Hotline Miami may not look like it from the screenshots, but it's more of a music game than an action-shooter - and not just because of the brilliant, pulsing chiptune soundtrack either. Rather, it's the action which forms the real music; each of the song-length levels forming a chorus of curses, punches and gunshots. And there you are at the stage's frontline, like a Serial Killer Hero.
Understood this way, you can finally understand why Hotline Miami doesn't let you save your game - it'd interrupt a rhythm which is otherwise preserved in everything from disco-light backgrounds to dancing camera angles. You can also see why it's so difficult and why mastering the controls is so important; you're playing an instrument and every bum note spoils the song.
As a music game Hotline Miami's appeal is naturally limited by the quality of it's setlist - but it doesn't disappoint. There's everything from stealthy slow-builders to powerful death metal anthems on offer here, each wrapped in a disco-punk aesthetic which serves to set Hotline apart and breathe life back into the genre, at last. Nine out of ten.
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Hotline Miami isn't big and it isn't clever; it's an indie darling that's been happily caught up in games journalism's latest fashion of anti-popularism. If it was released at any other time then it would have been ignored or laughed at, but now that we're coming to the end of a console generation and indie games have latched on to retro art-styles? Now it's a big deal, apparently.
This, even despite that it was developed with an off-the-shelf gamemaking suite - a fact which shows in the lack of gamepad support and occasional system crashes but which you're supposed to overlook because it's indie. You're supposed to feel good about spending your money on something this weird and keeping your cash away from the big, evil publishers - as if this were the game equivalent of a fair-trade coffee.
That's not to say Hotline Miami is a bad game; it's fun enough in a weird, try-hard sort of way, but it'd be more appropriate to play something like this on Newsgrounds over your lunch break. Judged by the standards of a professionally produced, paid-for computer game Hotline Miami inevitably falls down, no matter what New Games Journalists and hipster sycophants might say. Three out of ten.
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Hotline Miami is difficult to understand. Playing it, I've thought it's a puzzle-strategy game where you have to devise the perfect plan, a 2D twitch-shooter vaguely analogous to Counter-Strike and a grandly presented philosophical statement about death as entertainment. I'm not sure any of those ideas is right, though some of them might be close.
I've thought that it's a great game, because it's easy to think that when you're doing well or if you're in the mood for a specific type of frustration - but I've also thought it terrible because there are flaws you can't overlook even then. Maybe it's equal parts good and bad? I can't say I'm certain, though I've certainly thought about it a lot.
The only thing I know for sure is that there's something deeply - almost unsettlingly - urgent about Hotline Miami. Something that's been bubbling up inside gaming for a very long time and which has finally taken form in a curious blend of balletic combat, trippy visuals and anarchic writing. Something important.
Hotline Miami is not a perfect game and it's not one I'll pretend to fully understand (that's a mistake I've made before) but I can say that much: it's important. That's enough.