Every system has its niche games. You know the kind. Those space shooters, puzzle games, and fantasy sports games that never really break sales records but go on to develop small and loyal followings nonetheless. Classics such as R-Type, Bust-A-Move, and Bomberman are just a few examples of niche games with staying power. Bam Entertainment's latest, Hot Potato! for the Game Boy Advance, is a combination puzzle game and vertical-scrolling shooter that seeks to join the hallowed list of niche success stories.
It's a shooter, but it's not. It's a puzzle game, but it's not. Both at once and neither at all, Hot Potato! is bizarre fun. The story revolves around a group of crash-landed martian potatoes who are trying to re-form the group and return to their space ship. Piloting a commandeered minibus, it is now your job to corral these errant spuds--not by picking them up, but by hurling their friends at them. As you drive down the street, you'll observe groups of colored potatoes loitering all over the place. To rescue them and avoid crashing the minibus, you need to rotate, swap, and launch an almost endless supply of spud passengers at their oncoming comrades. The premise is somewhat akin to 1942 crossed with Magical Drop, albeit with potatoes and a bus.
In all, there are seven missions and seven score challenges to complete, as well as a couple of bonus stages, each of which is lengthier and more frantic than the last. In mission mode, you need to clear out a set number of specific spud species, such as readers, workers, or bouncers, to move on to the next stage. The score challenge mode is arguably the simpler of the two, as you need only achieve a certain score to advance. However, since you need to clear away a greater number of potatoes to reach that goal, the action is much more intense. In this way, Hot Potato! feels more like a shooter than a puzzle game, because you're constantly sending giant streams of potatoes upwards, often hoping that luck will clear away a passage before you're crushed in the onslaught.
While the rotation of potatoes within the minibus and subsequent matching of spud colors gives Hot Potato! its puzzle-based nuances, the presence of pill-based power-ups adds to the shooter side of the coin. When collected, these yellow, blue, green, red, and purple pills can inflict all sorts of fun maladies on unsuspecting loitering spuds, including sleep, obesity, and spontaneous combustion. Additionally, green potatoes crop up from time to time and act as missiles that can clear away an entire column of oncoming potatoes. Since you're driving a bus, you can even use the sidewalks and shoulder areas of the road to bumper your way past obstacles and smaller potato groups.
About the only real shortcomings of Hot Potato! are its lack of a multiplayer mode and visuals that are less than amazing. To strike a balance between the hectic onscreen action of a shooter and the plainer needs of a puzzle game, roadway detail is minimized so as to limit distraction. To the game's credit, however, animated rivers, flapping banners, and colorfully drawn foliage breathe life into the otherwise paved environment. At the same time, spud animation is wonderfully rich and teeming with a wide variety of anthropomorphic movements, such as waving arms, grimacing faces, and excitatory expressions. A diverse array of whimsical sound effects and toe-tapping music also liven things up quite a bit.
The folks at Bam Entertainment deserve credit for having the nerves of steel required to bring such a niche product to market. Thankfully, although Hot Potato! is probably very different from the shooters or puzzle games that you're used to playing, it's also quite entertaining.