Now that the Halloween season is over and the kitschy sweetness of the cardboard ghosts and jack o’lanterns has been put away until next year, we can take a look at something truly horrible: the music industry! That’s right, you can live out you rock band management fantasies with today’s game – the Amiga version of Codemaster’s 1989 talent-exploitation-em-up Rock Star Ate My Hamster!
Here’s the title screen, showing the late Michael Jackson wearing a space helmet. Jacko never went into outer space, did he? I’m fairly certain he didn’t, but honestly at this point no new revelation about Michael Jackson’s life would surprise me. Oh, it’s a reference to him sleeping in an oxygen tent, isn’t it? It says a lot about just how famous Jackson is / was that you can immediately recognise this image of him, even though his face looks like a low-res photo of the moon.
Also on the title screen is the game’s theme tune, which consists of some bleepy music and a squeaky voice intoning “a rock star ate my hamster” over and over again. You might think “Rock Star Ate My Hamster” is a title that was chosen just to be weird for weirdness’ sake, but it’s actually a reference to the time the awful British tabloid The Sun ran the headline “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster.” Freddie Starr was a British comedian, who did not eat a hamster: the story was cooked up by publicist, convicted sex offender and all-round shitbag Max Clifford. The fake story of a late-night hamster sandwich was good for Freddie Starr’s career, however, and it should give you an idea of just how highly Rock Star Ate My Hamster thinks of those in the entertainment business.
And a business it certainly is: Rock Star Ate My Hamster is a management sim that tasks you with assembling a rock band that will set the charts alight and rake in the cash. Well, sort of. Making money is necessary but it’s not the main goal, and to call it a management sim is a little generous when perhaps “random event generator” might be more accurate.
The game begins with the player being introduced to their avatars and the creators of this musical empire: Cecil Pitt (it’s like “cesspit,” you see) and his young protégé Clive. I think Cecil is supposed to be based on the businessman, MP and poor swimmer Robert Maxwell, but to me he looks more like Bernard Matthews. As for Clive, he’s just some bloke called Clive, as far as I can tell.
First things first, choose how many members your band is going to have. I went with three, for no particular reason. Then you get to choose those band members, and suddenly you realise that the only reason RSAMH was created was as an excuse to draw caricatures of pop stars.
Here, for example, is Wacky Jacko, your Michael Jackson analogue. The strange thing is that RSAMH has you hiring artists that are already famous, famous enough to earn £18,000 a week in 1989 money, so it’s not the “bring up a struggling new band” exercise you might have been expecting.
RSAMH has a couple dozen stars for you to choose from, most of them rendered in an unflattering manner but some treated with slightly more respect: David Bowie and Freddie Mercury get off more lightly than most, as well they should. Also pictured above, to give you a general idea of what you’ll be seeing, are Alice Cooper, Cliff Richard, Elton John and Madonna. When combined with their “comedy” names – Cliff Richard is called “Stiff Pilchards,” for instance – they’re all pretty recognisable, and most of them are big enough stars that even in the future year of 2016 you’ll know who they are. There are a couple, like Tracy Chapman and Midge Ure, that have rather faded from the public consciousness and the decision to combine Salt ‘n Pepa into one two-headed siamese twin called Scratch N Sniffa might throw you off, but on the whole they’re bona fide superstars. The game also rather unfortunately features Gary Glitter. You can’t blame the developers for not knowing how that would look in 2016, but it’s still a grim inclusion.
I can’t leave the rock star selection screen without showing you the ghoulish visage of Phil Collins, a face that looks like someone put a ham sandwich on an anvil and then smashed a human skull into it. Imagine if you felt that thing coming in the air tonight. Oh lord, you’d need years of therapy afterwards.
