Given how prevalent cross-platform titles are today, it’s easy to forget just how important individual platforms used to be. Not for their technical specifications, mind you, but because of how each platform asked the player to engage them. They appeared in different environments, appealed to different audiences, and occupied different parts of our lives. So it’s only natural that video games designed for different platforms would reflect these unique circumstances. Games for portable systems, for instance, focused on straightforward systems and small play sessions because they expected the player to engage the game in very short bursts. Meanwhile, PC games appealed to a more technically inclined audience with complex systems that demanded more of the player.
Even within these categories, there remains a degree of fluidity. Or at least that’s the logic Hammerin’ Harry is working on. It’s clear that this early 90s platformer is operating in the arcade tradition, which is why it’s so remarkable to see how the game break from that tradition. For all the game does to capture the feel of arcade games, it refuses to see them as games of skill. In fact, it challenges that notion: rather than look at these games as being about difficulty, Hammerin’ Harry asks that we look at arcade games for novelty above all else. What appears to be a minor change in focus has broad consequences for how the game plays out.
Not that the game initially looks the part. If anything, Harry looks like a very conservative Mario-esque platformer. The eponymous hero jumps through elaborate obstacle courses, collecting fancy power-ups and hammering away at anybody between him and his goal. Advance a little further through the game, however, and you’ll realize just how important novelty is to the game. You’ll smack bombs away in a digital game of Whack-a-Mole, and juggle enemies about the screen with your hammer. The only logic that connects these interactions is, “How else might we make this toy more fun to play with?”
Gimmicky as this may sound, I think the game touches on something that other arcade games at the time weren’t as concerned with. We often hear this narrative about how arcade games were brutally difficult so as to squeeze more quarters out of young players. It’s a cynical narrative, but one that speaks to a fundamental aspect of video games. Difficulty is never an end in itself; it is always a means to a greater end. While the arcade owner’s end was profit, the player’s end was more psychological. They wanted to affirm a specific narrative: that they’re somebody who matters, somebody with complete control over life.
Naturally, a challenging arcade game was the perfect opportunity to affirm that narrative. The skilled player could see all their hard work rewarded right before them. Their score rose in direct relation to the effort they put in, and the game recognized their deeds by placing their name atop the high score list. That latter fact also speaks to the performative aspect of arcade play: it was done not only for the individual, but also for an implied audience.
Hammerin’ Harry doesn’t neatly fit into that tradition. On some level, the game might be rebelling against it. Unlike other arcade games, Harry doesn’t expect the player to fulfill a predefined role. They’re perfectly fine as they are. So rather than design scenarios that test the player’s skill, the game designs spaces that invite the player’s touch. There are no overt pressures to perform here. While the game does present you with enemies to hit and a timer to outrun, it also obscures the goals these elements typically relate to. All the focus is on novelty, and the inherent enjoyability of each act. The player is free to appreciate their actions for what they are; to explore and experiment with the game’s structures as they see fit. It’s the complete inverse of what Harry’s peers were doing: instead of asking the player to respond to the game’s demands, the game has to respond to the player’s.
This isn’t to say that the game completely rejects contemporary design standards. In fact, the game’s design is very similar to other arcade games. Like its peers, Hammerin’ Harry knows to use sparse detail to focus the player’s attention and limit how much information they’re presented with at any given time. It’s just that in this case, how the game presents its action changes how we perceive them.
And that’s precisely what makes the game so interesting, even into today. We live in a world where skill-based games won out and shaped how we look at games. We demand complex games that reward skill, dismissing games without a place for skill (or those that don’t cater to it well enough) as relying on cheap gimmicks. Hammerin’ Harry, however, finds substance in those gimmicks. It infuses them with an arcade simplicity, and crafts an experience that’s just as valid as any of its peers’. Maybe we shouldn’t look at this as a game. Like the WarioWare games, maybe we should look at Hammerin’ Harry as a toy presented through game-like systems.