Hero for hire

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The original Mega Drive Rent A Hero was Sega’s first attempt at making players perform a bizarre fictional job in a genre that didn’t exist yet at a time when nobody was aching for a menial employment/beat ’em up hybrid, and in spite of this grand list of potential pitfalls the end result was the sort of beautifully oddball experience that only comes from a company like Sega. In contrast this Dreamcast remake, Rent A Hero No.1, has the not insignificant advantage of already having an established name for what it wants to be – a 3D action RPG – and as such… surprisingly little has changed, actually. Visually it’s exactly what Rent A Hero should look like in 3D, the sort of well-handled graphical upgrade that makes everything appear polished and up to date but always recognisably close to the initial pixel art. Looking beyond the polygonal paint job to the game underneath it’s clear Sega’s 1991 original was already an inventive and forward-thinking title, so much so that almost everything – from the adventure/combat balance (in adventure’s favour), to the major story beats and the unusual rental/job-taking system – have been left pretty much as they already were.

Even so the game was around a decade old by the time this Dreamcast remake hit Japanese shop shelves and by then some parts were neither good nor bad but just old – including a few cheeky references to the ghosts of Sega’s past that were in danger of being so out of date they’d fly over the heads of this remake’s turn-of-the-millennium players. For one example: You now no longer take new jobs via an OTERA-DRIVE (The real-world TeraDrive being Sega’s sleek PC/Mega Drive hybrid machine, released only in Japan to dismal sales. The UK’s Amstrad Mega PC was a different machine… with a similar outcome) but a SECA’s 128-bit Creamcast, piped-cream UI background and all. There are all-new puns and in-jokes too, references to Sega series and games that just didn’t exist back when the original Rent A Hero was released: Feel the smile spread across your face as Segasa senshi, with his distinctive hairstyle and white judo gi, teaches you a new combo, pat yourself on the back for noticing the Outtrigger machines standing against the local arcade centre’s walls, and bask in the warm glow of your Sega-loving soul for spotting the sneaky Sakura Taisen reference in the description of the Victory Pose move. It’s a testament to the ceaselessly inventive strength of Sega’s broad library that so many new series – some still fresh to arcades at the time Rent A Hero No.1 came out – could be incorporated into this remake and only make the game feel even more authentically Sega than the original.

As fun as those puns and subtle self-aware nods are Rent A Hero No.1 is still a complete game in its own right, putting you in the shoes of a young man who finds himself in possession of SECA’s (SErvice CAfe – a change from the Mega Drive game’s SEnsational CAfe, and both an obvious reference to SErvice GAmes) Super Energy Combat Armour (yes, another SECA acronym), undertaking odd jobs ranging from the mundane to the ridiculous to pay for the privilege. As with the 16-bit version your first act as a hero-for-hire is still to humorously punch out your dad while he’s dressed up as a monster at a party (noticeably less Toho-infringing a second time around) – a clear sign the game may have had a drastic graphical upgrade but it’s still carefully guarding the knowing silliness that made the story such a pleasure to spend time with. Many of the jobs that come afterwards are close enough to their Mega Drive counterparts for old hands to recognise them without prompting when they pop up but No.1’s never so keen on retreading old ground that fans will already know what’s going to happen next due to a combination of fresh writing, a few new characters, more intuitive puzzles, and some much-needed reworking of the game’s maps. Let’s use the tunnel rescue/bomb disposal segment as an example: In the original it was a maze of brown corridors – not a terrible labyrinth that required hours of mapping, but the fact is the main obstacle between you and your goal was a bunch of rock-coloured walls. On Dreamcast this same area is instead a short and densely-packed location where you punch boulders to pieces to forge a route through the rubble, and on your later return to meet adventurous archaeologist Professor Indoa Jeans. The extended hidden ruins areas are now a small set of rooms that lead directly from one to the other. It’s just better. Other locations and buildings have also been streamlined when compared to the winding sections in the older game, still offering a few side rooms to satiate your curiosity and perhaps add a little humour but only really giving you access to places you need to be. The end result is peace of mind: When a job requests you visit a three-floor police station or a giant department store the first thought that pops into your head is “What fun things can I find if I wander around here?” and not “How long is it going to take me to find the one person I need to speak to in this crisply-textured haystack?”. I know it may sound contradictory but by offering less empty or unnecessary spaces Rent A Hero No.1 actually encourages exploring; you can always trust the game to only take you to areas that are either directly relevant to a current or future task or at their very worst lead to an interesting minor diversion. Rent A Hero No.1 is infused with a jolly sort of “Let’s get things done” style and the game realises that artificially lengthening the time and physical distance between you and your end goal does nothing to improve that positive mood.

And getting on with the job is important because your SECA suit isn’t going to pay its rental by itself: no money means no suit, and no suit means no job, and no job means no money, and no money means no s-you get the idea. Getting caught in a ouroboros of debt is no fun for anyone, and that’s why the Mega Drive game offered a thoughtful safety net against this sad scenario – a very strange man who was happy to pay you a small amount of money to fight with him, even though he was so weak you could easily best him wearing nothing more high-tech than jeans and a t-shirt. It felt a bit weird, but it did the job it needed to do. The Dreamcast remake replaces your most basic fail-safe with a far more engaging quickfire “deliver the ramen” minigame that’s more in-keeping with Rent A Hero’s central theme and also allows you to really learn where everyone lives in your local neighbourhood – something that’ll help speed up later assignments a lot. Other more profitable – if potentially more dangerous – repeatable forms of employment become available as the game progresses but the main thing is there’s always something you can do that’s worth doing even if you’ve got absolutely nothing to your name and you’re so far behind on your suit rental payments SECA have temporarily cut off your access. Thanks to the noble work of on-foot ramen delivery at the very least you end up no better or worse off than you were before should you somehow fail to deliver any dishes in the allotted time (a feat that would require deliberate personal sabotage – I managed to deliver three meals on my first go, and that was with me checking an entire floor’s worth of apartment doors for the right person), and at best you’re quickly back on track.

