Review

Hotline Miami

Heat Wave Of Mutilation

Hotline Miami has you don a rubber chicken mask and eviscerate the ’80s. Everyone’s had that fantasy, right?

By Joe Keiser • October 29, 2012

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.

Hotline Miami

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.

Hotline Miami

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.

Hotline Miami

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.

Hotline Miami
Developer: Dennaton Games (Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin)
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform: PC
Price: $10
Rating: Not Rated

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  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    I initially misread the paragraph describing the interludes between missions and thought that by structure they became stranger, not only by perception in contrast to the cumulative body count.
       And I kind of like the idea that the game missions would never change, but in a Lynch, Gilliam or Cronenberg kind of style, the consequence of all the murders builds up like a psychological plaque and those ostensibly quieter moments between hits become increasingly blurred behind a greasy film of antagonistic surrealism.
       A visualization of the psychotropic and spiritual decay of systematic inhumanism.
       Oh, man.  I’m really in a mood for some pickled daikon radish and currently lack any agency or means to address that want.  Oh, well.  We are, all of us, tested.

    • blue vodka lemonade

      They DO become stranger by structure, far beyond your shifting perception. There’s not really anything to spoil, or if there is I haven’t gotten to it yet, but there is a definite progression in how those interstitial segments play from one end of the game to the other.

    • HighlyFunctioningTimTebow

      But we’re the tested, and the testers – some of us more than others.
      -50 Blessings

  • Fluka

    I have no interest in playing this game, between its gut-wrenching violence and unforgiving difficulty (plus, no time!).

    But I’ll be damned if I’m not completely fascinated by it.  It doesn’t hurt that the soundtrack is beautiful and/or hypnotic.

    Pretty good year for indie games, yes?

    • Fluka

      (And of course, the really. really. unsettling animal masks.)

    • blue vodka lemonade

      I normally have low/no tolerance for “difficult” games, but I’m loving this one. Other than one or two particularly irritating levels, by the time you are starting to get sick of dying again and again in a stage, you generally make it through the other end.  There are enough different ways to approach a given situation that, for example, being patient will save you a lot of the hassle of clicking precisely. And getting through a stage feels great when it clicks; it’s exhilarating but brief, so you get a lot of little adrenaline bursts as you play. 

    • HighlyFunctioningTimTebow

      The wonderful aspect of Hotline Miami’s violent acts are the efficacy of intent as ultimate trump card. It’s one of the few games where using a gun the wrong way is as equal and viable a weapon as hosing down a room with brass and lead. Even more so, given the reliance on stealth tactics in more difficult stages. A neat subversion of the Rambo machismo mentality, but only insofar as being one card of many out of a larger deck of destruction.

      Speaking of hypnotic music tracks, Nicholas Winding Refn gets a Special Thanks in the end credits. Feel free to make of that what you will.

      • Bad Horse

        I was just thinking this sounded a lot like Drive, in spirit anyway.

      • Fluka

        I think you’ve put your finger on why it feels so different.  At least from this review and your comments, it’s considered, thought-through violence as opposed to “Whee shootin’ dudes in the head!” violence.  It’s the difference between a bombastic Rambo action film and something like Drive (dang, does he really directly thank Refn?) or a David Lynch film.  It doesn’t mean that the game can’t be *fun* as well (and so damn stylish), but it sounds like there’s a dark, queasy undercurrent.  Still might not get around to playing it, but it’s certainly got my interest and wish for its success.

        • GaryX

          Yeah, he directly thanks him which makes sense. The recent launch trailer is pretty much ALL Drive in a great way.

    • lokimotive

      The fact that the soundtrack features Sun Araw instantly reveals the atmosphere this game is going for. I’m a little surprised they don’t have some Dylan Ettinger on there.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      “No time” is one of the reasons I like this game! A single session can take a half hour or less, and the total core game reportedly takes about 5 hours, max (though I imagine you can spend more time digging for secrets). The difficulty is handled ably, in Super Meat Boy style, where you’re expected to die often, and restarting is painless and immediate, facilitating the development of the muscle-memories needed to speedily traverse each level.

      The one drawback I’ve found is that it is buggy as hell, which throws a wrench into that whole “smooth restarting” business. The most recent level I played had a section that would consistently crash me out of the game, losing all of my progress through 2/3rds of a very challenging level. It was irritating as hell having to re-load and start the level from the beginning rather than the last ‘checkpoint,’ only for it to crash again.

      • Fluka

        Nooo, don’t tell me these things!  I have too many games to play already!  Unnngghh *chalks it into her to-play list after Mark of the Ninja*.

        I’m now trying to imagine myself playing this at the office in five minute bursts, and explaining it to my coworkers.  Hrmm.

