Being a hero is a universally appealing concept: Who wouldn’t want to be super strong, save the day, and know they’re the coolest person in the room?
Which makes Rent A Hero‘s decision to turn all of your comic-based fantasies on their head feel more than a little disorienting: Your crime-fighting suit’s an accidental rental, your powers come from batteries bought at the local convenience store, and your jobs tend to err on the side of the mundane; featuring absolutely zero evil clones from alternative futures, nobody tied to train tracks in need of rescue, and sadly a complete lack of capes to flap dramatically in the wind as you brood broodily on the edge of a silhouetted rooftop.
I think what we need before we get stuck in here is a little context as Rent-A-Hero’s small Japan-only Mega Drive release means it’s always going to be a “new” game to most people even though it’s coming up to twenty-eight years old now. So try to cast your mind all the way back to deepest, darkest, 1991: Sonic the Hedgehog was a blast-processing system seller, the SNES was the hottest new console in the US, Lemmings was brand new and yet to be ported to every format under the sun, important Amiga games were still a thing oh yes they were, and in general a lot of firsts in what would become long-running series or trends that would go on to define some long-standing aspect of gaming were just getting started. The point being when you first take a look at this game’s Sword of Vermilion/Phantasy Star III-like environment and you grapple with some of the old quirks lurking within it’s not because the development team were lazy or terrible at their jobs but because these were the standards of the time, and the Mega Drive’s relative visual prowess helps to mask things which would otherwise feel reasonable in a DOS or NES title from the same year.
Which sounds like I’ve gone and made a long-winded pre-emptive apology for a game I’ve barely mentioned… not a good first impression, is it? But please think of the above as more of a fluffy cushion to ease your landing than a warning to steer clear, because your first reaction to Rent A Hero may be “Crikey, this feels old” but when you consider the time it came from just about everything in the game can either be considered either completely typical of the era or wildly inventive leap into the unknown.
The biggest adjustment – the one the developers were so self-conscious of the manual opens with a thorough multi-page explanation of these systems before you even hit the contents page – has to be the titular hero-rental mechanic. You really do rent your hero-suit from SECA (SEnsational CAfe) Enterprises and if you fail to make your rental payments on time you’ll be denied use of the suit until your balance is cleared, and on top of this the suit is battery powered and just walking around in it depletes your reserves – never mind using special moves – and it will cease to function if the suit’s power level hits zero.
Which all sound like terrible ideas on paper but in practise work out just fine: There are plenty of banks and ATMs around to accept your rental payments, and if you don’t want to manually deposit the exact amount each time SECA requests it you can put some money in your bank account and the rental fee will be automatically withdrawn from that balance instead. Rental costs and their frequency are reasonable and easily covered by the reward money received from the work you do too. As for batteries: There’s rarely any reason to keep the suit on if you’re not using it to bop baddies or for story related purposes (or for that delicious walking speed boost – the standard walk speed would test the patience of a saint), so just not using it all the damned time saves a lot of power and if you do find yourself running low and without any spare batteries in your inventory then all it takes is a trip to any of the numerous convenience stores dotted around Aero City to buy some more – problem solved. Money for these basic necessities is in infinite supply as the start area has a guy who’s happy to pay 100G a time to get beaten up by you (with or without your suit on – you can easily defeat him without the suit) and batteries only cost 30G a time, so there’s no fear of taking too long to clear a mission and finding yourself without the money or the suit to carry on.
The rest of the game’s structure is equally unusual; one the surface it looks like an RPG but it’s more of a prototype action-adventure game from a time before we really had the vocabulary and skills to define this emerging genre. It’s also packed to the rafters with more daft Sega and non-Sega references than you can shake an Alex Kidd-shaped stick at, and while it occasionally flirts with semi-serious storytelling the pre-title introductory sequence (another uncommon detail) has your first act as a hero-for-hire be punching your own dad while he’s dressed up as a Godzilla-like monster at a party, which is just about the perfect way to lay out Rent-A-Hero’s priorities: A wacky scenario followed up with some unbelievably stiff single-plane side-scrolling combat.
Wait a minute.
Again, context: Street Fighter II, vanilla Street Fighter II, Street-Fighter-II-no-you-can’t-play-as-the-bosses-I’m-not-kidding-remember-those-days, was a new arcade release when Rent A Hero came out. Streets of Rage – the first one – was only a month old. In Japan. The Super Famicom port of Final Fight, that one with the missing character, no co-op, cut stage – the one that was on the whole just a little bit of a slapdash mess wasn’t even a year old at this point. None of these points mean Rent A Hero’s wooden combat is actually good or “You had to be there” or above criticism, but it’s worth pausing for a moment and remembering that really good home beat ’em ups were only just, by mere weeks, becoming a thing at this point in gaming history. And yet here was Rent A Hero already trying to cobble together some crazy new fusion-genre! Think about how many other games tie this sort of strong exploration-based narrative to real time thug-beating action – Shenmue? Yakuza? That says it all, really.