In the end, I decided to commemorate those musical legends cruelly taken from us in the past year by assembling a supergroup composed of Bowie, Prince, and Lemmy. Unfortunately now I’ve upset myself because we’ll never know what such a collaboration would have sounded like. I’d say “amazing,” at a guess. The game suggested I name my band “The Dead Presidents” but I wouldn’t want to be thought of as ripping off the Dead Kennedys, so I called them “2016 Was A Terrible Year” instead. As soon as I picked that name I realised it sounds way more like a student union indie band circa 2004 than the glam-pop/metal/funk amalgam you’d expect from these three musicians, but I’m stuck with it now.
Before you begin, you also have to decide what kind of equipment you want: new, used, or stolen What’s the difference between each option, besides the price? I haven’t got a clue, and RSAMH wasn’t exactly forthcoming with the details.
Here’s the main menu, where you can select which task you’re going to inflict on your band that day. You can send them to practise, organise a gig or a short tour, set up a publicity stunt, shower your stars with gifts in an attempt to reign in their primadonna tendencies or record some tracks.
I sent them into the practise room first. It felt like the most appropriate thing to do, you know? You wouldn’t think they’d need much practise, given that they’re all already famous rock stars, but it might help the disparate members of the band gel together into a tight live act. All that actually happens when you do this is that the number of days you sent them in for passes by, and at the end your band re-emerges and you’re sent back to the main menu with no indication as to what effect, if any, their practise session has had. Have they melded their disparate styles into an exciting new genre, or have they already descended into drug-fuelled punch-ups and “creative differences”? It is a mystery.
Okay, it’s time to give our adoring fans what they want. It’s gig time, and 2016 Was A Terrible Year are starting their assault on popular culture in the scabbiest, most flea-ridden pubs they can find. You get to choose your venues, from pubs and clubs to stadiums, and set the ticket price, but beyond that you don’t have any input on the gigs themselves. It should be an interesting experience, because as far as I’m aware the band don’t actually have any songs yet, but I’m sure people would pay good money just to see Bowie, Prince and Lemmy sit around on stage for two hours shooting the shit, especially in this reality where you wouldn’t have to hire a psychic medium for the experience. I know I’m excited to see what this concert looks like.
This is what I get for allowing myself to feel any excitement, huh? You don’t even get to see the gigs! Instead, you’re stuck in the tour bus, counting the ticket sales and dealing with the occasional whinging from your band members. I won’t lie, this is extremely disappointing: I was rather looking forward to seeing my band up on stage – or at least being thoroughly ignored by the regulars in the Dog and Duck – but instead you’re stuck looking at the inside of this bus. This amusingly tiny bus. Based on the proportions of the walls and the dashboard, the band are driving around in a cube.
Suddenly, disaster strikes! Prince – sorry, “Mince” - demands a £60,000 crate of caviar before the show or he’s going to quit the band. As a result, Prince quit the band. Look, I barely even have that much money and I’m sure as hell not spending it on fish eggs, so it looks like the band is down to being a duo. These events pop up fairly often when you’re out gigging (although thankfully not when you’re only got one band member) and rather annoyingly they’re never a bluff. You either pay the money, or Cecil becomes so enraged by the artist’s temerity that he fires them on the spot. The ability to offer a compromise would have been nice, and if I could have haggled with Prince he might have stayed in the band in exchange for a box of fish fingers or something, but sadly it was not to be.
Suddenly, disaster strikes! Again! I finally got the band into the recording studio so they could lay down their first album, but I forgot that a) studio time is expensive, b) I was still paying wages and c) you can’t earn any money while recording, and so due to the drain on my finances I managed to go bankrupt and get a game over. I partly blame this on my trouble with reading the cash amounts for various things. I think it’s something about the font; I often found myself having to count the number of zeros in any given amount because I was struggling to get the number right at a glance.
Not to worry, I simply started again with three of the least expensive singers in the game: Lemmy (again,) personal VGJunk favourite Alice Cooper and flirts-with-racism, “human massacres are nothing compared to the horrors of KFC” indie tosspot Morrissey. This gives me a chance to resurrect the name Flesh Hammer, last used as a band name in the long-ago article about PS1 band management sim Popstar Maker.