And all of this happens much faster than it used to thanks to the greatly improved walking and running speeds in this Dreamcast release: No longer are you faced with a choice between “A snail, but an especially lazy one” and the apparently superior “A very slow person casually ambling around” but a standard non-powered walk/run pace that only the most impatient soul could take umbrage with… even if the trade-off is you have an odd side to side swagger as you walk, like a person in urgent need of a change of underwear.

Combat has also received a serious overhaul (it’s very SpikeOut-y, which only makes SpikeOut’s lack of a home port all the more lamentable) but just like the graphics not so much to have changed it beyond all recognition. There’s still the need to balance using weaker standard moves and crowd-clearing battery-draining power attacks, good timing is always better than mindless flailing around, and it’s still on the simpler side of the fighting spectrum. This is intentional – Rent A Hero No.1 is an adventure game with some action in it, not an action game stuffed with cutscenes. There’s some undeniable disappointment in having to equip a single predefined one-button combo and deciding which of your shop-bought charge moves to bring to a fight via a menu rather than learning to handle an ever-expanding array of special moves but even so it’s a marked improvement over the original’s “jump-kick forever” side-on scuffles and in any case this game was never meant nor trying to be an homage to Virtua Fighter – anyone who enjoys Rent A Hero No.1’s bouyantly daft story can easily pull off all the moves in here and win.

But what about when those wins still don’t come? The first time I lost a fight I was taken to hospital… and then told by an excitable nurse what a wonderful job Ultra Great Super Hyper Miracle Strong Dash Turbo Fighting Salaryman (yes, that’s his full title) did of finishing off the job I failed to complete, and I had to carry on without the reward money I’d almost earned. This was a punishment and a gentle nudge forward all rolled into one: I should’ve been the one to clear the task, not that damned poseur… but either way the problem had been solved, I didn’t have to re-do something I’d already failed at, and the next job was already waiting for me on my trusty Creamcast. Later on I flubbed another boss fight and I expected Ultra Salaryman to soak up the glory once again but instead Rent A Hiroko (the all-new lady Rent A Hero) came along and finished the fight for me – and because she’s not the jerk UGSHMSDTF Salaryman is I was allowed to finish the rest of the story and collect my hard-fought pay in full. It actually felt pretty good to lose in both of those instances, the story adapting to the actual outcome in a different way each time rather than forcing an eternal parade of restarts until I finally cleared it like I “should” have.

And this is all down to the game caring more about how much I’m enjoying my time playing as a Rent A Hero than it is with behaving like a “proper” game knows it should – which just so happens to be the exact same core belief the Mega Drive original was designed around. Need money to do something important but don’t have enough and have no way to earn more at the moment? No problem: There comes a point where to progress you must wear a suit and tie to enter a fancy restaurant and the only place to buy one is from the local department store, which sells a set for 3000G. At this point the amount isn’t a ridiculous ask (jobs tend to reward 4000G or more when completed by now) but between suit rental, general items, upgrades, failed missions, and all the other things you can spend money on it’s not impossible to not have that amount to hand, and when you’re out on a story-related quest there’s no way to switch to a repeatable money-making job. So the solution is to go home and borrow a suit and tie from your adorable dad who thinks you’re getting dressed up for a date when in fact you’re off to listen in on crime boss conversations (and end up stripped down to your underpants and brawling on the street outside with goons). Likewise the dreaded SECA suit rental could have easily loomed large over your every move, a permanent grey cloud that hits a little too close to real-world fears of not being able to pay for the one thing that makes your job possible, but in practise this regular outlay is an extremely minor problem no matter how much or little time you’ve spent with the game: I’d already completed several jobs, donated thousands to SECA’s research arm, had 2000G in the bank (SECA will automatically withdraw rental fees from your deposited funds if there’s enough available in your bank account, saving you the hassle of manual payments) and roughly 2500G on my person when the first rental payment came out – and this was from normal bare-minimum questing. The game makes a big deal out of the payment side of things and the amateurishness “Gotta make rent!” of it all because that’s a key part of the setting, but on any format Rent A Hero’s always known that checking your bank balance and worrying about repayments just isn’t as much fun as defusing bombs or beating up costumed actors in a hero show in front of a cheering crowd of children.

Rent A Hero No.1 is an utterly fantastic remake: It takes everything good and positive about the original and then expertly improves and updates it all in such a careful way you question whether they ever changed anything at all – it’s so close you could swear it’s the game you enjoyed playing so much the first time around. What makes it really special though is how it never falls into the trap of only respectfully rearranging what was already there, a slavishly faithful game so busy paying homage to the past it exists in a bubble and ignores all of the advancements that have happened since. Rent A Hero is the same, Rent A Hero is different – and Rent A Hero is still number one.

3 thoughts on “Hero for hire

  1. The best remake is truly the one that doesn’t play exactly like the original but the better, idolized version your head thinks it was xD

    Also so much yes to:
    “I know it may sound contradictory but by offering less empty or unnecessary spaces Rent A Hero No.1 actually encourages exploring”
    I get so fed up with big open spaces that have few things in them. Abstract and condense that shit down. Otherwise I’m just gonna follow your ingame breadcrumb pointers to the main goal or look it up somewhere on the internet instead of exploring the world’s wasteness in hopes I stumble upon where I’m supposed to be at and maybe get a single funny NPC line or a chest with 3 healing items on the way.

    Like

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