      • Aaron Riccio

        Yeah, I’m a huge fan of the Super Meat Boy gameplay: I want to struggle, I just don’t want to struggle with anything OUTSIDE of the game itself. With these glitches, I think I’ll wait until it goes on sale and gets a few patches before I go on a killing spree. 

        I’ll admit, I have been waiting for a top-down Suda 51 version of Manhunt for a while now, and this is the closest I’ll get to that, so . . . yeah. Let’s do it. 

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       And the soundtrack is awesome. I remember after seeing Drive I started off every morning for the following week+ with Kavinsky’s Night Call. This game is having a similar infectious effect – though the soundtrack has even more and better music.

      • GaryX

        The soundtrack is so fucking good. You guys can listen to it here: http://soundcloud.com/devolverdigital/sets/hotline-miami-official

        “Miami” and “Hydrogen” are immediate highlights. 

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           ALSO, all the songs are .ogg files in the game directory, so if you have the game, you have the soundtrack!

  • HobbesMkii

    This game really takes me back 13 years (from last Thursday) to Grand Theft Auto 2 in terms of graphics and gameplay.

    • http://twitter.com/Gerardi Matt Gerardi

      The game it comes closest to, for me, is Super Meat Boy. Obviously they’re very different types of games, but it’s that core idea of “plan–die–restart instantly–iterate on plan–die–repeat” that the two share. And I love it.

      • blue vodka lemonade

        Super Meat Boy bored me a lot but Hotline Miami is my current no. 1 jam, and the first game in a helluva long time that I actually will, as I’m trying to get to sleep, go over difficult sections of levels in my head to figure out a plan of attack for the next time I play.

        Also I think it ate my soul, but I’m not sure I had one in the first place.

      • HobbesMkii

         Yeah, I can understand that. It’s sort of a weird GTA2-Super Meat Boy-Hitman hybrid.

  • Captain Internet

    It’s a very special game, but I’m not sure I like it. It’s got buckets of style and a wonderful soundtrack. It’s probably the most sinister game I’ve played, but it’s got enough soul to stop it being flat-out unpleasant, like Manhunt or Condemned. Mostly.

    The main problem I have with the game is the actual ‘game’ bit- it’s somewhat buggy and inconsistent, the controls are a pain, and it often feels like work rather than fun. Enemies will sometimes see you when they’re not looking at you and on the other side of the room, and when you die from a single hit this is hugely irritating. Still, the developers seem to be on the case.  

    • Ben Villeneuve

      That’s interesting about the controls. I’ve heard such mixed reactions to them, everything from your perspective (pain) to mine (they quickly became an extension of my will).

      • Aaron Riccio

        Can you play it on a gamepad? When Joe said it was “intentionally awkward” I suddenly had the terrifying thought that it might be like QWOP meets GTA, and really, gunplay’s tough enough already in most games.

        • http://gameological.com/author/joekeiser/ Joe Keiser

          Currently there’s no gamepad support in Hotline Miami, but the game’s official Twitter feed has stated it should be patched in soon. I’m eager to try it with a controller myself–I expect it will feel very different.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           I honestly think it would be way harder with a gamepad. The mouse-aim gives you the precision you need when your shots are so limited. Playing it like Smash TV or Robotron seems like it would just get you killed really quickly. It would be interesting to try, though…

  • Ghostfucker

    Most warm-blooded american men of any age do not watch late-night marathon sessions of the Golden Girls.

    • lylebot

      Yeah, I don’t know how old Joe Kieser is, but I would’ve said most warm-blooded American men’s idea of 1980s Miami is based on Scarface.  And this game seems pretty compatible with that vision of Miami.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      On the one hand, making any proclamation on standards of masculinity is always questionable.
         On the other hand, Joe Kaiser is an iguana.  So in that respect you are technically correct.
         He watches it while relaxing on his heat rock.

      • HobbesMkii

        I love it when animals think they’re people.

        • NarcolepticPanda

          Me too.

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

     While I love Cactus’s stuff, I initially hadn’t been excited by the previews of Hotline Miami. At first blush, it looked awfully conventional for something from the guy who made Norrland – a Postal/GTA style shoot-em-up with a tired “I Love the 80s” aesthetic grafted on.

    Of course, I was totally mistaken. The game is wonderful – deeply weird and weirdly deep tonally, ludically, and visually. And that soundtrack…

  • hastapura

    I love this fucking game but it needs a Super Meat Boy-style replay feature where you can see every attempt at once, spewing across the screen in a garish array of failure.

    • Aaron Riccio

      “Garish array of failure” should be added to every game. Take that Ebert and your “Video games aren’t art” premise.

      • NarcolepticPanda

        “I have never played a video game. I never will play a video game. But video games can’t be art! I’m still relevant, right?”

