Half Minute Hero is a wonderful little game, but it is also one which, in my experience, was poorly described upon release. It features several modes of play, but one of them, labeled “Hero 30”, compromises at least fifty percent of game time. As a result, this one mode received the majority of attention from the media, and this skewed perspective is what caused me to lose interest in the title. I couldn’t believe that its core concept could sustain itself for any length of time, and when it comes to Hero 30, I was correct in that belief. Yet while the other modes are significantly shorter, they’re also a lot of fun, and their existence makes the whole package worthwhile.
Half Minute Hero is a sendup of old school 8 and 16 bit RPGs. The story follows three characters – the generic hero, a not-so-evil Evil Lord, and a ditzy princess. Each protagonist lives in a different time period, and they all find themselves facing off against the Ultimate Evil Lord as it attempts to revive itself over the centuries (there’s a fourth character, but he isn’t playable until you finish with the other three). Tropes great and small are covered throughout each quest, but what is more impressive than this level of detail is the tone which the game uses to address it all. The dialogue is quick and crisp, and the humor is mostly dry. One of several recurring jokes is that the game’s narrator frequently points out the absurdities of the genre, but never has time to explain any of them. This plays into the game’s concept of limited time, but it also matches the very rushed, very serious attitude of the RPGs of yore, which implored you to keep moving forward, rather than give you the chance to step back and ponder the absurdity of what you were doing. Each genre trope is taken to its logical extreme, which causes each character to be delightfully insane in both their words and their actions.
It is important to note that while HMH’s story and setting are in full-parody mode, the game itself is not. Each of the different modes of play is vastly different in nature. Hero 30 is the only one that plays out as something close to a classic RPG. Meanwhile, Evil Lord 30 is instead a (very) light tactical game, where you summon monsters to fight enemy troops in rock-paper-scissors fashion. Princess 30 is a rail shooter. The common thread between them all is the time limit. You have thirty seconds to complete each mission, but you can pay the Goddess of Time to rewind the clock. In order to receive the best rankings, you’ll want to win in as little time as possible, but very few missions can be completed in strictly thirty seconds. Still, both the Evil Lord and princess missions are simple in scop and complexity. On Normal difficulty, their stories can each be completed in about an hour and a half. They touch upon the game’s strong points, and they wrap up before they wear thin.
Hero 30 is a different beast. In each mission you traverse traditional overworld maps, get into random battles (which are fought for you), and visit towns (in which case the clock stops as you buy items). It contains several features which other characters never see, such as optional sidequests, branching story paths, and equipable weapons. On one hand, this complexity allows the game to reach its fullest potential. Each mission requires exploration, level grinding, and ultimately reaching your final destination. As a result, success often comes from knowing how much time to spend on each activity and what order to tackle them in. Hero 30 is where the time limit concept is able to exist as something more than a gimmick.
Unfortunately, the extra complexity also leads to unneeded stress and busywork. While the game does not require you to complete all of the branching story paths, to ignore any of them is to miss out on some very distinct jRPG spoofs. Yet following them all will stretch the mode out for longer than it can remain entertaining. After a while it becomes tiresome to continuously re-outfit the Hero with appropriate gear, or to find secrets enemies or items which only appear when there are ten seconds left on the clock. These are the kinds of issues which the other characters don’t have to face, and while their missions are simpler for it, they can also be completed in a single sitting, which I found to be a good thing with this game.
Both its triumphs and failures are emblematic of what I consider to be Half Minute Hero’s ultimate purpose. This is an honest, loving spoof on the games of old, made by people who are old enough to have grown up with them, and mature enough to know how to treat them. Through their game, the developers acknowledge that old school RPGs look rather silly in a modern light, but they also understand that these games were made in a different time. Back then, we really did think they were amazing, and they really did thrill their fans. So when making HMH, they tried to recapture the thrills of the past while also making a game that is fun to play by current standards. This means cutting out the most outdated features, or giving them a modern day twist. In other words, Half Minute Hero uses the lessons learned from past to improve upon the past, and while it stumbles along the way, on a whole I’d say it makes it to the finish line.
If you just want to know if the game is worth playing, then I can safely say it has my blessing. If, however, you want to read some more elaboration on how the game earned my respect, read on for more….
Looking around today’s pop culture landscape, it is tough to find creative types who are even thinking of nostalgia the way HMH tries to. Which isn’t to say that it is a difficult line of thinking. It is just that nostalgia has been beaten into submission. It gets repackaged and presented to the people who grew up with it, people who have their heads stuck so far up the asses of irony and postmodernism that they have lost the ability to talk honestly about their feelings. Nostalgia will also be marketed to the younger generations, who will eventually covet it as being retro. There is the inevitable fact that as we grow older, the kids stay the same age. The simple stories we loved in our teenage years will appeal to the next batch of adolescents, allowing these tropes to survive even after we grow tired of them.
Games like Half Minute Hero are rare for a reason. Most of the people old enough to make this kind of parody are too stubborn to see that there is anything to parody in the first place. The rest are catering to younger gamers, which is why most RPG spoofs have been in the vein of the Disgaea series (sorry, but I refuse to believe that something that embraces l33t speak and the word “glomp” is truly intended for anyone old enough to sign a mortgage. And if you’re a mortgage holder who finds that stuff funny, congratulations – you’re an outlier).
This is why I have to appreciate a game like Half Minute Hero. It was made by people of a certain age for those among their peers who understand that you don’t need irony to grow out of something and yet still have an appreciation for it. Games don’t tend to grow up with their audience, but that’s what Half Minute Hero tries, and ultimately succeeds in doing.