More style than substance

  • Developer: Tamtex
  • Publisher: Irem
  • Release Dates: July 31st, 1992 (Japan), 1993 (Europe and Asia)
  • Available On: Game Boy
  • Genre: 2D Platformer

Ah, good ol’ Irem. As the company responsible for arcade hits like Kung Fu Master and R-Type as well as now-cult classics like In the Hunt and Ninja Baseball Bat Man, you’d think they’d get a bit more reverence than they do. Transitioning out of the video game industry to do pachinko sure doesn’t help with that (though some of their members live on through Granzella), but I would still think their contributions would get more attention nonetheless. It feels like coverage of their catalog and history pales in comparison to other big Japanese third parties like Namco, to say nothing of how much it pales in comparison to the usual big boys. Admittedly, Irem has a history of concealing the names of the people who developed their games to (supposedly) prevent poaching, so that probably makes it harder to document their work in a satisfying and holistic manner. They’re a bit like Taito, I suppose: historically important and incredibly talented, but rarely ever acknowledged in the current landscape of gaming culture as much as they should be. Irem really had a knack for making games that looked incredible, played well, and didn’t hesitate to kick your ass. Most games in the long forgotten Hammerin’ Harry (or Daiku no Gen-san as it’s known in Japan) series fit this description perfectly, and the first Game Boy entry, Ghost Building Company, takes the experience of the original arcade game and adapts it to Nintendo’s portable device in a way that’s really impressive to behold. You’d think lots of compromises would have to be made to get it to work, but Ghost Building Company is instead a shining jewel of presentation for the Game Boy. This game really looks incredible! The simplistic gameplay of the arcade game is carried over too, for better or worse, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

This particular entry was handled by a subsidiary of Irem called Tamtex, which previously worked on several NES games published by Irem like Spartan X 2 and Metal Storm. They failed to survive after Irem restructured in 1994, which is a shame considering their multiple successes and how much potential they still had to grow and really knock peoples’ socks off. Metal Storm is one of the better known cult classics of the NES (bit of an oxymoron, I know) and the team had proven themselves as being able to keep the Hammerin’ Harry series going with a solid Famicom conversion of the original, this game, and another Game Boy entry called Robot Teikoku no Yabou, so you can see why I think they would have continued to do increasingly great things given time and more advanced hardware. Perhaps due to Ghost Building Company’s 1992 release date (which is pretty close to Tamtex’s closure in 1994, likely leaving little time to work on more projects), most of the employees credited for this game on Mobygames don’t seem to have gone on to do much of anything else. Programmer T. Kudo got a “Special Thanks” credit on R-Type III, Graphic designer K. Tajima got the same along with a supervision credit on Bust-A-Move, and T. Murakami (another graphic designer) had a “CAD” credit for Wizardry V in the same year, but that’s it, and the rest of the team either had credits predating this game or had this game as their sole credit (again, going by Mobygames, not necessarily hard evidence).

Based on what I’ve written so far, you may have noticed that this is actually the second entry in the series, not the first. Normally, I’m pretty strict about going through every entry in a series in order, but here I have what I like to think is a valid excuse – I wanted to test out my Analogue Pocket that I’ve been neglecting due to the much slower than expected turnout for updates, naturally! It’s a beautiful piece of hardware and I have plenty of cartridges to play on it, but what I really want is the promised screenshots feature. I can record footage off it while it’s docked just fine (which is how I got the screenshots you see here), but the convenience of it being tied to a single button press just sounds so nice. Regardless, I can easily see myself going back to the first one and then going through the rest of this series someday based on my experience with this game. I’ve always been curious about this series ever since I grabbed a copy of the PSP game to eventually try out (I haven’t yet, which is typically how this goes!). In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that we even got that PSP game here in North America considering how this was a practically unknown entity here, but I can’t imagine it sold particularly well, which is probably part of why this series is no longer around. This game certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s charming as heck and that’s enough for me!

Harry’s girlfriend (her name is Kanna in the Japanese version, but I couldn’t find a source for her localized name) has been kidnapped by ghosts, and it’s up to you to ensure Harry is a bad enough dude to save her. A simple premise to be sure, but the contrast between Harry’s ordinary occupation (a carpenter) compared to his spooky otherworldly opponents makes for a really amusing hook. Who knew the secret to defeating ghosts was to smack them with a giant hammer? I’d probably be more into Ghostbusters if that was how they did things! Jokes aside, this change in setting and tone compared to the first Hammerin’ Harry makes for a more varied and unpredictable game and it benefits greatly from being full of surprises. The first level is simple enough, being a quick jaunt through a construction site and then a haunted mansion, but later levels send you through the sky in shoot em up sequences, make you fight through a ghost-run factory, have you navigating an airship, force you to fend off rocks in front of a volcano, and challenge you to navigate through treacherous caves. Despite its somewhat slow pace during gameplay, this game isn’t afraid to throw you from setpiece to setpiece with a palpable eagerness and that design choice synergizes so well with the game’s presentation.

