Battles are automated, adorable rapid-fire games of Top Trumps in which your Hero charges up to enemies and bashes into them until whichever of you has the lowest stats falls over. This is where you’ll find the poetic licence in Marvelous Entertainment’s satire, since the studio has excised the tactical decision-making at the heart of any RPG. But it also shows the game at its funniest. Half Minute Hero mocks the fact that stats ultimately drive the outcome of JRPG battles by building a combat system in which stats and stats alone drive the outcome of battles. There’s something gleefully reductive about racing to outlevel each mission’s boss until you can defeat them, succinctly summed up by the “You > Evil!” message that flashes up when you’ve reached the tipping point, just as instantly killing one level’s insectoid Dark Lord with the aid of a Bug Swatter received as a quest reward is a gross but amusing oversimplification of the role of special items.
The game is packed with other gags, of course. At one point, it tries to carry off the obligatory “don’t get lost in the desert” quest despite its top-down perspective, warping players back to the start of the level as punishment for wrong turns even though the routes they could take are perfectly clear. Its need to produce a new Dark Lord for every level, meanwhile, sees Marvelous rattle through fantasy archetypes (including a preening take on Sephiroth) before wholeheartedly embracing lazy anthropomorphism and palette swaps. Its script engages in lampshade hanging, too, asking vital questions such as why a vial of medicine cures a dying soldier from a mortal wound. But none of this is quite as funny as the satire that runs through the game’s very structure. Half-Minute Hero reminds me of Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker in its desire to mock design with design, though Marvelous is much more affectionate in its parody of an actual game than Bogost’s quietly savage deconstruction of FarmVille’s hollow mechanics.
And when the joke wears thin, there’s an excellent puzzle game here too, each mission demanding that players find the optimum balance between grinding and progress in a microcosm of RPG quest design. It’s enough to make you question how genre classifications even work, if this mere fast-forwarding of RPG principles can feel so distinct from its source, while its caricaturing of an entire genre might make you rethink the hours you’ve sunk into the material Marvelous has mined as its source. That said, Half-Minute Hero doesn’t seek the answers for any of the questions it raises. It hasn’t got the time.
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