JRPGs are the kabuki theater of video games, a stage on which cosmic themes are expressed through incredibly rigid conventions. The very first titles in the genre nailed down a set of gameplay mechanics, a handful of narratives, and a few gameplay tics, and JRPGs have stuck with those ever since, making contemporary examples of the form seem willfully anachronistic.
But the nice thing about tropes is that they make a great basis for parody; even in the Famicom days, designers were cleverly riffing on the form’s clichés as fast as they could be standarized. Half-Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax is the ultimate goof on the JRPG, affectionately mocking its narratives, aesthetics, and gameplay. The good news is that in the course of exposing the scaffolding of the JRPG, Marvelous has built one of the most enjoyable JRPGs of the last few years, so long as you’re willing—in my case, eager—to trade the usual somber epic-making and methodical progression for good-natured silliness and speed-freak glee.
Each level of Half-Minute Hero gives you 30 seconds to do all the things that usually take a game 30 hours: visit towns, fight monsters, explore the world map, recruit companions, score mad loot, and defeat the latest Evil Lord. Though there are ways to extend the timer, levels will rarely take more than a minute or two, the better to strip gameplay down to the strategic resource management that constitutes the fundamental pleasure of the JRPG—as well as the less intellectual but equally satisfying act of working your way from unskilled peasant to mighty warrior.
The real-time combat forces the player to make snap decisions whether to fight, flee, or use health herbs, and the unforgiving timer infuses every moment of exploring the world map with nail-biting suspense. The efficiency with which the game discards filler and delivers highly concentrated bursts of fun is a potent rebuke to the bloated titles it so ably parodies; within minutes I found myself wondering why every game in the world doesn’t get to the good stuff this quickly.
It’s all rounded out with genuinely witty writing and design. The dialogue is filled with gleeful absurdism, quick-stroke characterization, and delightfully self-aware meta-jokes (the running gag about the developers’ eagerness to recycle sprites is particularly amusing to anyone who’s ever messed with the venerable RPG Maker software). In the options screen, players can switch between the standard—and wonderful—cartoons of Neo Mode, or the hilariously blocky 16-bit horrors of Retro Mode, while the developers use modern HD rendering to create subtle but surprisingly useful lighting effects. Even the music, with its overdone pastoral sweetness and abrupt fanfares, will raise a smile from any fan of the games of the Rising Sun.
The main game will take about eight hours to play, and it’s augmented by an enjoyable multiplayer mode (three words that don’t usually go together in this genre), with 10 smartly designed maps where players work through an interesting mix of competition and grudging cooperation. Even the single-player campaign will take longer than a level count suggests, thanks to a number of side quests and optional goals that make going back to completed levels a surprisingly tempting proposition. Alternate endings or no, I never replay RPGs (there’s just too much else to do with the huge pile of hours it would take), but the speed with which I could cruise through Half-Minute Hero levels had me going back to favorite maps even before moving on with the story.
There’s just one problem with this wonderful game, but it’s one worth noting: All movement is controlled with the D-pad. And as every 360 owner knows, the Xbox D-pad sucks! Much of the Half-Minute Hero experience is basically a racing game played on the world map, and a racing game that handles this poorly is a frustrating proposition. The frequency with which I failed to save the world because the stupid D-pad sent me in exactly the wrong direction sometimes induced controller-smashing frustration. Normally, controls this unreliable would doom even the best game, but in Half-Minute Hero it’s easy enough to treat the uncertain responsiveness as one more strategic element to deal with.
Half-Minute Hero had me smiling from its very first “Do you want to save the world? Yes/No” option, and I kept grinning like a tranquilized monkey through every minute of playtime. Most comedy games just provide amusing dialogue wrapped around the same old gameplay, but Half-Minute Hero is a rare example of a title where the humor permeates every aspect of the experience; just learning the mechanics is laugh-out-loud funny. If you’re strictly a Madden-and-Halo¬ person, it might be too whimsical for you, but anyone who’s ever obsessed over which shield goes with the bronze boots owes themselves the pleasure of checking this one out.