Hotline Miami has already been extensively discussed in the gaming media; since its original PC release, it attracted a significant fanbase. Now it arrives on consoles, and it is an engaging and unique experience within a crowded genre. Fundamentally, it is a twin-stick shooter in the vein of many others. The left joystick moves the player, the right aims. The goal of each short level is to kill every enemy in the building with a very simple combat system. One hit is almost always one kill, except if the player uses certain items to save them. Enemies can be stunned if the player only wings them or uses too weak a weapon and will need finishing off – either by waiting for them to wake up and hitting them again with a stronger weapon, or by pressing a button to execute them.
The result is thus a very pared-down game; the different weapons vary in subtle strategic ways (shotguns are slow to fire but clear rooms, machine guns are more likely to wound than kill) and the suite of player abilities, from which they choose one at the start of each mission, are designed to encourage replaying levels to find new approaches rather than provide flexibility throughout the course of a level. Each completed level adds new weapons to the library which may turn up in a level, and this randomisation – where between lives an enemy may become easier or harder by going from being armed with a gun to only a knife – gives an arcade-like apparent unfairness. Levels often seem impossible because they are unpredictable; many of the mazelike buildings have enemies concealed in rooms just out of sight, or patrol routes that require risky exploration to discover. The end result of this is that the player very quickly learns that despite the score rewards for dashing forward and killing everything, Hotline Miami is as much a stealth game as anything else. This is especially clear when the game changes its formula; most levels are a simple round-trip of killing and leaving the empty building, but some add extra boss fights or escape sequences to clear.
They test the player’s skills at the more subtle game mechanics and make ideas that would be staid in many games seem fresh – a boss fight in a large open room against an enemy of the stock “run into a wall and be stunned” boss archetype is very much a change of pace in a game where most enemies take only one hit to kill and have an even simpler AI of following the player’s last known position.What things like this serve to do is remind the player that beneath the simplicity there are nuances to the game design – the player is more able to take risks than at first it seems because the AI is so simple and exploitable, and the nuances of the weapons make some match-ups favourable. Knives are one of a small number of weapons which kill when thrown, while the ability to instantly execute unaware enemies is a neat risk-reward balance (executions lock the player to them while leaving them vulnerable to being attacked). One strategy is to stun a room of enemies, steal the “best” weapon from them and pick the survivors off as they come round. There is, in fact, more strategy and awareness of systems needed to clear a difficult room in Hotline Miami than in most FPS games because of the absence of design crutches like cover and health.
Thus the simple gameplay hides a sharp mastery curve – yet many twin-stick shooters have a risk-reward system in this vein. What makes Hotline Miami stand out is its aesthetic, a kind of homage to the history of gaming. The gaudy colours, splash screen and general hyperactivity of the menus with pulsating text evokes the VGA era – its roots in PC gaming, the era of Commander Keen and Crystal Caves – resonate strongly with anyone who grew up with those games. The music, too, is like an up-rezzed PC speaker experience – jarring digital squawking mixed with new wave-style electronica in a compromise between retro authenticity and the game’s actual theming of ultra-violent mob films. This pervades the entire game – a kind of odd juxtaposition of Scarface-style brutality in decadent 1980s Miami and pacy, fun twin-stick shooting. It is the same kind of uneasy skirting of taste as seen in a game like Cannon Fodder – unafraid to be darkly comic in its frankness. In some ways, this plain-faced look back at gaming – when stylised ultraviolence rather than the grim realism of modern games was a selling point – works well. It is simple, immature gaming from a time when the medium was less developed. Indeed, the aesthetic of retro-games is more complete even than in the audiovisual styling.
The method of storytelling – cryptic cutscenes communicated via blobby, stylised talking heads in odd sentences that evoke the space-limited speech boxes of NES games – always hints at some kind of point to be made, but comes across absurd and meaningless. There is no time for reflection on what is being done, the game is always flowing forwards with a procession of new puzzle-rooms to solve, and there is ultimately an absolute disconnect between action and theme. The game is a shooter, its enemies are anonymous goons in white suits with knives and shotguns. Yet it is a game like Bomberman where the player is focused entirely on how best to remove a series of obstacles that may as well be anything within a known system of rules. Thus the violence – even though it is directed at people, and it is set in levels filled with the detritus of criminal life – is no more meaningful than shooting blobby demons and zombies in Doom. Perhaps an apt comparison is Duke Nukem, which also combined ludicrous violence with domestic and underworld stylings – Hotline Miami has the same exuberant destruction of normal locations, and indeed its abstracted enemies might as well be aliens as anything else.
Thus Hotline Miami is a total – perhaps uncomfortably comprehensive – look back at retro gaming. It encompasses the audiovisual elements, the neon graphics and low-rez music, and the joyous bloodiness of early shooters. But at the same time it also encompasses how dehumanising and routine the old games were – how the violence was immature and gratituous and just a way of dressing up limited gameplay mechanics with visceral feedback to actions. A player will have a lot of fun working out how to win Hotline Miami, but at the same time it is the player’s reaction to its weird strainings at reminding them of what its theme actually is – of the reminders that it is a game about hurting people, not demons or aliens – that will determine whether they have any lasting memory of it.