Hotline Miami Review
This game is ridiculous. That’s the quickest and best way to describe Hotline Miami, a retro top-down action production that pays homage to the mindless insanity of yesteryear. The main character is almost as faceless as the hordes of enemies he dispatches in grisly 8-bit bloody fashion. The story is absurd; apparently, the guy gets these strange messages on his answering machine asking him to embark on mass murder sprees. So he goes and does it. Why? What are his motives? No idea. All we know is that it's oodles of nonstop fun and reminds us of a simpler, more innocent time.
Perhaps it’s ludicrous to associate a term like “innocent” with a game that has you murdering countless individuals. But the graphics we had in the old days were far from realistic; they were a bit more colorful and detailed than Atari, but that’s about it. Hence, nobody took it seriously. That’s why, when we gaze upon the old-school pixilated style of Hotline Miami, the beginnings of a wistful smile tweak our lips. The special effects are downright comical in comparison to today, but that’s part of the game’s appeal. It puts the focus squarely on the challenging gameplay, as it always did in the past. In short, the graphics are all about nostalgic impact.
The sound is in much the same boat. Those tinny, amusing, electro sounds accompany your violent travels, but there’s a surprise— the soundtrack rocks. It’s hardly realistic if we’re talking about a true throwback, but that’s okay because the kick-ass score is a huge bonus. It fuels the carnage with a singular flavor and believe it or not, they’re still able to embrace the lunacy of the old days. We’re not talking about especially advanced orchestral tracks; we’re talking about music that’s quite simply perfect for this presentation and style. The rest is definitely inspired by the games some of us remember from the 80s, so nostalgia again plays a big role.
The protagonist in Hotline Miami doesn’t have a name. At the start, he’s standing in a room with three men who are wearing animal masks. It’s difficult to comprehend the meaning of what they’re saying. But it doesn’t really matter because after the scene disappears, you wake up in a dilapidated apartment. The year is 1989. You have received a brief message telling you to “clean up” at a certain location, where dozens of criminals are holed up. We’re never sure why exactly we set out to kill them all, nor are we sure of the reasons those foes are all in the same building. But these questions are completely irrelevant.
It’s all about shooting anything that moves in the classic, top-down shooter format of days long gone by. These types of games were quite popular in the late 80s and early 90s, and provided a slightly different viewpoint. You know, as opposed to the common side-scrollers. None, however, were quite as jarringly violent as this game, which involves a whole lot of dead bodies and copious amounts of blood. The old-school challenge exists in some fashion, in that a single shot can kill you (and you’ll die a lot), but the developers did us the courtesy of putting in checkpoints. Plus, there are times when you have the option to be stealthy, so it’s not all run ‘n gun.
There are other quirky little additions that add to the game’s visceral charm. For instance, before each of the 19 levels, you will select an animal mask. Each mask comes with its own bonus. So, if you choose the George the Giraffe mask, your cone of vision widens. Or, if you choose the Tony the Tiger mask, you will enjoy faster executions. These masks act as a perk, but the crux of the game involves the top-down combat. This all begins with your fists but eventually, you’ll earn all sorts of nasty weapons, such as blades (knives and swords), blunt instruments like iron bars, and a variety of guns. There’s more to this game than meets the eye, though.
Surprisingly, strategy often plays a crucial role. Because you’re so fragile, you really have to make sure you never get ambushed or surrounded. You also have to mix up your selected weapons so you can be ready for any contingency. If you have the option of taking out an enemy silently, do it. Alerted foes are all sorts of dangerous and while the ensuing bloodbath will be invigorating, it’s likely you won’t survive it all. The enemy AI is borderline retarded but that isn’t a huge drawback. After all, the faceless opponents in all old video games were pretty one-dimensional when it came to strategy.
Overall, the game is just plain fun. It’s really difficult to stop playing. The only issues involve the bosses and the length: The game can be completed in probably less than three hours, and some of the bosses are just beyond annoying. It may take you a while to figure out how to take down a boss, and it’s not much fun discovering the answer. Unfortunately, it’s just more infuriating than anything else, as you’re not given much in the way of clues or assistance. Again, that’s reminiscent of games back in the day but of course, it was irritating then, too. We just choose to remember that irritation fondly ‘cuz of the whole nostalgia thing.
If they could give us checkpoints, why not give us a bit more direction with the bosses? I should also add that control isn’t spot-on perfect, and your spectrum of sight doesn’t always give you an advantage. Other than that, this is one well-paced, extremely well-designed, and ultimately addictive game. The presentation is excellent because it matches the fast-paced insanity of the gameplay. There are all sorts of oddly intense retro visuals to keep you rooted to the spot, aching to take down more random enemies. It’s true that it doesn’t last long enough, but there are plenty of reasons to go through it again. Okay, just one reason— it’s a blast.
Hotline Miami doesn’t apologize for what it tries to do. It’s a throwback to the golden age of gaming but at the same time, it reminds us that over-the-top violence was always tongue-in-cheek in those days. It didn’t promote any sort of bad behavior; it was simply a release, a stress reliever after a long day at work. Or rather, in those days, a long day at school. Lest we forget, most of those who played games in that era were kids, and while the visuals didn’t have the flashiness of this presentation, the graphics were darn similar. And it didn’t matter at all. Because we all had a crapload of fun, from start to finish. Which is precisely what Hotline Miami is.
The Good: Awesome old-school presentation with extra psychedelic flashes. Fantastic soundtrack. Great game design overall. Accessible, highly entertaining and addictive. More strategic and challenging than expected.
The Bad: Boss encounters can be confusing and annoying. Camera and control isn’t always perfect.
The Ugly: “It’s pixilated ugliness at its finest! How can you possibly go wrong?”
7/8/2013 Ben Dutka