If “pick up and play” is the holy grail of portable games, Half-Minute Hero is the holiest game in the history of the world. The latest title from Xseed—a reliable publisher of appealing oddities—takes short-attention-span design to its logical, farcical extreme by cramming as much play as possible into ultra-short sessions. This isn’t WarioWare, and Hero’s adventures aren’t mini-games. They’re full-on genre standards compressed to a ridiculous degree, as if the developers are pulling a joke on players. The punchline is that a 30-second RPG lights up some of the same nerve endings as a Dragon Quest or a Lunar.
The Half-Minute Hero disc comprises a handful of modes. Hero 30, the ultra-distilled console RPG, is joined by a real-time strategy game, Evil Lord 30, and a scrolling shooter, Princess 30. Completing these three modes unlocks Knight 30, a survival action game. All four sub-games are united by the idea that a single level takes about 30 frantic seconds to complete. Two hidden modes can be revealed after Knight 30, so it’s tempting to blaze through the disc to reveal all its secrets. Not only does this take a surprisingly long time—each sub-game has dozens of missions—but it also breaks the experience. Half-Minute Hero is designed to be played for small stretches, and a repetitious marathon approach saps its charm.
One side effect of playing the Hero 30 quest is that other RPGs feel a little less fun afterward. Battles are waged in a fraction of a second, as the game attacks automatically, saving players the usual hassle of holding their thumbs down on the “Fight” command. And a Goddess of Time slashes your level-grinding time with a wave of her hand, raising the uncomfortable question of why every RPG doesn’t have a Goddess of Time. (The Goddess also allows you to turn the 30-second clock back for a price, cheating the time limit.)
Still, Hero 30 is a tribute to the genre, not a critique, and it has layers of depth in the tradition of the best 8-bit console RPGs. Each little section of its world hides a few puzzles to uncover with repeat playthroughs and careful (but speedy) exploration. There’s even a cogent narrative of evil demons and curses, with smaller tales to be found in many of the villages. A breezy self-awareness enlivens the storytelling. After one quest that pits you against an anthropomorphic pile of rocks, the game admits that it’s “having trouble with ideas for evil lords.”
The other modes are less robust than Hero 30, but they more than justify their presence. The best and most bizarre is Princess 30, in which a princess picks off monsters with a rapid-fire crossbow while being carried around on a pillow by her loyal retainers. Princess 30 acts like this premise is entirely sensible, which is what makes it funny. Half-Minute Hero knows when to laugh at itself, and when to go deadpan. Timing is the key to comedy, after all, and few games are as well-timed as this one.