Hotline Miami (2012, PC)

By mothman spirit / December 3, 2014

Hotline Miami is the Super Meat Boy of overhead action games, with the same quicksave checkpoint pacing, except not as offensive aesthetically.
   It's the same start-stop thing where you die every few seconds; the game has no flow. You can't get into the groove of it. Sometimes when you succeed, it feels like a fluke, not the result of being any good at the game. Maybe you lucked out and the crappy enemy AI did something stupid -– who knows, and who cares, because you never have to replay any part of the game once you've beaten it. It's wildly inconsistent – sometimes every dude in the building will rush you if you fire off a shot, and sometimes no one hears it. And you really can't even call it a stealth game. The stealth engine is limited compared even to Metal Gear on the MSX. But overall it's pretty easy – I beat it in three hours.
   Relevant part of SriK's Super Meat Boy review:

"If there's almost zero penalty for death, then there's almost zero tension, and therefore almost zero pressure or incentive to succeed other than the visual payoff of getting to see the next level (which in Super Meat Boy's case isn't much of a payoff at all, since its level art is terrible and there are almost no interesting setpieces in the game). I mean, who cares how much you screw up if you can die as many times as you want and be instantly transported 10 seconds back in time, as in a magical savestate? This might not have been such a huge problem if Super Meat Boy's levels were significantly longer, but as it stands each stage averages around 25 seconds, and once a stage is complete there's basically no reason to revisit it."

   Every line up there applies to Hotline Miami. It's the same deal here: the stages are so short, and the checkpoints are so close together, that death has no weight.
   The stages all look the same, just generic buildings. There's nothing really notable about them at all – just rooms filled with thugs pacing around. The best tactic that I found was usually to go into a small room, kill the couple of guys in it, then get a gun, fire a shot, hope that the enemies would hear it and rush me, and then whack them with a melee weapon as they run through the door.

   As for boss fights: there's the biker guy with throwing knives, and then there's the mob boss at the end of the game. That's it. Both of them are pretty easy once you learn their pattern, which only takes a few tries, and of course the game checkpoints you right before the fight. And they only take a few hits each, meaning you'll never feel that tension you feel in better games where the boss has a sliver of life left but manages to kill you anyway.
   The problem with the people attempting to review this game is that they have no context. They try to compare it to GTA: Vice City or some shit, because they are set in the same decade, which is about as asinine an attempt at a comparison as comparing The Secret of Monkey Island to Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag because they both have pirates in them. The fags really have no conception of what the term "genre" refers to. Is it any wonder that all their reviews are stupid?
   The context here, of course, is the venerable overhead action genre which has a history stretching all the way back to the early '80s, if not before, with titles such as Capcom's Senjou no Okami and SNK's Ikari, a genre which reached its height with games such as Out Zone in the arcades and Neo Contra on home consoles. Now, I am fairly young by the standards of this site's reviewers, and don't claim to be an expert on the genre, but I HAVE played Neo Contra, and I can tell you what no one else who has reviewed this game so far can tell you (because they got into games with the Xbox 360 and haven't played anything): that it pisses all over Hotline Miami. icy says that every single overhead action game he has EVER played pisses all over it – even the mediocre ones, such as Rambo III on the Mega Drive from 1988, for example – so far as he can see from the videos of Hotline Miami he has seen, but let's stick to Neo Contra for the purposes of our comparison here, since that's the only game in the genre that I have played extensively, and which luckily for me happens to be one of the best (as both icy and JoshF concur that it is [ > ]).
   So, why is Neo Contra so superior to Hotline Miami? One of the big reasons is two-player mode: gunning down hordes of enemies is way more fun with a friend, and something that's been in these kinds of games since forever.
   There's also the stage variety, with more enemy types in Neo Contra's first stage than can be found in the entirety of Hotline Miami. The first stage has you fighting sniper enemies who hide behind cover or riot shields and take shots at you from a distance, enemies who rush you with swords in groups, drones flying overhead, drop pods that enemies will burst out of unless you destroy them quickly, all kinds of stuff. The only enemies in Hotline Miami meanwhile are the white-suited thugs with guns or melee weapons, and dogs which move quicker and can only melee you.
   Hotline Miami doesn't have any real setpieces (they haven't been invented yet in the alternate history timeline of the "indie" scene) – it's all just clearing out identical buildings filled with identical thugs. Neo Contra has them all over, with one of the most memorable being the one where your characters ride on the blades of a helicopter on approach to a huge floating fortress. So over-the-top it needs to be seen to believe. Or a section where you freefall down a huge shaft while fighting a mecha in mid-air.
   TECHNICALLY, Hotline Miami has a lot of weapons, but all the melee weapons basically function the same, and the only guns are assault rifles and shotguns. In Neo Contra, the weapons all feel significantly different from each other: the bullet-cancelling flamethrower, the charge laser, which can reach all the way across the screen, the katana which you of course need to be in melee range to use, but is so insanely powerful that it takes down bosses in a few hits.
   Neo Contra throws a lot more enemies at you, which it can because it gives you so much more firepower than Hotline Miami. It's more fun to go against twenty guys with a fully-automatic shotgun that seems to cover the entire screen than it is to fight three guys in a room with a tire iron. You have a dodge in Neo Contra, during which you are invincible, meaning you can actually avoid the barrage of bullets flying at you. In Hotline Miami bullets travel so fast that the best way to deal with gun-wielding enemies is to wait for them to round a corner and hit them with a melee weapon, which is a lot less exciting than rolling through a stream of bullets and slicing a turret with a katana.
   There's also the fact that in Hotline Miami enemies will shoot at you from off-screen, which feels like bullshit. Bullets will fly at you out of nowhere and it's back to the checkpoint.
   The levels in Neo Contra are huge, contiguous areas – level 3, for example, has you starting at the foot of a mountain, and fighting your way to the top, where the commander of the base is. The stages in Hotline Miami are, at best, buildings a couple stories tall, and nowhere near as imaginative.
   The cutscenes in Neo Contra are way more entertaining than anything in Hotline Miami – one of the bosses is a general piloting a huge mech, who, when you beat him, gives the Nazi salute as he coughs up blood and explodes. In Neo Contra you're the elite super soldier Bill Rizer (whose appearance is based on Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is a lot cooler than playing as some mute, faceless sprite), on a mission to save humanity – a way more inspiring mission than killing some thugs because a voice on the phone said so.

