It’s a strange game that relies heavily on feelings of nostalgia while providing gameplay that is as far removed from the source of that nostalgia as possible. Half-Minute Hero, developed by Marvelous Entertainment and published by Atlus’ long-lost publisher twin XSEED, is that strange game. It is very blatantly riffing on the era of 8-bit console RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior/Quest. Marvelous uses these games (and the many others like them) as a deep well of material for its visual style, scenario design, and abundance of meta-humor. To divorce Half-Minute Hero of these influences is to take away so much of what makes the game so brilliant. What’s strange, though, is that this imaginary influence-divorced Half-Minute Hero game is still a cleverly-designed and surprisingly fun portable game.
Earlier this week, I cited a humorous moment with the game which resonated with me. I wanted to save a gameplay analysis for a more detailed post, though, because what intrigues me about Half-Minute Hero is that imaginary game which exists without its clever aesthetic and writing. It’s a travesty to suggest that this game ever exist without those components, but I feel so strongly about the brilliant execution of the game’s style and humor that I’m comfortable completely putting them aside for the time.
Half-Minute Hero’s primary attribute is its simplicity. That’s an odd thing to say about a game which has three distinct game modes, ad hoc online multiplayer, dozens of stages per game mode, a normal and a hard difficulty, and what appear to be unlockable game modes (that are still unknowns to me). That’s a lot of stuff, but it’s all additional content. The core of Half-Minute Hero, as far as I’m concerned, is the core gameplay loop that the Hero 30 mode provides (I have yet to really try the others). Every stage of the Hero 30 mode tasks the player with saving the world from imminent destruction. An “Evil Lord” is hellbent on destroying the world in thirty seconds. A countdown timer is displayed in the top-center of the screen at all times and unless the player is in dialogue or in a village, that timer is always counting down. The player must acquire money, kill enemies, level up, acquire items, and complete the quests necessary to defeat the Evil Lord within that thirty second time frame.
What’s amazing is that this is actually an achievable goal.
Entire stages can be completed within this thirty second window as the player dashes frantically around the world, stops in villages for a breather, and then continues on with the stage. There is wiggle room in that players can pay the Time Goddess to reset the countdown timer to thirty seconds, but there are several stages where all tasks can be completed in the initial thirty second window. A number of stages, in fact, have thirty seconds as the time-to-beat — a stat which is the bane of my existence as I try to perform all of a stage’s task quicker and quicker with every play-through. When we separate Half-Minute Hero from its visual style, writing, and village interactions, what we’re left with is, essentially, a racing game. The battles require minimal interaction, there is a “turbo” button which drains health (gas), and everything is a rush to the next waypoint in order to get to the finish line. And with each level presented as a sort of track and the game establishing a best time and mini-achievements, there is always that urge to take a different route or to go through the level faster. It’s a time-proven (ha) enjoyable inner loop with a very compelling presentation.
To separate Half-Minute Hero from its theme, though, is to do the game a disservice. It perfectly captures the absurdity the fundamental absurdity of console RPGs and makes that absurdity fun. By requiring players to first engage in a quest, complete it, and then witness the game mock the inane or illogical nature of the endeavor is a humorous approach that works remarkably well. Upon reuniting an evil lord with his cursed lover, the Time Goddess remarks “That was way too dramatic for Half-Minute Hero.” Remarking about a forest near a village, a citizen says: “Ever since the evil lord appeared, it’s been called the Evil Forest.” And after engaging in a quest where the player had to return a hammer to a carpenter in order to fix a bridge, the end-level summary reads: “The path closed off by the evil lord… Hero gave the carpenter his hammer and the bridge was reconstructed. The evil lord was then soundly defeated! He actually fixed a bridge with one hammer. He’s much more amazing than the evil lord.” The Time Goddess is scantily clad, which is somehow displayed in her iconic, pixelated form. Every fling the player has with a female NPC lasts for approximately ten seconds. Decisions to not keep previous quest items that would obviously come in handy later are constantly mocked by the Time Goddess. And so on.
The writing aside, though, the game still manages to mock RPG gameplay systems and, mechanically, make them enjoyable. Combat is an entirely autonomous affair where the player’s character runs at and strikes enemies until either the player or the enemy dies (or the player chooses to flee). Level-ups are earned once every two or three seconds of gameplay and new items at just a slightly more lengthy pace. A thin MacGuffin throttles the player from big, bad boss to bigger, badder boss. A credits sequence is presented at the end of every level as if every new stage is another sequel in the ‘franchise.’
There is no touch in Half-Minute Hero that represents the game better than when the player has reached a sufficient level of power to take on a level’s Evil Lord. When this happens, Half-Minute Hero simply displays one text string in the center of the screen: