The Caverns of Hammerfest, by French developer Motion Twin, is an expertly crafted love letter to classic arcade platformers like Bubble Bobble and Snow Bros. If you've ever wondered how the intensity and the heartbreak of those old arcade cabinets could be translated into online gaming, look no further. Do you remember what it was like to scream "NO!" at the screen when you lost one of your precious lives that you paid for with your very own 25 cent piece? Do you miss that feeling? Do you long for it?
You are Igor, a plucky snowman whose carrot-nose has been stolen by an evil magician named Tuber, who has also enslaved an entire race of intelligent, "super-vitiminized" (the translation is a bit strange in places) fruit. To regain your precious nose and free the fruit-people, you must battle your way through over 100 levels of pitch-perfect platforming action, collecting a massive variety of items and rediscovering just how bad you are at video games.
Control Igor with the arrow keys and space bar. [Up] jumps and [space] lays bombs. Dropping a bomb while Igor is in the air will give him an extra boost that can help him clear gaps or reach slightly higher platforms.
Each level features an assortment of bewitched fruit monsters who you must destroy in order to move on. Igor fights indirectly, mostly by dropping his standard ice bomb in a place where it will catch an enemy in its explosion. The blast will encase the baddie in ice, sending it sliding across the floor, taking out any other enemies it collides with on the way. Your goal is to send it over the edge of a platform and off the bottom of the screen.
Some levels feature colored energy gates that will grant you different types of weaponry, like a proximity bomb that explodes on contact or a spring bomb that propels you high into the air.
The conscientious and thorough training level will explain all this and more, so I highly advise playing through it before you tackle the adventure proper, if only to familiarise yourself with the controls before you have to deal with time limits and killer fruit.
Disclaimer: You have to pay in order to get the most out of this game. A 5-Euro investment (about $7.50 USD) will get you an immediate 25 credits and another 4 credits every week for the rest of your life, and you can get more games any time you feel like paying for them. Although you can get 5 free credits once every 24 hours by resetting your account, this erases your progress completely. You will be working with extremely few extra lives, and you will never encounter any of the more powerful and interesting items.
Even the free version is a stellar game, with tight controls, engaging animation, and challenging gameplay. But the item quest system is what transforms Hammerfest from an excellent nostalgia trip into something diabolically addicting.
You see, there are hundreds of different items in Hammerfest, from mundane snack foods to exotic things like totem poles and rainbows. Some items simply increase your score, some give you temporary superpowers, some call down surreal 3-eyed star-gods to pulverize your enemies. One rare item even gives you a beard. And every weird, silly, boring, or surreal thing you collect goes into your Fridge, where you can show it off to your friends and rivals.
Meanwhile, when you collect certain combinations of objects, you complete one of a long list of quests, all of which change the overall game in some way. For instance, tracking down 5 telephones will give you a 25% bonus when you buy additional credits (I recommend you complete this quest before shelling out your first 5 euros). Most quests will merely unlock a new group of higher-scoring treats, but some will grant you an extra life at the beginning of each game, or even give you permanent power-ups.
In this way, Hammerfest evolves and expands over time. Even though the levels themselves are identical from game to game, the range of events gets wider as the list of available items grows. It doesn't exactly feel like a new game every time you play, but when the last rare item you need to complete a quest appears, strange things can happen to your brain. When you find yourself hurling Igor into certain death just so you can collect, say, a hamburger, you'll know you're hooked.
Analysis: Motion Twin pretty much nails every aspect of this game. Hammerfest would have been a hit on par with Bubble Bobble back in the day, and if you've ever played Bubble Bobble, you know what a compliment that is.
The gameplay itself has a surprising amount of depth, once you start learning what the various items do and setting up combo attacks. Each level is distinct and entertaining, with just the right mix of puzzle elements and all-out action. Igor handles like a sure-footed dream, and enemies telegraph their attacks with comical facial expressions, so you have no one to blame but yourself when you die.
The animation is packed with details. None of the fruit creatures have legs, so they all jump, spin, and roll depending on their mood. A furious, hopping, homicidal strawberry is really a sight to behold.
The only problem with Hammerfest — and this won't be a problem for everyone — is the continue system. There isn't one. You have to start back at level one every time you play, and with over 100 levels, that can be a little frustrating. But the upside is that the quest system will keep updating the game as you hone your skills, so the trip down through the caverns never plays out quite the same way twice. And when your lives are genuinely limited, getting to a new level feels like a real achievement. You can't bully your way through this game, no matter how much money you blow on it. You have to be good, or get good, and it feels fantastic when you cross that threshold.
I can't recommend this game highly enough.
Note: Hammerfest is made for a French-speaking audience, so the English version of the site is somewhat under-served. The French and Spanish sites have a full set of expansion levels and a number of other perks, such as names for each item in the game, and it's anyone's guess when or whether those features will be updated on the English server. So if you speak French or Spanish, or if you absolutely have to have the complete Hammerfest experience, sign up on one of those servers. The English version is still 100% playable, mind you. It's just missing some content.
Update: MotionTwin recently changed things so you now receive 1 free game per day but they do not stack. They also removed the buy X games get X per week for newer members.