Today’s look into the PopCap Vaults finds us prowling around in the darkest, dankest corners, where the lonely and forgotten games lie, like Edmond Dantes, mostly unloved and unplayed, waiting only for that day when they can see the sunlight once again, and declare themselves to anyone who cares: “I am alive, I do matter!”
For Hammer Heads, today is that day.
Released about 6.5 years ago, in 2006, and then somewhat surprisingly overshadowed by such other games as Gears of War and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Hammer Heads was PopCap’s take on the always respected and complex “Whac-A-Mole” genre, in which you hit things on the head as they pop up from holes in the ground. Why this was not up for any Game of the Year awards remains, to this day, one of gaming’s great scandals.
To distinguish Hammer Heads from the roughly 8,050 other Whac-A-Mole clones, PopCap came up with a unique and innovative vision: Instead of hitting moles on the head, you would hit gnomes on the head. To add to the game’s complexity, the developers created not just one, but a variety of gnomes, some harder to hit than others, some that would blow up if you tried to hit them, some whose heads inflated back up if you didn’t keep hitting them fast enough, and so on. Each time you missed a gnome, you’d lose a little bit of health. On the offensive side, you would start with one hammer, but then earn in-game coins (this was, sadly, before the existence of real-world microtransactions) which you could spend on bigger hammers, extra health, power-ups, and so on.
Like most PopCap games, what starts out bone simple ramps up with each succeeding level, so that by the time you hit the game’s later levels, you are frantically swinging the hammer so fast in an attempt to bash every gnome (or avoid the ones who damage you) that you may find yourself literally dripping sweat, which is why I always played the game with a lobster bib on.
Succeeding levels also reveal a whole host of new gnomes, that, when put all together, form an entire society of little people, thus adding an element of pathos to the entire affair, as you realize, with horror, that with each succeeding level, you are in fact committing genocide on an entire race, whose only crime was simply to attempt to come up for air after being banished to live in underground holes. Were the gnomes attempting to look for a new homeland, away from the relentless bashing of the giant hammers? Or were they simply attempting to get even one tiny gulp of oxygen before resuming their miserable lives underground. You’ll never know, because, in fact, you’ve killed them all.
And this is where the true impact of Hammer Heads lies, in the at-the-time rather revolutionary attempt to put the player in the role of the anti-hero, the Sauron, if you will, of this tragic fantasy universe. Bringing this kind of moral ambiguity to what had heretofore been unfairly dismissed as “mindless and uninspiring action of the lowest possible caliber” (my words) is what, with six years perspective, makes Hammer Heads truly a work of unqualified and unparalleled genius — a Dostoyevskian examination into the dark hearts of man, disguised as a jaunty little puzzle game. In this way, it might possibly be the most subversive game ever released.
It’s also a mildly entertaining diversion, for a few minutes anyway, when you really, truly have nothing better to do.