Ever been amongst friends and asked the question; what are your top ten favourite video games of all time? Well, I’m not doing a top ten list, sorry. But I’m talking about one game that will forever be in my top ten and that game is Hotline Miami.
Created by Dennaton Games (Programmer’ Jonatan Söderström and Artist’ Dennis Wedin) and published in October 2012 amongst a vast plethora of Triple A titles, Max Payne 3, Black Ops II and Halo 4 as examples. There was one game that gave me an experience that far outweighed it’s bigger budget contemporaries. In my previous examples, of which I’ve only played Max Payne 3 and Blops2; Hotline Miami in all it’s dayglow 16Bit glory cemented its characters, location and narrative into my memory in a way that those aforementioned first/third-person-shooters didn’t.
Five years later and I’m not playing Max Payne 3 or Black Op II, no, I’m still playing Hotline Miami and the reason for this is certainly down to the how the game presents itself.
We’re thrown into a new reality that resembles an ever more hyperbolic, drug-fuelled and violent version of 80’s Miami. We view this world with brain-damage induced synesthesia and neon sunglasses. Our ears are filled with the sounds of stylish murder and faux-80’s synth.
It’s a shot of heroin with a nostalgia chaser before being thrown into the lapping waves of South Beach. Each day starts with ringing synapses and even louder ringing phones, the stale taste of too many B52’s and Singapore Slings still linger in the mouth. The memory of gouging eyes and splitting skulls no longer causes nausea.
This is Hotline Miami.
And to think that this game resembled a 16Bit top-down shooter of old. A game that is more than just anachronistic in aesthetic, since many parts of the game’s meandering plot (spread over 2 games) takes place prior to start of the 16Bit era. 16Bit games didn’t start appearing until late 1987 and even then it would be a year before the era of the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive (Genesis).
Our first introduction to the world of Hotline Miami starts on 3rd April 1989. I would have been 6 years old and as far as I’m aware, there was no masked vigilante roaming around Miami with a lust for ultra-violence.
But how does this game operate and what makes it different from other games of the genre?
Let’s look at the mechanics of the game. Hotline Miami is an assertively slick and quick reactionary’ top-down shooter where you die, over and over again, until you persevere with only muscle memory as your only helpful trait.
An enemy can kill you in less than a second, you have no health meter and more often than not you will start each level with only your fists. Weapons are numerous; from pistols to shotguns, lead pipes to fire axes. There’s even a frying pan in two of the levels, a detail that can be easily missed amongst the frenetic action and splashes of claret.
And this is where this game furthers it’s anachronistic personality since there is no way this game could be played on an old gamepad or joystick of the era. Dual analogue thumbsticks or the precision of a mouse and keyboard is the key for survival and yes, I know that there were mouse and keyboards in 1989 but did you see a games console or arcade machine with such peripheries? No.
After completing each level, the player is scored against factors ranging from Killings, Boldness, Combos, Time Bonus, Flexibility, Mobility and Special. Though, I will admit that I’m not sure how these factors are actually scored and I’ve been given a low rating despite finishing a level quick and efficiently… obtaining an A+ rating for each level is a formidable task for even the most accomplished of gamer!
The story of Hotline Miami follows an unnamed protagonist that fan’s started calling; “Jacket”. He’s semi-based off of Ryan Gosling’s character from Drive. He’s a former US Special Forces operative turned brainwashed vigilante for the cause of a secretive society known only as 50 Blessings. Throughout the game, Jacket is given assassination missions by mysterious and cryptic answering machine messages… this all seems simple enough, right? Well, did I mention that San Francisco was nuked in 1985 after both the US President and USSR President were assassinated? No? Well, this is a plot point that can be easily missed if you’re playing both Hotline Miami 1 and 2 without taking in it’s complex and divergent narrative.
An entire book could be written on the intricacies of the storyline. How a collection of a few choice pixels can speak volumes instead of a huge info dump.
I’m fascinated by the plot, the characters and the world that Dennaton Games had created.
There’s a reason why Hotline Miami is a modern cult classic and that’s to do with my generation’s slight obsession with nostalgia for the 80’s but then again every generation has a fondness for things from 20 – 30 years previous. Look at American popular culture during the 70’s; Grease, American Graffiti and Happy Days were immensely popular at the time and those intellectual properties were about the 1950’s.
By 2010, 80’s revivalist movies had appeared fairly regularly in the cinema. Remakes of Nightmare on Elm Street, The A-Team, and The Karate Kid reminded us why movies were better in the 80’s. In 2015 people kept asking where their hoverboard and flying cars were.
I suppose we seek warmth and security from a time where we had no real responsibilities, where the term “social media” would have been easily attributed to a book club.
During the apex of 80’s revival, Hotline Miami was released and in a world where most games were brown and grey first-person shooters, Hotline Miami gave us a game that not only harked back to our youth but played incredibly well.
It also helps that through all the frustration of trying to complete that one (pain in the arse) level the game also gave you immense dopamine-induced satisfaction.
By the end of the first game, you’re even asked to question your own association with violence and why you enjoy it. It’s provocative in a sense, after all, you’re not entirely expecting this game to ask such a poignant question.
If you’ve never played these games then I urge you to pick it up. It’s available on Steam, PSN or Xbox Live and prepare to start listing Pertubator or Carpenter Brut as your new favourite musicians.
I give both Hotline Miami 1 & 2; 5 Star Trek references in a review for Twin Peaks out of 5.