It’s been five years since the original Half Minute Hero released. Five years is a long time to wait for a sequel, and an especially long time to wait for the sequel to a portable game that used simple sprites. Five years is a long time to wait for the sequel to one of the best JRPGs on the PSP. Or maybe one of the best action games on the PSP. For a while it didn’t look the sequel was going to be localized at all, another casualty of the Sony handheld’s western market woes.
Part of me wants to lavish praise on Half Minute Hero II: The Second Coming just for coming out at all. Hooray, the game beat the odds and found a way to be localized! And yeah, Japanese publishers should be releasing more of these games on Steam for western markets. Between this, Ys, and Legend of Heroes later this year, this could be the beginning of an awesome trend! The $20 price tag is reasonable, the game is feature rich, and it even supports Oculus VR!
The problem is… I don’t like this game very much. They’ve taken Half Minute Hero in an unfortunate direction.
If you haven’t played the original, the core conceit of Half Minute Hero is that it’s an old school top-down JRPG, but the player is only given 30 seconds to complete each mission. Additional time can be purchased, but the timer never goes higher than 30 seconds maximum and the cost of buying time scales cruelly. So even though missions don’t really get completed in 30 seconds, they do wrap up quick like.
To fit inside 30 seconds, RPG elements like enemy encounters and leveling up have been reduced to such a minimalist form that they’re pretty ridiculous (watching bad guys fly off the screen never gets old) but that’s okay because the script is also silly. The original game kept narrative elements light and sporadic which well suited the frantic pace of running around in the game.
The sequel, unfortunately, is not nearly so succinct.
Let’s talk about RPG parody. It’s a growing trend—JRPGs trading melodrama and grandeur for jokes and subversions of genre conventions. I don’t disapprove of this as a rule. JRPGs absolutely do adhere to some ridiculous patterns and double standards, and since many continue to lean on these tropes even today I think that mockery is absolutely warranted. Considering just how sanctimonious and self-important some JRPGs can be, I think of these parody games as a refreshing counter balance.
But there’s an insidious dark side to this trend. Sometimes games can adopt the mantle of parody not as much to tell jokes, but to justify generic design. Don’t worry; it isn’t lame that the main character has amnesia. It’s a parody of all those other games about characters with amnesia. And… a parody about all the games filled with orphan characters. And we have a dude running around with a buster sword with just one angel wing sticking out of his back! We’re funny, not helplessly derivative!
Half Minute Hero II: The Second Coming is the worst sort of parody. It starts out snappy and silly in a good way, but quickly abandons that tone in favor of a much more familiar sort of story about a chosen one who needs to save the world and the princess who is his one true love. The jokes stop flowing, but the extended uninspired dialogue never does. By the time the player finishes the first chapter it’s clear that this isn’t really a parody at all. It’s just a very bland and talky JRPG with a novel timer mechanic.
There’s nothing wrong with telling a traditional JRPG kind of story, but this isn’t a good one. The central mechanics of the Half Minute Hero franchise remain fun, but they’re now buried under a layer of unnecessary filler like an overworld map and global dungeons (all the simplicity of Half Minute Hero, but stripped of the racing against time that makes it fun). There’s nothing wrong with parody, but parody works best when the work is consistently funny and Half Minute Hero II: The Second Coming isn’t.
Half Minute Hero as a franchise is built on a great idea and great mechanics. One can only hope that if Marvelous returns to make a third installment they’ll make a game that highlights those merits rather than obscuring them.
Food for thought:
1. I didn’t dig the soundtrack particularly, but it’s very high energy and fits the manic pace of the game. Just like the rest of the experience, the weakest parts of are the slower songs that accompany story beats.
2. Normally I would make a point to talk about how the PC conversion works but… it’s RPG sprites. They look fine. There’s native controller support and button remapping is available to those who need it. Oculus support was sadly left untested.
3. Attentive readers might remember that I also playtested Weapon Shop de Omasse. That’s another JRPG parody, but it’s an entirely different beast. Where Half Minute Hero is a fun game held back sub-par story and humor, Weapon Shop de Omasse is really outlandishly funny but doesn’t actually have much of a game to play to back that up. I preferred Weapon Shop of the two, but a gamer with different priorities would probably see those preferences reversed.