get from this scene is a lot of power-ups, more than enough for a full health bar and a hard hat, plus so many extra lives that I managed to max out the counter. Okay, now I’m worried about what’s waiting in the next stage.

The final level is the Ghost Building Battle, and most of it consists of a series of miniboss encounters with this chicken-legged, xenomorph-headed battle droid. In the first couple of phases its main attack seems to be firing popcorn at you, so, you know, not the deadliest threat Harry has ever faced.

That changes after a couple of battles, when the boss stops employing anything resembling a strategy and just chucks huge spiked balls at you. They don’t go away, either, bouncing and clanking around the screen while Harry desperately tries to dodge them for long enough to land a hit on the boss. Again, the small play area and big sprites make avoiding the spiked balls far less enjoyable than it could have been, although my suffering is tempered by the droid becoming more battle-damaged as the fights progress. There’s something charming about its ghoulish robo-face, you can practically hear it trying to come up with threats to shout at Harry without using the phrase “hammer my balls.”

In the interests of brevity – a foolish concern at this point, I grant you – I’ve skipped the few rooms inside the final building because they’re nothing but bland single-screen arena where you have to avoid something dangerous while occasionally swatting at a weak point hanging from the ceiling. There’s even another section spend dodging the spiked balls. It didn’t get any more enjoyable in the four minutes since I last avoided them.
That means we’re here at the final boss, and once again HH:GBC’s flaws are forgotten at the sight of a giant mechanical skull – complete with mad, swivelling eyes – that’s piloted by a ghost. I’m past caring that the gameplay isn’t much fun once the boggle-eyed mechanoskulls are wheeled out, you know? As for the actual fight, the boss throws bombs and small spiked balls at Harry. Avoid the bombs and hit the spiked balls so they fly back across the screen and hit the ghost pilot. Of course that’s easier said than done and getting the balls to fly at the correct height takes a bit of trial and error, but it could have been a lot worse.

With the evils scheme of the Ghost Builders brought to an end, Harry is reunited with his girlfriend. Rather than the usual mad dash to escape the crumbling enemy fortress, the pair of them just… calmly walk away, protected as they are by the impenetrable umbrella that one assumes is meant to represent the all-conquering power of love. It’s great, and Hammerin’ Harry’s sense of humour is much more appealing than its gameplay so maybe I should have just watched the anime adaptation.

Harry and his lady friend sail away into the sunset. On a missile. An enemy missile. Let’s hope it doesn’t have pre-programmed target coordinates, or at least let’s hope those coordinates are targeting Harry’s house as a last-ditch revenge attempt by the ghosts. That way it’ll drop him off at home! Also, try not to look at Harry’s unpleasant four-fingered hand. Oops, too late, you looked at it, didn’t you? I think Harry’s the secret fifth Ninja Turtle.

Deep in the bowels of the Ghost Building Company, the leftover fragments of the machinery are still active, and they’re re-resurrecting the spirits of the dead! What, you thought you’d killed all the ghosts? They’re ghosts, they’ll be fine. And I’m glad they’ll be fine, because they’re a precious bunch of spooks and their goofy charm is definitely HH:GBC’s biggest plus point – for me, anyway.
I’m having a difficult time explaining my feelings about this one, honestly. When I first finished playing through Hammerin’ Harry: Ghost Building Company, I was left with the overall impression that it was a fairly decent game enlivened by some really excellent presentation, but when I came back to it a while later to write about it, my feelings had soured somewhat. Now it all feels a bit generic and honestly kinda boring – overly-familiar platforming action, uninspired shooter sections, repetitive monster fights… but then I can imagine it’s a game that a lot of people would like. It mostly plays well and the slower place definitely helps it. Perhaps I’m just a bit burned out on the genre, but HH:GBC didn’t quite do it for me. Don’t let that put you off trying it, though, my taste in almost everything is not so great.

No pumpkins? Boo! But plenty of ghosts, so booOOoo! The good kind of boo! It loses something of the ghost theme in the later stages but there’s more than enough Halloween flavour for HH:GBC to earn its place on the spooktacular and I think a seven out of ten is fair. And hey, who cares if it’s not fair? This is my Halloween rating system, I can do what the hell I like with it.

1 comment:

  1. "Hammerin’ Harry: the name of an unimaginative yet enthusiastic male porn star?"
    That's rude, sir.
    Hammerin Harry is superior construction-themed platform action game.
    It's first come out in Arcade before 90's


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