While traditional role-playing games have their perks, they're often loaded with hours of tedious grinding and dozens of melodramatic cutscenes that take as long to watch as they do to unlock. Half-Minute Hero eschews all that in favor of fast-paced action, breathing fresh life into a genre in which minigames and stat management are often as prevalent as enjoyable quests and combat. The resulting experience is invigorating and fun throughout a variety of different gameplay styles, if only slightly marred by some redundancy and minor quirks.
An amusing storyline neatly split into segments provides a good backdrop for the cleverly designed gameplay, and though initially confusing, it soon forms a cohesive plot. The benevolent Time Goddess has defeated the Ultimate Evil Lord, providing just enough peace for humanity to flourish as sinister forces recuperate. A pantheon of oblivious, egotistical heroes gathers to save the world from these foes, and they frequently spout off witty remarks and cheap puns in an amusing manner. Each storyline segment is full of sarcasm and cracks at traditional RPG rules, which anyone who remembers those bygone 8-bit days should really enjoy.
Half-Minute Hero's most fun and rewarding element is its innovative time concept, which it cleverly implements by having you complete objectives in just 30 seconds. Such a strict time limit shifts the focus from standard RPG elements, like collecting items and exploring, to making every second count as you race against the clock, which is an invigorating change of pace. If whizzing through stages in 30 seconds sounds nigh impossible, that's because it usually is--but the intriguing Time Goddess mechanic allows you to extend the timer in exchange for cash collected from fallen enemies. The game's real thrill comes in managing your remaining time, which adds intensity by forcing you to balance every activity--from equipment raids to leveling--against the clock. This enables you to speed through the game as you wish, or you can go that extra mile and risk global annihilation for rare gear and better stage rankings to show off to friends.
Each of the four modes focuses on a different style of gameplay, and despite relying on bare-bones mechanics, they remain enjoyable and perfectly suited for portable play. Hero 30 is a high-speed RPG; Princess 30 is a classic shooter; Evil Lord 30 is a basic real-time strategy game; and Knight 30 is a simple action game. Hero mode is especially gripping, emphasizing speed more fervently than the other modes by encouraging you to plow through enemies and dash over continents in basic exploration. Optional side quests built around the time of day keep things fresh, visits to towns satiate your need for story, and loot drops will keep those of you with a penchant for character progression coming back for more. Princess mode is gratifying despite its linearity, featuring brutish monsters and plenty of power-ups to spruce up the action, though it quickly devolves into pounding the forward-shoot button. Evil Lord mode involves monster summoning and provides the most depth, using a rock-paper-scissors mechanic to determine your ally strength. For example, large monsters easily tackle small ones. It's fun to dodge attacks while overwhelming foes, but minor slowdown and slight AI slipups that prompt your monsters to stumble into walls are irritating. Knight mode is the most interesting because it implements an escort theme, challenging you to protect a companion by guiding him through mazes. You have a nice range of upgradable traps at your disposal, but it's much more entertaining to swing pointy sticks at monsters.
There are a few quirks, but they're relatively minor aggravations. Gameplay suffers from some redundancy, because the four main modes recycle their objective for each stage; this makes every mode slightly repetitive by the half-way mark, which is a little disheartening for a game that so strongly emphasizes variety in every other aspect. Easy bosses are another mild disappointment; they rarely require any form of strategy to defeat, but they do pose a time challenge and keep the pressure up.
While completing the first four modes is a fairly simple process, the game ramps up the difficulty for the final two, putting your time management skills and mastery of the core Hero mode to the test. In Hero 300, you have 300 seconds to save the world from a new threat. While you're given more time, you're stripped of the time-rewind feature and start the mode off penniless and naked in a barren wasteland, which makes properly equipping yourself much more difficult. You're also covering more ground and fighting multiple bosses in tighter time constraints that vary by the map, which produces a demanding yet immensely satisfying journey. The mode makes no excuses for its exacting nature or the numerous attempts it will take you to best it, with exhilarating gameplay that's challenging without feeling cheap. If you remain undaunted by Hero 300, you can unlock Hero 3 and experience the outrageous madness of saving the world in just three seconds--an incredible feat that will really test your mettle.
The game's retro aesthetic is enhanced by adorable 8-bit character sprites and a vibrant 2D world. Fancy spell and disaster effects, along with brief cutscene artwork, highlight the story's key elements without disrupting the nostalgic atmosphere. Attack sounds are crisp, while an impressive soundtrack sets the tone for each mode's gameplay style by incorporating energizing scores for Hero modes and sweet melodies in towns and in escort missions.
You'll spend roughly 15 hours completing the game, but Princess mode feels a bit shortchanged at an hour's length. The lack of any underlying depth, such as skills to master and dungeons to explore, limits your motivation to revisit Story mode for better scores. Fortunately, ad hoc multiplayer boosts replayability by pitting you against friends in a feverish race to defeat the boss in Hero mode. Though Half-Minute Hero may be troubled by repetitive objectives and trivial flaws, its cute presentation style and great speed-driven gameplay offer an enjoyable adventure you won't soon forget.