An important part of managing a successful band is getting them noticed, and it’s clear that working hard, gigging a lot and writing good music is right out of the question, and so we turn to the “Publicity” option of the main menu. This randomly generates a news event featuring one of your band members, and they come in three flavours. Pictured above is the first kind, where rather than being headline news your star appears in the box-out at the bottom, accused of something terminally uncool like trainspotting or falling off a pavement. Presumably these stories actually reduce your star's popularity, but because RSAMH gives you no way of keeping track of any stats beyond your bank balance and the sales charts, there’s no way to tell.
Also note that I had to censor some pixellated boobs up there. “The Stun” is, of course, a parody of the previously-mentioned Sun newspaper, which for many years (until last year, even) had a topless model on page three. And they say us Brits are sexually repressed.
Then there’s the good kind of headline, the kind that has your star doing something not necessarily pleasant but rock-star-ish enough to endear them to the general public, like revealing their life as a BDSM slave, trashing hotel rooms or, in this case, eating a house. A lot of the “good” headlines revolve around your star eating various things – bishops, wives, hands – but the one about eating houses seemed to come up far more often than any other during my playthroughs. By the time Flesh Hammer reached the end of the line, Morrissey had chewed his way through the equivalent of Milton Keynes, with so many three-bedroomed semi-detacheds rammed into his cavernous maw that you’d expect the papers to stop reporting on it. “Oh, that’s just Morrissey,” they’d say, “He’s so dedicated to not eating living things that he sates his terrible hunger with the odd Victorian terrace.”
Here’s the third type of news story. You know, the one where your rock star straight-up dies. Usually it’s because of a plane crash, but there are other eventualities, as seen here. I like that the headline is “Rock Star Dies In Nuclear War” and not “Holy Shit, There’s A Nuclear War Going On.” It has a pleasing absurdity to it.
So, that’s how the publicity stunts work. You either (one assumes) lose or gain some popularity, with a roughly one in ten chance that one of your band members will be suddenly killed. No word on whether their death affects your popularity, but if anything you’d think it’d give it a big push upwards. Nothing increases music sales like a fatality, after all.
Speaking of sales, it’s time to get Flesh Hammer into the recording studio and actually make a god-damn album this time. Like everything else in RSAMH, you don’t have much control over what’s going on. Some tracks are generated. You hear a five-second burst of random music when this happens, which I guess is meant to represent the song? There’s nothing so obvious as “genres” or “styles” in this one, it’s all bleep-bloop Amiga ditties. Then you pick a name for the song. Do this eight times until you’ve got an album’s worth of material and, erm, that’s it. I wouldn’t mind so much if the game was sticking more to the “management” side of being a management sim, but Cecil and Clive are right there at the mixing desk so they clearly have more input on the Flesh Hammer sound than they’re letting on and therefore so should I.
Once you’ve got your tracks, the next step is to release them onto an unsuspecting world. This is a simple process: pick which track you want to release (or put out the entire album) and, if you’re feeling fancy, make a video for it. As is probably obvious by now, RSAMH doesn’t let you do anything as fun as directing your own video. Instead, you chose a director, location and general theme – the themes including such potential attention grabbers as “leggy models with whips,” “Greasy Toy Boys Working Out” and “Boring Guitar Poses.” As has now become traditional in this game, you’d assume that hiring the most expensive director and the fanciest shooting location would result in a more popular video and thus more popular song, but there is precisely zero evidence that this is the case.