   Which brings us to Hotline Miami's plot, which basically comes down to some vague "mysterious" bullshit about how your character is crazy, and killing people is bad. Or is it good? Who knows what the message of Hotline Miami is. It's on the level of an "edgy" short story in a college literary magazine from some dweeb who thinks A Clockwork Orange and Lars von Trier are "sooooo deep".
   Yeah, there's a soundtrack, people like it a lot, but it didn't leave an impression on me. I wouldn't call it a plus or a minus.
   As for the aesthetics, that have been praised to hell and back, you ever seen Oboro Muramasa [ > ]? It might be the prettiest 2D game ever. That should be what you should be shooting for, if you're making a 2D game these days. Even if you don't have the talent or resources for this kind of thing, even the SFC and Mega Drive had a ton of way prettier games. The standard is high, even for retro throwback deals, which is what this is. I mean, it’d have been ugly if it came out in the '80s or '90s too. It has crappy, vaguely 16-bit graphics that you can't even tell what they're supposed to depict. The game is crude looking – it's just up-rezzed, brightly-colored MS Paint splotches. The dialogue scenes are incredibly ugly, with huge-ass, ugly-as-fuck close-ups of faces. I'm sure someone would say, like, "They're supposed to be ugly, man, it represents the ugly nature of violence", before taking another hit off a blunt. And that may be true, but why does that matter? Why are the intentions of some art school dropout dweeb worth considering? Even if he made the damn thing – so what? There are movies "about" violence that are pretty – Drive, for example, which the devs claim to have been inspired by (even though you couldn't tell without them telling you) is filled with gorgeous people: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Christina Hendricks. You want to know the real shit about why Hotline Miami doesn't have good graphics or attractive characters? Because Jonatan Söderström can't draw. That's OK, I can't sing either – but you don't see me picking up a microphone and wailing into it, let alone charging people to hear me.
   Finally, why is it Hotline Miami is praised for its violence? Games like KILLzone 3 and Gears of WAR have you killing hordes of nearly photorealistic humans or humanoids, oftentimes blowing their limbs off or reducing them to piles of gore, with weapons like a triple-barreled sawed-off shotgun or a rifle with a chainsaw bayonet. Dismemberment is one of the main selling points of Dead Space and Metal Gear Rising. And these pixellated squiggles are supposed to make me feel something?
   Quoth Supreme Commander icycalm in the forum: "It's funny how, when it's a game by a real developer, violence is bad, but if it's a game by a Western student team, violence is fine and good and awesome and edgy."
   THE ONE THING THIS GAME GETS RIGHT: The kills are honestly pretty satisfying, in the same way that killing stuff in the first two Doom games is. But please don't take that as an endorsement of Hotline Miami. There are so many other aspects than that which go into creating an awesome overhead action game, and this game botches almost all of them.