Back in February we spent some time with a preview build of Mighty Rabbit Studios’ Saturday Morning RPG (Out April 5, Free with IAP Episode Unlocks) and came away with the impression that it was liable to be the second coming of truly great JRPGs. The final does not disappoint! My only word of caution to genre fans – and fans of RPGs in general – is to set your expectations properly for the game’s plot. SMRPG is filled to the brim with ’80s references, so the mileage you’ll get out of its story depends quite a bit on whether you have the background to pick up on them. And like an old ’80s Saturday morning cartoon, it’s not afraid to play cliché after cliché completely straight.

That said, SMRPG’s text quality is impeccable all around. I came away with a great appreciation for all the little things: the perfectly timed one-liners, the secret boss that shouts food puns at our hero, and the tons of graffiti and posters that breathe an upbeat ’80s atmosphere into the school where Episode 2 takes place.

However you take SMRPG’s plot, it’s difficult to deny just how much it’s gotten right in terms of JRPG game design. Like the very best genre classics to come before it, Mighty Rabbit Studios’ iOS debut has done away with the random battle and made every enemy encounter an engaging event that keeps you on your toes. Our preview writeup has already covered the nuts and bolts of SMRPG’s battle system, so I’ll get right to the takeaway. JRPGs have traditionally divorced the player from gameplay once commands are issued in a menu, but SMRPG keeps the player involved at all times through tap-activated defense, criticals, and special attack minigames. It says a lot that SMRPG is more enjoyable with just one character than most JRPGs are with three to six! Good performance is key to keeping Marty in the ring and players who master its timing system are well rewarded by experience bonuses in post-battle evaluations.

That’s not to say SMRPG doesn’t throw a bone to players who have trouble getting the hang of its timing system. Its config menu, accessed by exiting the current episode, lets the player tweak enemy leveling directly. Quite a few special attacks are completely menu driven, and if you remember to power them up through a very easy multiplier minigame you should be able to bust through with the right strategy. It’s this multiplier minigame that brings me to my one gripe about SMRPG’s battle system: Marty essentially forfeits a turn to activate this and it’s definitely critical to taking enemies out before Marty gets pummeled into submission himself. This draws battles out longer than they would last if the power-up mechanic were somehow directly incorporated into regular attacks and specials — maybe a point the dev can experiment with in future episodes.

Marty may look like an average ’80s high schooler but he’s pretty much Chuck Norris in battle, taking down everything with just his fists. Therefore you’ll find far less equipment management than in your typical JRPG — for better or worse. All the player has to consider on this end are stickers for the scratch-and-sniff stat bonus minigame that opens every battle, and special attack items found in the field or in vending machines. The game does a truly great job of rewarding exploration because every item you discover has an important role in battle, and the introductory episodes released today have optional dungeons to find as well. Main quest and subquest management are a breeze thanks to arrows that always point you in the right direction.

SMRPG’s interface is spot on, the one oddity being how the roving virtual joystick for field movement drifts with the player’s finger. Making that static once it’s plopped down would be a great tweak to see in updates. Another thing I’d like to see is a foolproof safeguard against accidental savegame deletion. If you back out of the current episode and enter the config room to toy around with difficulty settings or view your Achievements trophy case, be sure to hit “Resume Episode” — if you pop the episode into the TV interface like you did when you started, you are actually re-starting. A last-minute warning to drive this point home could keep a few players from having a bad Saturday morning.

The sprites-on-3D style gives SMRPG a distinct visual flair, and it’s impossible to come away from this one without an appreciation for Vince DiCola’s and Kenny Meriedeth’s talent for scoring videogames. SMRPG’s slugfests can certainly drag on, but a very compelling assortment of battle tracks keeps you in the spirit of the moment. If you have an appointment to keep you’d better set a loud alarm before firing this one up and plugging in your earbuds, because SMRPG is one of those experiences that make time truly fly.

iFanzine Verdict: Rush out and give Saturday Morning RPG’s free tutorial episode a download — even if you aren’t an RPG fan you may want to give it a shot thanks to its active battle system and streamlined approach. If you aren’t hooked enough to buy the second episode available at release, color us very surprised!