Alright everybody, new year, new me, same old Videotron! LET’S DO THIS!
Show of hands: anyone recognize the name Rent A Hero? Sega fans might, and/or anyone obsessed with importing Japanese releases back in those wonderful halcyon days of the Dreamcast, but otherwise no. And please don’t feel bad about that.
We’ve been constantly denied Rent A Hero releases; the first game (released on the Genesis) never made it our way, and when the second one was released for the Dreamcast and later ported to the original Xbox, there were plans for an American release…that were promptly shut down and discarded. So to stem the rising tides of “not having Rent A Hero ever in America”, an intrepid fan translator named Paul Jensen began work on a patch for the original Genesis release, in hopes that maybe one day more than five Americans (including the allegedly sent-to-magazines review copies of the Xbox port) could play a Rent A Hero game.
In keeping with perfect Rent A Hero tradition, real life interfered and he had to abandon work on the project. Not that I blame him.
But guess what? Someone out there on the internet calling themselves “NikcDC” picked up the completed text and finished it for release! For the first time, totally in English, there was a playable Rent A Hero game!
I bet you’re now asking “Well that all seems fine, but what is it and should I bother playing it?” The answer? Uhhhhhhh…it’s complicated, and maybe.
Maybe I should start with explaining what the hell this game is. Rent A Hero, at its most succinct, is a cross between a JRPG and a fighting game. It sounds kind of goofy already, right? And it’s just gonna get sillier from there..
You play as a young man ostensibly named Taro (but in true ancient JRPG tradition you can name him whatever you want, and as a narcissist since childhood I named him Tim like I’ve named all of my RPG heroes) whose father has accepted a job in a far away town. One day during a hell of awkward dinner party to meet your neighbors – which, adorably enough, you have to play through the entirety of in probably the best simulation of boring childhood home life in a video game – you accidentally order yourself a set of sentai-hero armor instead of pizza. That last sentence pretty well establishes the tone of the whole thing.
It turns out the restaurant you called, Sensational Cafeteria, was actually a front for a company called honest to god they did this SECA, a technology company wanting to establish a rental-superhero business. You’re allowed to keep the powered armor for purposes of fighting crime and righting wrongs for a nominal fee from the helpless citizenry of your town, and all SECA asks is a monthly rental charge of 200 dollars (which is still referred to as “gold”, which is weirdly hilarious) and the occasional donation to their R&D department to better equip yourself. You do need to buy your own batteries to keep your suit powered, but hey, they didn’t say maintenance was included.
This brings me to what might be my favorite part of the game: the almost business-sim aspects. Now, full disclosure, I only played a few hours of it, but I think I got a pretty good slice of the action. Instead of being given quests by townsfolk or mysterious omnipresent forces, you actually have to go back to your house at the end of every quest to be issued a new ‘job’, which gives kind of a fun and different pacing to the whole thing. Sure, there’s random battles, inns, and item stores, but the fact that each new town is unlocked by merely being given a job over the internet kind of changes up the whole RPG dynamic and makes it feel strangely refreshing, more like you’re actually running a superhero business and less like AN EPIC QUEST TO SAVE THE FUTURE OF MANKIND. It doesn’t hurt that a lot of the jobs you get are really charmingly low-key and stake-less, like delivering a love letter or walking the CEO of some business down the street to protect him from hooligans. Add that to the fact that your ‘leveling up’ is accomplished by buying better parts for your robot suit and not through self-improvement, and you really have to kind of change your XP-hoarding mentality usually encouraged in RPGs.
Alright, the moment-to-moment gameplay is pretty standard JRPG stuff with some fun twists. This does bring us to the sticky part of the game: the combat.
As mentioned earlier, every time you get in a fight (boss fight, random encounter, etc) it switches to a side-view one-on-one fighting game. I say “fighting game” as the easiest touch stone for comparison, even if it’s not quite true – sometimes you fight a few different guys at once, and there’s actually a modicum of strategy to be found by using different tiers in the level like jumping on mailboxes and stuff, but you’re still walking back and forth across a flat plane punching someone.
So it’s kind of neat that the fighting is pretty distinct from what we expect from RPGs even of the time, when the combat would take place in a different screen with completely different rules from the rest of the game, but…and it pains me to take issue with Rent A Hero since I’m just so excited it’s out, but…it only kinda works.
Yeah, I mean the controls function, and your character is pretty responsive all things considered, but it’s just so goddamn twitchy. ANY sort of contact with your foe makes you lose health, whether they’re attacking or not. This proved an immediate hindrance to me when I realized my typical 2D fighting strategy of “jump and kick and jump and kick” wouldn’t work since unless you’re currently in an attack frame, you’re going to take damage. You really do wind up relying on two moves pretty much the whole time to weaken and eventually defeat your foes, and after a while it starts feeling kind of cheap. Maybe I’m just doing it wrong. There isn’t a ton of documentation and hints on the game, obviously (except for some friendly folk at Sega-16.com who’ve been helping me exchange tips about the game like we’re kids on a damn playground) so I could just be missing some big obvious strategies for the combat, but…what if it just sucks? What then?!
Okay, so the combat is kinda so-so, but doable. Honestly, the biggest thing that kept me coming back is the dialogue, tone, and overall vibe. The dialogue – the translated dialogue, at least – is pretty funny, and some forum posts I’ve read elaborate on the amount of work that was put in to make some of the more Japan-centric puns and jokes funny to Westerners, so none of it falls flat the way a lot of fan-translations (or even legit translations) do. Everything about the game’s setting, from the town names to the random passerby’s dialogue, comed off as a goofy and loving sendup of suburban life – imagine a less acidic and surreal EarthBound and you’re close. Much of the game’s action actually manages to make the idea of being a superhero for pay seem totally boring, but it makes sense – if you don’t live somewhere too exciting but you want to play the hero, you’re not going to be off fighting Apokolips or anything. And yet the humor doesn’t manage to break the fourth wall too often (other than the frequent references to Sega games and products, but really that’s always been a thing they’ve done) – it’s just a loving and realistic look at a teenager accidentally given superpowers, with no tragic backstory or gritty urban setting. It’s sort of an inverted Kick-Ass, now that I think about it.
So I imagine none of this did anything to answer your previous question about if you should play Rent A Hero, ever. Well…the answer is still maybe! The JRPG parts are fun and funny, if not occasionally too obscure for interpretation as far as quest goals, and the combat is serviceable at worst once you get the hang of it. If you don’t mind a Japanese sense of humor and finicky fistfights, then go crazy. It’s probably the only chance you’ll ever have to play any of the three Rent A Heroes.
Ugh. That really depressed me.