Post-Modernism is something that does like to creep its sneaky little cynical head into gaming sometimes, but often through its self-reference to decades of gaming culture, it ends up creating something quite original. In New Super Mario Bros 2, Nintendo were actually pretty ingenious for once by acknowledging through its ridiculous coin-collecting over-abundance the repetitive nature of their iconic franchise. By referring to the many many years of odious coin collecting we as the gaming public have endured, NSMB2 was humorous but also quite inventive: providing something that was so very familiar and yet doing something different.
Similarly, the N64 classic Conker’s Bad Fur Day demonstrated an awareness of the ludicrous amount of cuddly, colourful characters established throughout the 90’s generation. Released in 2001 at the end of the N64’s life-cycle, Conker used sex, vulgarity, violence and even toilet humour to turn the platforming genre on its head and return it to the place of its birth in the hardcore gamer. Both Nintendo and Sony are pretty smart you know, and they realised the money was in the family market, a typically easy-going demographic, and so by just creating as many neutral, friendly and imaginative characters as they could, they were guaranteed to sell their consoles. Just look at Mario’s reinvention in Super Mario 64, or Crash Bandicoot or Spyro the Dragon. But Conker was nothing like these characters, who instead of saving the world, or saving his girlfriend, was simply lost after a heavy night’s drinking, with the world’s worst hangover, an empty wallet, and a bad case of squirrel horn.
And then there’s Half-Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy, not quite such a major release, but equally inventive in its self-reference. A compilation offering nearly every additional game mode release for the original title, Half-Minute Hero is an RPG entirely based around the idea that the games of this genre, by their nature, take too damn long to complete. The game then, places you as a hero of your own naming and then gives you a mere 30 seconds to traverse a world-map, level up, purchase weapons and then defeat whatever evil lord is casting the ‘spell of destruction’ that will end the world. Humorously, it treats each level like it’s an entire game, opening with an epic title sequence and ending with a roll of credits, but in reality it’s a sequence of quests. This may sound a little tiresome, and when played excessively it is, but all cut scenes and credits are skippable so when played a lot the whole movement and pacing of the game is actually done quite well. Each level also works smoothly, with combat being automatic, friendly village safe zones offering a pause in time to make purchases and heal, and time goddess statues allowing you to reverse time by 30 seconds for a small fee. Its challenge then, is timing, in which the player must learn the map in order to safely return to zones to reset time, but also knowing when the best time to reset is.
Visually, Half-Minute Hero is a soft 2D cartoon style that nods to the very first few games of the Final Fantasy series. It is very simple, but this works well with the simple concept of the game, in which its clarity allows you to easily see where to move around the world map. It is also wholly unoriginal, providing characters and monsters in all the usual cliché manner of dragons, knights and wizards, but this only adds to the charm of Half-Minute Hero in which it acknowledges the genres’ tendency to lean on outdated fantasy tropes. One boss who takes the form of a tree is preceded a few levels earlier by a very similar boss tree, but the former subtly mocks the similarity by claiming he will be more challenging because he’s sucked up more nutrients from the earth. The music is also ridiculous, with the opening titles sounding like an epic stadium rock opera that loves itself more than Cliff Richard. It does though, like most of the other elements of the game fall into deliberate genre conventions. The music at a quaint little village sounds very fairy and nice, while each quest completion is accompanied by a celebratory theme that becomes nothing short of annoying.
Half-Minute Hero also mocks the RPG genre in the way your level resets with each level, perhaps referencing the horrible amount of grinding time gamers spend trying to level up, but the ease in which you rank up in Half-Minute Hero also trivialises it. Similarly, it also recognises the poorly developed characters that often appear in certain games. The world is literally filled with terrible characters, which bop up and down when they speak and often say something totally irrelevant and meaningless. At times this is quite funny, clearly trying to revere but also re-create something like the famously non-sensical ‘sorry, I’m dead’ text from Monster Party. However it also raises the great critical question of Half-Minute Hero, in which the player asks how much of this is cleverly self-referential, and how much of this is just poor writing?
The answer is, a little of both. The game is an excellent homage to the RPG that is distinctive and as a result of its genre reference actually quite a unique experience. However, unique isn’t always excellent, and at times the hideous repetition and lengthiness that Half-Minute Hero so well mocks, actually becomes its downfall; even if it was designed deliberately. Nevertheless, as the silly, casual game that it is intended as, in which its episodic structure encourages occasional play, it still has some endearing value to it. In addition, its expansions include different characters with slightly different game play, and so this naturally adds a refreshing element. Half-Minute Hero then, is a charming little adventure that will aggravate some, and entertain others, but is ultimately a well put together, if at times flawed game.