As mentioned before, Ghost Building Company is a bonafide showpiece for the Game Boy. The characters are incredibly expressive, well animated, boast huge sprites for the platform, and the backgrounds are elaborately detailed with regular use of parallax scrolling to simulate high speed movement. While not quite as huge, the sprites remind me of Sumo Fighter on the Game Boy in regards to their size. Big sprites aren’t always conducive to good gameplay (and this game indeed has that problem in places), but boy do I love how they look! As the protagonist, Harry naturally has the most going on. Just like the arcade game, Harry starts each level with a voice sample and says “Ouch!” whenever he dies. It’s difficult to make out what he’s saying when you start a level, but his pained expression plus the big speech bubble that says “Ouch!” makes that part pretty obvious in contrast. Harry also has several unique animations dedicated to specific levels. When you’re flying an airplane in the first shoot ’em up level, Harry does this weird waving thing with his arms when you’re not shooting that makes him look like one of those Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Men. I honestly have no better way of explaining it, but it’s so cute and jolly! A particularly remarkable example of visual prowess lies with the boss of the airship level. There, you’re pitted against a ghost that drops tons of other ghosts towards you as you try to destroy the airship. What makes this part so cool is the scale of it – because the boss and airship are so gigantic, Harry’s sprite is shrunk down to portray the fact that he’s so miniscule in comparison. It’s an amazing spectacle of an idea and it does so much heavy lifting for what is otherwise a simple fight. This trick is rarer than it should be (Golden Sun is the only example that comes to mind right now), but every time it comes up, it blows me away!

Look at him go!

Utilizing the horror theme to its fullest, the game uses a theater as a framework for your progression. In between levels, alongside beautiful scenes of Harry chasing after his girlfriend, you’ll get to see people watching what’s going on – they’ll clap, they’ll cheer, some will leave and others will take their place, and they’ll move to different seats as the show goes on. It’s a wonderful bit of presentation that asserts the development team’s love for classic horror movies – the theme is no mere gimmick and is instead a core piece of the full picture, something that the game would lose a lot from not having. Strangely, not many of the enemies fit into established horror archetypes; you encounter ghosts and dudes with hockey masks on, sure, but you also fight things like rock creatures, caped superhero looking guys, a giant fish, and a surprising number of robots and machinery. This still makes a degree of sense considering the whole “Ghost Building Company” thing, but I was surprised that obvious horror elements like witches, werewolves, and ghouls didn’t make it in. There isn’t even a single reference to Frankenstein’s monster… It’s weird! Despite that, I choose to see this as a desire from Tamtex to innovate rather than ride on well-worn coattails – horror comes in an infinite number of shapes and forms, and things like robots and falling from incredible heights can certainly be scary under the right circumstances. Plus, the sheer difficulty of this game at times is pretty dang scary as well!

The scale of this boss fight is a joy to behold

Though its presentation is intensely elaborate, the gameplay of Ghost Building Company couldn’t get any simpler. You walk forward, you jump when needed, and you smack things with your hammer. That’s… it, really, but like any piece of art, the devil’s in the details. When swinging your hammer, you can do it in four different ways depending on where you are or what direction you’re pressing. You can swing straight ahead on the ground or in the air and then you can do a crouching ground strike and a maneuver where you lift the hammer directly above your head. The ground pound is better than it looks since it has a lower profile than the other attacks and even seems to stun onscreen foes for a split second. The vertical attack serves as your obvious anti-air and the other two attacks are as straightforward as they look. Spacing is key in this game, and by using your four attacks where appropriate, you can generally keep pushing forward while keeping enemies out of your personal space. If you’re lucky enough to find a spiked hammer, that power-up will make your life much easier. Not only does it look extremely cool to wield a massive spiked hammer that’s as large as Harry, it more or less takes aiming out of the equation entirely. Getting hit even once will make you lose it, though, so it still pays to be diligent and proactive in eliminating enemies.