  • stakkalee

    Söderström was offering free tech support to Pirate Bay users that were downloading a pirated copy of the game.  He was even encouraging players to download a free copy if they couldn’t afford to pay for it.  Other indie developers have done the “pay what you like” system before, and McPixel did it explicitly through The Pirate Bay, but the Hotline Miami devs are taking it to a new level; good for them.  That’s a class act, straight up.  It does make me wonder what will be the state of video game publishing over the next decade or two…will we see more and more devs taking the “indie” route and self-publish?  I mean, look at what Obsidian did with Project Eternity on Kickstarter!  On the one hand, a dedicated publisher can really open up some huge markets for game devs, but on the other hand, self-publishing a game is different than self-publishing a book, or even an album; game devs don’t really need to “tour” to promote a new game, so the activity involved with self-publishing a game is much less than other creative media.  Or maybe I’m wrong – do devs who self-publish need to do the “promotion thing” for their games?  Even if so, I can’t imagine it involves touring various cities like with books or music.

    • HobbesMkii

       Devs definitely need to promote games, though I believe it’s generally publishers who take the lead for AAA titles. Given the cost of games, each game is in competition with all the others being released around the same time for those consumer dollars. That’s why you see such absurd promotions in the weeks leading up to a release, like the ill-advised Assassin’s Creed III art thing that was profiled here a few weeks ago.

      I imagine indie games have it even harder, given that there are so many of them and many places simply won’t have time to give them a full review.

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    Hey, folks, I just happened across the spooOOOOOooooOOOOOooooky Halloween Indie Royale Bundle, and it might be of interest to folks. I’m picking it up because it includes bizarro Russian curiosity Pathologic for cheaper than it would be by itself.

    It also has the most recent and most ambitious season of Sam & Max if you still haven’t played that, and a couple of indie games like Home, MacGuffin’s Curse, and EvilQuest, which I’d heard of but never really gave a chance to.

    http://www.indieroyale.com/

    • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

      Bought that over the weekend. I’m currently on an unexpected Left 4 Dead 2 bender but Sam and Max plus all the wacky Pathologic write ups on Rock Paper Shotgun were enough to sell me.

    • The_Misanthrope

       That’s a pretty good bundle!  Too bad I have no time until after December to play many games.  Ah well, I’ll still pick it up.

  • wzzzzd

    I’m broke right now but this game seems really intriguing, so I decided to check out some live streams of it. Three times I’ve checked out a stream and three times I’ve seen just the ending sequence.

  • goawayinternet

    I would have mentioned a bit more about the soundtrack– starts with Sun Araw, a good sign, and goes into some smaller artists we’d never know about that are making some phenomenal music.

    The game itself is fast and intense.  You have to let your instincts take over, take risks, act quickly, to get the highest score possible.

    And the storyline?  I’d be interested to hear what people think about the last 1/3– The game either occupies two realities or part of it is a dream, ore more than one part of it is a dream, or something.  Interesting storytelling for a little indie game.
    CACTUS has impressed me with his first commercial game, and I’m looking forward to the next one.  Oh and I’ve heard there may be some DLC.

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    Besides the obvious GTA2 comparison, the screenshots of this game reminded me of another extremely violent game called Dreamweb.

    It was an adventure game, also with a top-down perspective.  It included a diary which appeared to show the main character’s descent into madness due to strange dreams, culminating in a strange figure ordering you to kill seven people to protect the “Dreamweb”.  From that point on, the game stays kind of vague in whether you’re really mad or the people you attack really are searching for some psychic power source, and they seem to confirm this by dialogue.  Whatever the truth is, the very dark ending makes it clear that it doesn’t really matter either way, at least to you.

  • http://twitter.com/MikoSquiz Miko the Squiz

    GOTY for me. The gameplay is so taut and tight and the aesthetic is so garishly smeared and sinister. I was really disappointed there weren’t more scenes with the three, uh.. the three. (Now I’m thinking about the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Hm.)
    And the music! A video game soundtrack easily worth buying, whoda thunk.

    DO YOU LIKE HURTING OTHER PEOPLE? asked the rooster.

    When it’s offered up in this form .. um, yes. I guess I do.

  • Matthew Smith

    This is easily the best game of the year. While I have enjoyed other games -> Dishonored, XCOM etc, nothing has given the same feeling this game has. The intense fast paced action. The incredible 80′s vibe. The constant die, replay, rethink gameplay. The wonderful soundtrack. Everything has coalesced into this amazing package of murdery joy.

    Though I still reeally hope they fix all the bugs, because its stopping everyone from enjoying it as much as me…

  • geijujuju

     http://pnoy.me/Hg