Round 2 of my games of the decade series is going to visit a title I already wrote about before – Hotline Miami. It is too difficult to select one of the two games, so I’m going to instead discuss the series as a whole.
The first game is a masterclass in interesting game design and (initially) wordless messaging. Before I ever played the game, it was presented to me as an interesting paradigm of facing the consequences of your actions – every level makes you kill untold numbers of faceless goons but then, mission accomplished, you have to leave the level, walking over the trail of bodies and blood that your actions left. The game eventually calls attention to this, and has a slight metanarrative about the manner in which action games quite often call a player to inflict untold amounts of violence upon strangers – which is then even further played with in the second game.
What was immediately appealing about Hotline Miami to me is that it has a packaged sort of nostalgic vibe. The game uses pixel art to deliver a simple 80s style, coupled with a scratchy static and tracking filter to look like every worn VHS tape you ever rented from Blockbuster. Combined with a retrowave soundtrack, the whole thing feels like an interesting combination – very in place but also just slightly out of place.
The gameplay is very engaging and fun, and easily the best part of the franchise. Presented from a retro overhead angle, the game plays sort of like a twin-stick shooter, with you aiming around your character to place shots with a clean precision. However, while the game has a myriad of ways to tackle most levels, it is really more of an action-puzzle hybrid. Many later levels in both games use layers of enemies that rush into a room once they hear hostility, forcing you to think hard about how best to manage. You start every level with no weapon, although certain masks can change that, so you also need to figure out how best to handle the initial enemy to get a weapon and then use that to your advantage.
The puzzle aspect really shines when it comes to strategic combat. You have limited ammo, and so the best way to deal with a room full of enemies is often to bottleneck, use a warning shot to draw enemies into the bottleneck, and then dispatch them with melee weapons or attacks. This changes the gameplay drastically, along with another interesting twist – enemies offscreen still exist and can attack you even if you cannot see them. There are enemies that take advantage of this in different ways (long-range shots, dogs that rush you from offscreen) and so the gameplay often requires that you take a handful of attempts per map to work your way through. In theory, this sounds frustrating and awful, but in practice, it actually works very well. With each level having checkpoints, you often don’t have to go very far when you do fail, and the game seemingly purposefully builds each level in layers – the start, a series of progressively harder puzzles and enemy packs, a checkpoint, and then a new layer of scaling challenges, until the end. It leads to fast-paced, wildly fun shootouts, where you might sometimes spend a handful of attempts failing while trying different ideas. The enemy AI can behave differently at times, making matters more interesting – how do you progress if every 6 attempts or so a big enemy moves differently or takes a new route to respond to your warning shot?
All of it ties together to create a fascinating experience from start to finish – a tale of depravity in 1980’s Miami, told in pixel art, vaporwave and future funk music, and layered with metanarrative about the nature of a game and the ways in which players respond to requests made with little context.
It doesn’t look like much, but don’t sleep on it – Hotline Miami and its sequel are both games worthy of your time.