Based on this, you’d think this would be an easy game; you just have to swing your hammer in the correction direction based on what enemies are in your path, right? But oh, no, no, no, it is most certainly not. Hammerin’ Harry: Ghost Building Company is a constant test of endurance and problem solving and it’ll absolutely push your patience towards its limit. One of the main reasons it’s so deceptively hard is because of how big everything is. Harry’s hammer is pretty big, but so are Harry and his foes, which makes it very easy to take damage from enemy attacks or from narrowly skimming a hazard. You start with three hit points and can take up to five hits at max (plus a sixth and seventh if you find a hard hat and spiked hammer) but with how many foes there are and how little invincibility you get after taking damage, that amount often doesn’t last long. Perhaps because of the large sprites, the hitboxes all feel a bit off-kilter too. Sometimes your hammer hits things you don’t think it did, but there are other times where it seems like enemies harm you when they’re not nearly close enough. You get a few lives and infinite continues (thankfully), but continuing kicks you back to the beginning of the level, which can be unfortunate for levels 4 and 5 since they’re much harder and longer than the first three. A projectile attack for Harry outside of the shoot ‘em up sections, even a rare or limited one, would have done a lot to help ease the difficulty by giving you a way to stay back and whittle down enemies, though the game is absolutely designed with your limitations in mind.

To give an example, the airship level has a sequence where you have to jump between wires without getting chopped up by the blades attached to them. You can destroy the blades with a few hits, but once they start putting two blades on one wire, you’ll likely get hit by one while trying to destroy the other. Thus, the solution is to utilize Harry’s vertically tall jump to bypass the wires either without engaging them at all or by jumping repeatedly to make it so they don’t move much (they only move if they detect you on the wire). Once you’ve gotten this down, they throw another wrinkle in by introducing aerial enemies that can shoot projectiles to mess you up. This makes the whole thing a very delicate balancing act, one where you have to use your hammer for defense, stay on the move, and keep an awareness of your environment at all times. The airship is probably where the game hits its ideal difficulty level – challenging to a point where you’ll have to practice, but not too hard or too long of a level to frustrate – and this particular section works beautifully by teaching players how to engage enemies strategically while also avoiding encounters that are stacked against them.

Stage four, on the other hand, is an excessively frustrating nightmare. It starts you off with platforms that crumble beneath you pretty quickly, so much so that Harry’s slowness can barely propel him past them in time! This setup naturally causes the player to rush into things and take unneeded hits, which becomes a problem when they have to deal with two projectile throwing minibosses immediately afterwards! Get past there and you’ll encounter one of the most frustrating hazards in the game – the four-legged skull spider things (I don’t actually know what they’re called!). You’ll encounter these guys on a screen with three elevations and they’ll block the path forward on all three. The idea is to hit one to stop its advance and create a gap you can move between, but they’ll also charge forward shortly after you hit them. If you can’t squeeze through in time, you’ll get caught in the hitbox of the one that charges at you long enough that it’s usually an instant kill. When your large, beautiful sprite starts getting you killed in seconds, you quickly begin to question if it was all worth it! I cannot express how maddening this section was and how long I was stuck on it until I figured out the exact attack rhythm needed to stunlock one of the skulls long enough to let the other two pass by. There’s a prolonged miniboss fight in the final level that’s almost as bad, but nothing else in the game quite compares to just how annoying level 4 is.

These things are really just the worst until you figure them out

If the experience of playing Ghost Building Company was just a bit more polished, just a bit more smooth and consistent, it would be one of the best games on the Game Boy. It’s still a joy to play through for its spectacle and simplicity, but the uneven difficulty towards the end can make it take far longer to complete than a portable game session should go on for. Based on reviews for future entries that I’ve read, it seems that they do learn to chill out on the difficulty, but they end up taking it a bit too far in the opposite direction. Apparently, the Super Famicom game in particular is very easy, but I don’t know if the exact opposite solution is the ideal one here. Difficulty is a tricky thing in video games since it’s a subjective factor that can be tweaked in an infinite number of ways, so trying to find a perfect level is basically impossible. By providing infinite continues, Ghost Building Company was honestly ahead of the curve compared to many other games of its time. It’s like Castlevania in that regard – very difficult, but you get all of the time in the world to win. Castlevania is a more polished and balanced affair, though, which is probably why Hammerin’ Harry never quite hit that classic status (among other reasons like availability) with any of its entries. Despite not being an unshakeable classic of the era, Ghost Building Company is still absolutely worth a shot if you’re looking for a quick game to play through for Halloween or if you’re looking for a platformer with bountiful personality. It wears its horror influences on its sleeve in a way that feels familiar yet ambitious compared to what other games of the time often did and its visual style is simply superb enough to make the whole thing worth struggling through. After this, I think I have a newfound respect for carpenters – it sure seems like a tough job!

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