Genre: Arcade action
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Denaton Games
Despite having something of a reputation on the indie scene as a prolific creator of short, creative games, developer Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström was a relative unknown before Hotline Miami. That was all set to change when Cactus was introduced to artist and musician Dennis Wedin. After striking up a friendship, the pair collaborated on a couple of small projects before turning their attention to a game that Cactus had abandoned back in 2004 – a top down shoot-’em-up where you were simply meant to kill as many people as possible called Super Carnage. Taking inspiration from Nicolas Winding Rehn’s moody neo-noir thriller, Drive, and drug documentary Cocaine Cowboys in particular, Söderström and Wedin took Super Carnage in a brand new direction, setting it in Eighties Miami and adding a layer of sophistication to its narrative as they refined its mechanics in Söderström’s engine of choice, GameMaker. Before long, Super Carnage had become Hotline Miami.
Indie publisher Devolver Digital would eventually pick up the game after being sent a copy by Super Crate Box developers Vlambeer. That proved to be a good decision, as Hotline Miami became a huge success both critically and commercially when it released in 2012. So much so that it was not only ported to PS3, PS Vita and PS4, but now has a sequel in development entitled Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, due this year.
It’s top-down perspective and brutal violence means Hotline Miami has often been compared to the original GTA. There’s something in that comparison, but that doesn’t quite capture what Hotline Miami is about. As you move throughout each stage, bursting into rooms, swinging crowbars and firing shotguns in an attempt to take out every enemy, before being killed for the umpteenth time, you start to realise that Hotline Miami is a game that’s difficult to describe. In a sense, it is a puzzle game – the perspective you’re presented with gives you an overview of every room in a level and every enemy you’ll have to take down, inviting you to work out how you’re going to guide the nameless, masked serial killer that you’re controlling to success. Yet, the game revels in the idea that the best laid plans can go to pot and, indeed, some of its best moments arise when it becomes an exhilarating twitch-based action game, when everything goes wrong and you, somehow, by the skin of your teeth, are left standing, surrounded by the broken bodies of your enemies.
Not content to simply be a great action game, though, part of what makes Hotline Miami so interesting in that it constantly asks you why that experience of murdering your foes with bottles, knives and all manner of other weapons is so appealing. Employing a surreal, Lynchian approach to storytelling, in which it is not clear what is real and what is not, the game consistently asks you to reflect on the brutality of your actions, making clear that unlike most other violent games, there’s no real justification for what you’re doing. We’ll not go into details as we wouldn’t want to spoil anything for any of you who haven’t yet played it, save to say that Hotline Miami’s odd and mysterious plot is a smart reflection on videogame violence – the appeal of which is, of course, the very thing on which this game is predicated.
If you needed an answer as to why smashing the heads of Russian mobsters with a pool cue is so satisfying, though, the answer to that question is surely part of the experience of playing the game itself. From the precise nature and breakneck speed of its action, through to its wonderful, neon-infused pixel art and pulsating, electronic soundtrack, everything about the game conspires to create something that is aesthetically arresting and seductively exciting.
In short, Hotline Miami is one of those rare releases that is masterfully constructed, it is a game where every aspect complements each other perfectly. Whether it’s Hotline Miami’s strong sense of style, the hallucinogenic character of its surreal storytelling, or the exhilarating nature of its twitch-action gameplay that initially wins you over, there’s plenty to love about Hotline Miami.
Why It’s A Future Classic
One reason that Hotline Miami will stick around is that it’s timeless. The retro influences of its pixel art-style means that the game will not suffer like those that opt for cutting-edge visuals as time goes by. Indeed, as a whole, the game is meant to be evocative of a period that’s already past – the Eighties – and it’ll be as good at that in 20 years as it is now. It simply will not age.
The thing that really ensures Hotline Miami’s status as a future classic, though, is just how brilliantly it plays. As you begin replaying levels, you start to experiment with different strategies that allow you to build long combos and gradually realise that there’s an excellent high-score game to be found here, just like in classic arcade games of old. The process of refining your runs for higher scores is just as exciting and rewarding – albeit in a different way – as finishing levels was back when you first started.
Thanks to the addicting gameplay, stylish visuals and pulsating soundtrack, newcomers and veterans are going to have their adrenaline set pumping by this game long into the future.