Hamtaro and Sepiroth might be worlds apart, but in the world of role-playing games (RPGs) they couldn’t be closer to my heart. See, the Hamtaro franchise is no stranger to video game adaptations — originally published as a series of children’s books by artist Ritsuko Kawai, the iconic character has seen been seen in a variety of media. Hamtaro’s anime adaptation, however, remains the most popular redinition, which originally aired in 2000 and was produced by Shogakukan. And if you’re looking for an anime theme to get trapped in your brain forever like a haunting spectre of the early 00’s, please feel free to listen to the American Hamtaro ED.
Hamtaro’s game career spanned several handheld titles, most famously the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance with Ham-Hams United!, Ham-Ham Heartbreak, and Ham-Ham Games. These weren’t the only Hamtaro games, but they were the only ones easily accessible to the US audience. And they were, most importantly, solid introductions to the role-playing genre for dozens of kids just getting their feet wet in story-driven games.
Little World, Big Adventures
Ham-Hams United! was developed by Pax Softnica and released in 2001 on the Game Boy Color. As a role-playing game, it was basic: you control Hamtaro in an open-world map from a tiny hamster’s perspective and learn commands to interact with non-playable characters. Every day objects like a cash register or a backyard become massive fields for exploration, adding a sense a wonder to the tiny hamster’s point-of-view. When talking, Hamtaro is able to collect “Ham-chat” words, giving him new dialogue options and progressing the story. This premise of exploring a massive human world and speaking to characters was the essential premise for Hamtaro RPGs, and exactly the kind of soft gaming introduction that hooked me as a kid.
I was vaguely familiar with games like Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts, but I didn’t have the attention-span to sink hours into their intricate plots and combat mechanics. To put it plainly, Sepiroth and Nobodies kinda freaked me out when I was in grade school. Hamtaro, on the other hand, was easy and cute with its bright graphics and familiar characters. In 2002, Pax Softnica released Ham-Ham Heartbreak, which refined the formula of a big world and collecting “Ham-chat” with all the technical polish of the Game Boy Advance.
Ham-Ham Heartbreak also introduced a second playable character, Bijou, and a story about rescuing the broken hearts of upset hamster couples from a devious character named Spat. With the help of a hamster angel named Harmony, Hamtaro and Bijou explore haunted houses, theme parks, and beaches — this time all scaled down to actual hamster size. Ham-Ham Heartbreak resembled more of a dollhouse, a far smaller world than most role-playing games, but still brought with it the hallmarks of previous Hamtaro titles. It was open-world, with little to no pressure to level-up, fight monsters, or solve complicated puzzles: literally a child-safe hamster utopia.
A series primarily fixated on collecting vocabulary words and overworld exploration rather than combat — making the Hamtaro series a traditional role-playing game only in name. Problems were solved, for example, by winning a mini-game where you won hats, or by connecting a battery back to a toy speed boat. Other than the occasional lover’s spat, the Hamtaro world didn’t take the world-changing, life-risking angle of most popular role-playing games. And it worked. Hamtaro’s colorful aesthetic and unique characters were enough. Sadly, around this time, Hamtaro‘s broadcast ratings were sinking, and it was becoming harder and harder to catch episodes on US cable networks. However, little did I know that the Hamtaro universe was much, mucher bigger than anything we’d seen in the US.
A Hamtast Time For Everyone
Between 2003 and 2004, AlphaDream developed Rainbow Rescue and Ham-Ham Games, two very different games with a very different cast of Hamtaro characters. However, to fully contextualize these games requires understanding that the Hamtaro anime never received a complete dub. In fact, Rainbow Rescue was only ever released in the PAL region, meaning it wasn’t properly formatted for US consoles.
The dubbed anime episode “Rainbow Rescue” was only aired in the UK and Canada — weirdly leaving the main character Prince Bo, the hamster prince of rainbows, a total stranger to US viewers. The subsequent dubbed episode “Ham-Ham Games” re-introduced Prince Bo without any explaination, airing in the US to promote the AlphaDream game. Unfortunately, it was also the last dubbed episode to broadcast.
Rainbow Rescue was a bizarre crossroads for Hamtaro. While the game was fully localized in English, it was never released in the US. But that didn’t stop younger me from bugging my mom to import the PAL version from overseas. Although the save function didn’t work on US handhelds, it somehow worked on the Nintendo GameCube Game Boy Player — which led to me sinking hours into the game like a classic console role-playing title. Full of locations to explore, vignette storylines, minigames, and collectibles, Rainbow Rescue felt like a homecoming for the franchise, the perfect realization of everything the previous games were striving to be. The Hamtaro world was rich, but Rainbow Rescue made its simple characters and story feel truly alive like all the best RPGs do.
Although I never got my feet properly wet in mainstream RPGs until I played games like Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy, the elusive nature of Rainbow Rescue and the sense of accomplishment I felt playing it as a US fan made me a lifelong lover of the genre. The simple premise of Hamtaro RPGs promising a big world with tiny characters sincerely made me feel seen as a kid. Without big swords, guns, or magical powers, the Hamtaro games infused the basic building blocks of RPGs with a loving, pacifist touch that truly set them apart.
The mystique of seeing characters in Rainbow Rescue and Ham-Ham Games that never appeared in the dub anime intrigued me the same way seeing Final Fantasy characters did in Kingdom Hearts. I didn’t know these characters or their stories — but they resonated with me with their brief dialogue and unique designs. Game adaptations of popular kids anime often aren’t seen as serious forays in their respective genre, but the Hamtaro RPGs genuinely cared about how their content mingled with their medium. Even if Hamtaro never swung a gunblade, we can still thank a little hamster for redefining what a good, anime-inspired RPG looks like.
Blake Planty is a writer who loves his cat. He likes old mecha anime, computer games, books, and black coffee. His twitter is @_dispossessed.
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