Anyway! A is used for special attacks, B for standard attacks, C for jump; so at the very least the game makes full use of the Mega Drive’s three button pad and the controls themselves are responsive and consistent. You’ll need them to be too, as for all the variety found in the enemies your insignificant self faces, from machine gun wielding businessmen to apartment-bothering goons with baseball bats, plain old jump-kicking is the very best way to get rid of almost all of them. Oddly enough this doesn’t mean fights are brainless affairs that you can thoughtlessly mash your way through because a mistimed jump-kick will land you in a lot of trouble and items can’t be used in battle to make up for your carelessness – combat may be mechanically simple but you will pay if you’re inattentive. Powerful special attacks (assuming you’re fighting in your suit) look fantastic and can really help out in a pinch but they drain vast quantities of battery power so it’s best to leave those alone unless you’re really struggling.
In keeping with the idea of your suit being a rental from a for-profit company it’s not enough to pay for its borrowed use but you have to hand over cash if you want to enhance its abilities too, replacing the traditional RPG XP/equipment system with something new. A few missions in to the game you gain access to SECA’s secret base (accessed by sitting on the toilet of your friendly neighbourhood restaurant. No I’m not joking.) and with it access to a linear set of armour/special attack upgrades as well as energy tanks to increase your overall battery reserves. What makes this interesting is that how much money and when you pay it is left entirely up to you – struggling with enemy damage? Upgrade the suit. Feeling like you’re always running low on energy? Buy some energy tanks. Prices are reasonable at all levels – it won’t take long before a single mission could net you an upgrade with some change left over – and as there are only five armour/attack upgrade levels to buy there’s never any sense of pressure to keep upgrading or that you’re constantly frittering away money just to stay level with the game’s difficulty curve.
Most of your time in Rent A Hero doesn’t involve knocking out gang members, corrupt bosses, or escapees from Moonwalker but delivering love letters, listening to cleverly hidden messages left on secret tapes, disguising yourself as a regular salaryman to pass Big Evil Company entrance exams with obviously evil questions like “Are you an honest person?” and “Do you like Rent A Hero?” (you’re pretending to be evil, so of course you have to say “No”), PUNCHING BOULDERS years before Chris Redfield made it meme-worthy, and punching a ghost to death (yes) after rescuing Dr Indy (honestly) from some ruins (this was my favourite bit, can you tell). You really can’t guess what’s coming next beyond “Some sort of ridiculous minor danger, maybe” and the things that you have to do and say really push the boundaries of what to expect from a 16-bit adventure to their limits. Every one of these scenarios is a linear and largely self-contained experience that must be completed before moving on to the next – there’s no danger of taking on multiple jobs and then wondering which clue was for which storyline here. There are some recurring characters (police inspector Zenig-*cough* Zenikase for one), places, and an overall thread running through but it still feels more “Saturday morning cartoon” than anything else.
This could all feel like a tortuous old-school runaround with you acting as the city’s visor’d errand boy but it’s written in such a way that clues are there if you’ve been paying attention and you’re always given useful hints or even straight up shoves in the right direction like “So have you checked [Thing]?” “Your next assignment is from [Person] in [Place]” to keep you on the right track. Most tales are contained within one or two specific areas and if you need to go speak to the police there’s only one police station, if you need to go to the hospital there’s only one hospital, if you need to go to a specific person’s house then using the search command in front of a door will tell you who’s home it is before you go in. Even when you think back to times you’ve gone back-and-forth between a few characters, buildings, found a secret thing and then gone to talk to someone about the secret thing it only ever feels like the end of another exciting day in the life of a Rent A Hero and not a wild goose chase sucking up your time just for the sake of it.
You’ll encounter plenty of other thoughtful player-friendly designs as you progress: Once you’re given the RH bracelet (an unmissable part of the story) you can save almost anywhere at any time as well as ask HQ for a general hint on your current job. Then there’s one plot where you need to buy an employee badge costing 1000G – if you don’t have 1000G on you at the time the dodgy employee simply follows up with “OK, I guess that’ll be enough” and takes whatever you have on hand, no matter how small the amount. All of your frequent train rides around Aero City are completely free. Losing a fight you have to win will have you wake up in hospital with half of your money removed rather than kick you out to a cold game over screen. Perhaps best of all is something that sounds incredibly minor but makes the world of difference in a game that’s all about clearing lots of mini-stories – when you finish a job you’ll get a clear message saying you’re all done and be prompted to return home to ask for a new one via the OTERA DRIVE in your bedroom, meaning there’s never any ambiguity about whether there’s anything left to do or where you need to be.
It’s just all very Sega with Rent A Hero; it’s unique and exciting and not quite there but it’s been made with so much passion that playing it feels like you’re getting a personal hug from the development team every time you turn it on. The flaws are real and there’s no shame in being put off due to the stiff action segments or the treacle-like walking pace but this game has heart and spirit and at its core is a good-natured sort of mostly-silly adventure that is more than the sum of its wonky parts.
There’s a very helpful guide here (Japanese) – https://wepon.at-ninja.jp/rentahero.html
And thanks to @tinpotgamer for letting me know about the English translation patch available here – http://www.romhacking.net/translations/2309/