Like most warm-blooded American men my age, the extent of my knowledge of 1980s Miami comes from late-night marathon viewings of The Golden Girls. It’s a habit that’s taught me so much—mostly about myself, since the stuff I learned about Rue McClanahan was, shall we say, fantasy—but nevertheless left me unprepared for the retro ultra-violence of Hotline Miami.
In this game by noted independent developer Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström and his collaborator, Dennis Wedin, the premise is simple, if strange: You’re a hired killer, living in the notorious underbelly of the Magic City. The year is 1989. Every few days, you get bizarre coded voicemails that contain an address. Upon reaching that location, you put on a rubber animal mask, open the door, and brutally murder everyone inside. How you choose to do this is the core of the game, and nobody ever said mass killings were easy. You’re always outnumbered, and usually one hit from anything is enough to lay you low. Your targets die just as quickly, but they’re almost always armed. The controls, which work well in the context of the game, are intentionally awkward, so fighting your way through an unanticipated mess will almost always leave you bleeding out on the ground.
While Hotline Miami is unflinchingly difficult, it also encourages you to be your best homicidal you. Death comes frequently, but you can reload the level in an instant, and each stage is so small that you can quickly iterate on your chosen killing style. If you want to play it like a real spree, you can pick a hiding place, analyze the simple movements of your victims, and execute a strategy in a flash. It’s satisfying to kick open a door to knock down a guy with a knife, then immediately throw your bat at the head of a guy with a machine gun, while picking up the dropped knife and gutting the charging pipe wielder—all in less than a second. You can also give up on that, wade into the fray with a katana, and hope you’re lucky enough to take them all down before they get you. Sometimes it works out.
Your reward for that success comes in new weapons, like Magnums and beer cans, or new rubber animal masks with properties that can make the game easier—the unicorn mask, for example, silences your gun and kind of feels like cheating. Your victories are painted in pink and crimson. Hotline Miami is not just set in the ’80s, it dedicates itself wholesale to the era, and so it looks and sounds like the dream game of a Commodore Amiga hacker. The incredible synth soundtrack warbles and cracks. The bright neons and pastels of the era flicker on screen, as if dancing on a tube TV’s cathode ray.
In spite of this low-resolution, psychedelic presentation, no aspect of your carnage is left to the imagination. Bodies crumple and splatter, heads fly across rooms, and intestines fall in a variety of patterns. It speaks to the intensity of the game that I didn’t notice just how much of this world I’d coated with viscera until the end of every level, where you’re forced to leave the way you came, and there’s nothing left to do but admire your grisly handiwork.
Pointed moments like this are scattered throughout. After every level, your gruesome job done, you stop for something dull and pleasant—a VHS rental, a pizza, and a conversation. As your crimes mount, these interludes become stranger. Their presence gives the game a spark of humanity, which both grounds it and twists it further. It’s similar to finding out that Ted Bundy was an avid snow skier.
I usually abhor games that promote violence for the sake of violence. I’m making an exception for Hotline Miami, which I enjoyed immensely. Between its evocative, incisive presentation and its thoughtful strategy, it’s easy to get swept away into the game’s world of blood-soaked white jackets. But after the breathless action, it forces you to come up for air and shows you what you’ve done. Then it asks you to do it again, and every time it gets a little easier. Suddenly, we’re learning things about ourselves Rue McClanahan could never teach us.