Do you remember that brief period of time (let’s say, 2007) when you heard about Twitter, and, almost instantly, judged the very idea of micro-blogging to be unimaginably stupid? Hey, me too. Having maintained a few long-form writing blogs over the last ten years, the concept of limiting any substantial thought to 140 characters scared the living hell out of me. I didn’t want to cater to people without an attention span, and I thought that, if Twitter ever took off, it was probably going to destroy the planet. Fast forward two years, and we have an ubiquitous Twitter presence, but without the ensuing apocalypse. Why? Because Twitter didn’t replace traditional blogging, it simply augmented the paradigm and offered something different; a quick way to socialize with your friends, a means to check out what’s popular via trending, and, of course, total access to what Shaq is doing ten times a day.
Marvelous Entertainment’s Half-Minute Hero, in a roundabout way, functions along similar lines. When I first heard about it on the Giant Bombcast, I couldn’t believe A) that it was actually a real game and, in turn, B) that Xseed was really going to release it on this side of the planet. The sheer concept seemed so intrinsically Japanese and out of control that it couldn’t possibly appeal to anyone not fully immersed in otaku culture; Half-Minute Hero, apparently, stripped a Japanese RPG down to its core, and tasked you with saving the world in under thirty seconds. Traveling across the world map, fighting enemies, leveling up, and taking out the end boss all had to be completed in half a minute. The entirety of an RPG in thirty seconds. That seemed crazy, but also wildly intriguing; could anyone possibly pull this off?
Let’s Go Hero
The first of Half-Minute Hero’s four distinct time-challenged modes is also it’s most creative; Hero 30. You literally have thirty seconds to start from level 1, cross the map, and defeat the end boss. From the outset, you’ll run into the nefarious yet friendly Time Goddess, who makes a couple rules to simplify and/or ruin your goals. Time is stopped when you enter a village, and can be reset completely by praying (read: donating money) to her statue, which you can do as often as you like, provided you can cover the ever increasing cost. You can also buy equipment and recruit other characters in villages, but in order do you so you’ll usually need to go out and fight monsters to rack up some coin. Here in lies the main challenge; budgeting your time. Your equipment is the only thing that carries over to each new stage. Your experience gained, party members, and any other form of measurable progress are zeroed out, but your stuff is for keeps. You need to get into random battles to level up and beat the bosses, but you almost always need to take on other side quests in order to cross the map, all the while deciding whether or not to blow your cash on healing items, equipment, or the ever increasing cost of time. And I haven’t even touched on the risks of simply running! It’s absolutely maddening, and I mean that in the best way possible.
The entire concept functions so well because of its blatant simplicity. Battles consist of your character literally running into enemies on the screen and knocking off hit points at every contact. You don’t really even have to do anything. In fact, you can’t; your options are limited to running away, using an item, and hoping your character is leveled enough to not get pushed off the screen. With a level or two gained after every battle, your character gets really strong really fast, and once the screen is graced with You > Evil, you’re ready to take on the boss. Even if you screw it up (as you often will, later stages are more about trial and error than anything), the most you’ll lose is a couple minutes. Of course the game goes a bit deeper as you press on, but the surprising narrative and the nuance behind the persistent pace are best left unsaid.
The second mode is Princess 30, which throws the same basic rule set under the context of a 2D shooter. Always in need of an item to save her father, the princess must venture outside the castle gate, which only stays open for thirty seconds, retrieve the item, and make it back in time. You’re surrounded by your knights, who make haste to propel you forward automatically. Staying on the path and not bumping into bad guys is advisable, but shooting everything in sight is usually the best course of action. As usual the Time Goddess interjects and introduces a few expansive time-saving options, but Princess 30 is generally more of a breeze than Hero 30.
Evil Lord 30 has more of a simple RTS flavor. A legion of three different monsters are at your disposal, and you drop them in at will to take on other monsters in a basic rock/paper/scissors format. Knight 30, which must be unlocked, is more of an escort mission. You must protect a sage and ward off enemies, either with traps or your sword, while he casts a spell over thirty loooonng seconds. It’s an interesting twist, making you want the clock to wind down, as opposed to fearing its eventual zero. These two modes, like Princess 30, are fun for a period of time, but they best serve as distractions or breaks from the show stopping Hero 30.
Half-Minute Hero works for a number of reasons. At the forefront is its persistent need to pay homage to Japanese RPG conventions, and its simultaneous inclination to poke fun at said conventions from every angle. The Time Goddess is a treasure chest of both RPG standards and scam artistry. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be so hungry for a helping hand at the beginning of the game that you’ll start striking crazy deals that, somehow, leave your character unequipped and, literally, naked. The aesthetic reeks of Mode 7 effects and pixilated 8-bit bitmapped characters, which the Half-Minute Hero constantly zooms in on for added comedic effect. Couple that with the fact that the credits roll every time you beat one of the quests, and you have a rare package that, while abiding by the slightest traces of genre rules, has absolutely zero trouble roasting them at the same time. The whole package is incredibly charming, and a much needed break from the overwrought pretension that has discredited the genre to so many jaded veterans.
Another gold star goes to the relentless energy at which Half Minute Hero operates. Even after I got over the initial shock of its architecture, Hero 30 never allowed me to get comfortable. The desperation of a ticking time bomb and the constant input elicited feelings not unlike reading the climax of a book; every second seemed monumentally important, and the lack of room for error literally kept me on the edge of my seat most of the time. It was like Wario-Ware with a persistent purpose and a constant goal, which, from a pacing standpoint, functions far better than a silly collection of minigames. Half-Minute Hero isn’t necessarily for perfectionists (though the extra stuff is there if you’re inclined to go look for it) because its challenge seems to diminish as you get more familiar with the structure, but it’s a hell of a ride no matter how you look at it.