When Hotline Miami came out and was showered with praise, I was skeptical about how much of that praise was motivated by Hotline Miami as a game, and not Hotline Miami as an idea or "experience". I (mostly) kept that to myself, and when the game was announced for the PS3, I figured I'd eventually try it for myself. I finally grabbed it once it was offered for free through PlayStation Plus. Now that I've played it, I'm glad I didn't (directly) spend any money on it, because man, I really didn't enjoy it, at least as it exists on the PS3.
Hotline Miami does have style, though I'd contend that most of its style is derived from its music. At this point, I have very little time for games aping 8/16-bit art and expecting people not to question why. It's been close to 20 years since that style -- a style that was necessitated by technological limitation -- was contemporary. I think there's a time and place for retro art -- I just don't think Hotline Miami looks particularly good. This is, of course, a subjective call, but to put this another way, does this screenshot, without hazy 80s-inspired beats blasting alongside it, really look very good?
If the art was my only issue, I'd be willing to look past it, but I didn't enjoy playing Hotline Miami either. There was a certain visceral satisfaction in tearing my way through the early levels, but somewhere around chapters 8 or 9 (I stopped at 10), it got way too repetitive, twitchy, luck-based, and memorization-heavy.
I suspect I'd have been able to get further without starting to hit a wall if I weren't saddled with the clearly-insufficient gamepad controls. The game's balanced with mouse-level precision in mind, and from what I can gather, Abstraction Games did nothing to address this glaringly-obvious issue. The gamepad controls aren't up to the task, and bring with them some really clumsy issues, like the tiny, barely-visible crosshairs (which, get this, turn red to indicate lock-on, effectively turning them invisible in a game so full of reds and purples). Lock-on is inconfigurably mapped to R3, a button I have a really bad habit of hitting under duress, and isn't implemented in a predictable enough way to be reliable in the heat of the moment.
None of this was a huge deal early on when most fights are small-scale and easy to end quickly, but unless I'm missing something, there's eventually unavoidable large-scale fights that would be way easier with twitch mouse controls. I realized at a certain point that I wasn't dying because my game plan was wrong -- I was dying because I wasn't able to execute on it within the constraints of the controls. I was constantly missing shots I'm sure I would have made with ease on the PC. I'm sure part of the problem here is that I'm not very good at this game -- I think it's the only twin-stick shooter I've played aside from some Geometry Wars -- but considering the blatant control downgrade inherent in the port, I don't think it's fair to ascribe my troubles entirely up to my lack of skill.
This doesn't mean Hotline Miami as it originally shipped on the PC is a flawed game, but it does mean the product Abstraction Games put out under the Dennaton Games' blessing is, and I think it's very much fair game to question why nothing was done to rebalance the console port, or even introduce a neutered "easy mode" for those of us who wanted even a bit of a break. I quite simply stopped enjoying playing this game at a certain point, and I try to make a habit of playing games I enjoy playing. I came back to it the last two nights hoping to break through that feeling, but I couldn't. It didn't much help that I didn't find the story or art in any way compelling enough to make want to see it through.
The music is, of course, awesome. This game is a great example of the power of music to strongly define the vibe of a video game. The harsh colours and constantly-shifting game field helped, but it's the soundtrack that really gives Hotline Miami its oppressive, unsettling, teetering vibe. This game made me feel pretty deeply uncomfortable, and at the risk of sounding like a total psychopath, it was the music -- more than the wanton, brutal, remorseless murder -- that got to me. The psychedelic title screen music, the hazy downtime track, the evocative score screen music, and this oppressively bassy level music -- it all sets a very specific tone and setting. I'm not going to finish the game, but I will seek out the rest of the soundtrack.
The soundtrack selection was a pretty amazing achievement, but as I said before, I'm not sure the game would have been particular noteworthy without it. I think it's quite telling that it's almost impossible to talk about Hotline Miami without reference to its soundtrack -- so much so that it often dominates any discussion of it. Even as someone who's something of a game music enthusiast, I think any great game should be able to (relatively) stand without its soundtrack, and I don't think Hotline Miami can.
Clean Asia! (a.k.a. the most obscure game reference you'll ever get out of me)
While I was playing Hotline Miami, I couldn't shake the feeling that it reminded me of something. I googled Jonatan "Cactus" Söderström, and it turns out he was the guy behind Clean Asia!, a bullet hell(ish?) shooter I got into for a few weeks when it came out in 2007. It doesn't have quite the same style, but it shares Hotline Miami's stark garishness, tight controls, and awesome soundtrack. It had a unique gameplay mode in which you attacked enemies by boosting into them, collecting their debris, and firing it in huge scattershot blasts in front of you. It was super satisfying and quite unique, and now that I think about it, I really want to go back and play it again -- much more than I ever want to play Hotline Miami again.