If there's one major gameplay distinction between traditional RPGs, like you'd see on 8- and 16-bit systems, and their modern counterparts, it's the former titles' reliance on random battles to raise your characters' stats. Grinding continues to be prominent in MMOs and you will still find titles that depend on random enemy encounters - particularly on handhelds and in indie releases, but the industry has clearly moved away from that dynamic. However, with all the impressive sights and sounds of the current hardware generation, and all the emphasis on customization and player choice, the RPGs of years past retain their unique appeal for many players.
You have just thirty seconds to go from zero to hero and save the planet from extinction.
Half-Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax proudly spans multiple generations, combining the classic elements of role-playing games with modern sensibilities. Its "break the fourth wall," self-referential humor is supported by retro aesthetics and core gameplay, but its twist is something I've never seen before. It takes the old conventions of random battles and grinding and stands them on their heads.
The story is like many, many others, but it's meant to be: evil threatens the world and a hero arises from a modest background to stand toe-to-toe with it. The difference here is that instead of covering a period of months or years as the main character develops his skills, gathers a party, and scours the world for the weapons he requires to win, the game starts you off with the villain's ultimate plan already executed. You have just thirty seconds to go from zero to hero and save the planet from extinction.
Fortunately, the Time Goddess is on your side. Unfortunately, she loves money more than anything else. Being the Time Goddess, she's gotten used to the tithing and tributes and she just can't let it go. So with a half minute to pump up your stats and save the planet and a matron who won't even help you unless you lay down some coin, how are you supposed to win?
In most towns you come across, there is a statue of the goddess. Whether it's from a glimmer of altruism or an unabashed love of gold, the goddess has agreed to turn back time to the beginning of the thirty-second countdown every time you pray - and donate - at one of the statues. You get to keep your loot and your stats intact, but the rest of the world resets. It's a pretty cushy deal except for one fact: the more you pray, the higher the rate. Yeah, I guess the goddess doesn't quite have enough winged sandals and she's not above gouging you to get some gold.
Each of the sixty or so levels in the main part of Half-Minute Hero culminates in a battle with an evil lord in his or her castle. The only common element among the evil lords is that they have been trained to use the world-ending spell by your ultimate adversary, Noire. Otherwise, they come from very disparate backgrounds. Some are male, some female; some are genuinely evil characters, some are hurt or duped; some are animal, some are vegetable, some are mineral. Only one or two has a backstory of any interest; the rest are solely there for comic effect, like the sociopathic turtle who's sick and tired of dragons getting all the attention when it comes to scaly creatures.
But whatever the enemy's motivation, your job is to take them all down. Each stage is presented as an entire game in itself, complete with an intro and full credits (which, of course, you can speed through by holding down the A button). You start out with your baseline stats each time, but you get to keep the items from earlier adventures. The goddess is decent enough to stop the timer while you're in a town (wouldn't want the world to blow up when you are mere steps away from a statue, gold in hand, right?), so you have time to talk to the few townsolk that are around, gaining allies or buying gear along the way.
With all the different bosses, maps, and gear, there is enough in Half-Minute Hero to entertain most gamers, whether they are ADD-afflicted or not. There are hidden objects and alternate paths galore, so you have the choice of either blazing through the game and going back or taking your time and replaying levels along the way, like I did. There are a couple of times where you will need a certain weapon to beat a creature, so you will have to come back, since there is no way to unequip items while in a stage, In addition to all the forked paths on the world map, there are also two labels for each stage that indicate mini goals that you can accomplish along the way. These are almost like Achievements, in that they generally require you to do something in a specific way. For competionists, this adds yet another reason to keep at the game.
The game keeps track of your best times so that you can compete against yourself and your Xbox Live friends for top speed-run honors. There is also an online multiplayer option where up to four players can compete to be the first to successfully storm the castle in each stage.
However, even with all this variety, Half-Minute Hero never felt 100% right to me. I know it started its life as a PSP game, and there is clearly a handheld vibe to it. The graphics have been redone in a soft watercolor style (the original graphics are selectable), so it's not that. It's just that the stages are so bite-sized and the action so similar from one stage to the next that it almost feels strange playing for an extended session. Some mini games would have helped. But as it is, I found it more difficult to play for hours at a time than I have with any other console RPG.
After the main part of the game is beat, a task that took me about seven hours at a methodical pace, a new mode is unlocked, then another, then another, then another, culminating in a version of the game that is very original and very challenging. These alternate modes are all riffs on the main game - albeit it with fun differences, so if you thought you were going to get a strategy RPG or a side-scrolling shooter like in the PSP Half-Minute Hero, you need to put that notion to rest. But, let me say again that the unlockables are very fun and well worth the effort. Perhaps having shuffled them in with the main game somehow would have been better, though.
The half-minute review? If this were one of those sites that just gives out "Buy" or "Pass on it" ratings, Half-Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax would definitely warrant a strong "Buy." The humor and frantic pace work very well, though there could stand to be a little more variety in the first part of the proceedings.