The weekly sales charts are in, and Flesh Hammer’s début single “Smiley the Rainbow Kitten” is straight in at number nine! Sadly that’s about where it stayed, and no amount of publicity stunts, gigging or band members dying in sexual experiments gone tragically wrong could seem to shift it. Okay, I thought, maybe it’s the song. I’ll release Flesh Hammer’s second single, get the album out, and surely reap the rewards of a sustained media blitz. However, I managed to bankrupt the band yet again, this time when making the video for the second single: I accidentally clicked on the most expensive director, a Steven Spielberg knock-off called Steven Cheeseburger. He wanted three million pounds for his participation, money that Flesh Hammer simply did not have because I imagine it’s resting in strippers’ underwear up and down the country. The problem is that you can’t back out of a decision once you’ve made it and there’s no option to confirm your choices, no “are you sure you want to bankrupt yourself, you big idiot?” button, so I was condemned to suffer the consequences of my mis-click. Annoyingly you can back out of your decision when you’re setting up a tour, but not in any other menus, which I think I’ll just have to put down as terrible UI design.
All right, let’s have one last attempt at reach the pinnacle of pop stardom with The Shitty Beatles. Originally a four-piece ensemble with a mix of established talent and cheapo garbage, a series of tragedies and Mariah Carey-esque diva strops whittled the band band down to just Rick Astley. Ahh, remember rickrolling? Truly that was a gentler time in the landscape of internet pranks. Anyway, The Shitty Beatles being just Rick Astley miraculously hasn’t scared away the sponsors, and he’s been picked up by Joka Cola. Go on, try to figure out what “Drink A Joke” is supposed to mean, I dare you. Like everything in RSAMH, being sponsored has the potential to backfire – in this case, it was later discovered that Joka Cola causes cancer which probably did not do Rick’s popularity any favours. You should have eaten a house, Rick. The common man loves that.
There are a couple of other random events that pop up from time to time, the most frequent being the invitation to perform a charity gig. However, you don’t find out until after you’ve said yes whether you’ll be performing in aid of a genuine charity or something horrible like the Campaign for Public Executions or whatever the next Band Aid is going to be. You can also have your music stolen by pirates – the game is unclear on whether they’re the tape-copying kind or genuine eye-patch-and-peg-leg types – and you can decide how to deal with them. Every outcome costs you money, but buying them out always seemed to be less expensive than sending the boys round, because the boys always get kidnapped and then you have to pay a ransom.
Here we are, then. The Shitty Beatles, chart toppers. I have no idea how or why this happened, because I didn’t do much different from last time I released a single. This is no cause to celebrate, though. You might think that getting to number one is the goal of the game, but it’s far harsher than that: you need to release four platinum records in the course of one in-game year and frankly that was never going to happen for me.
The game ends on December 31, as Cecil and Clive decide to pack in their music management careers. I have only one question about this: why? You were making literally millions of pounds a year with very little effort! Did I read their intentions wrong, and where I thought they were in it for the money they were actually in it for the thrill of artistic expression and the adoration of the record-buying public? Why only one year? Was this all some kind of Around the World in 80 Days style bet between gentlemen? Like so much of RSAMH, it’s utterly opaque and makes no sense.
Even if you do somehow finish the game – it is possible, apparently – all that happens is that Cecil fires Clive. That’s it. You don’t even get invited to an awards ceremony where you can interrupt Wacky Jacko’s performance by waving your arse at him, making the whole exercise pointless.
Rock Star Ate My Hamster is a brisk and pretty enjoyable experience with an interesting concept and the odd funny moment, but as a game it’s pretty terrible. It’s a management sim where you don’t really manage anything, picking options that generally lead to a random result – a result with an impact that you have very little way of gauging. Well, unless a band member dies in a nuclear war, that’s fairly clear cut. Too much of the game remains unexplained: what difference do the different recording studios or starting equipment make? Is there any point to practising? What determines how happy your band members are? Why the hell did you draw Phil Collins’ face like that? That said, a lot of this only matters if you want to “beat” the game, and that’s not really what it’s about. It’s quick to play through, it’s dumb fun and it’s certainly not meant to be taken seriously, so if it sounds interesting to you I’d recommend you’d give one of the many computer version of Rock Star Ate My Hamster a try – just don’t expect it to fulfil any desires you might have for a “proper” band management sim. It’s definitely better than Popstar Maker, I’ll give it that much.
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