Have You Played… Hotline Miami?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

The second game in this hyper-kinectic retro-violence series keeps making headlines for all the wrong reasons, and I’m not at all willing to make any sort of judgement about all that until I’ve played the thing. What I do want to do is flashback to when Hotline Miami, Dennaton’s hallucinogenic Drive-like stealth-murder game came out of nowhere rather than was any sort of known quantity. I’d so love to be able to play it again with knowledge or association, to be back in that ‘what the hell is this / this is incredible’ mindset.

I don’t mean that purely for the surprise factor, but for the freedom to appreciate what Hotline Miami does so well.Given the disorientating style, hyper-violence, Gosling-homage and apparently lo-fi aesthetic, one thing that’s easy to overlook in Hotline Miami is how precise it is. It’s not some churned-out, show-off hipster experiment, it’s an evil machine which requires care and education in order to operate it at all correctly.

Its levels look like sandboxes, but really they’re intricate puzzles. For every action a reaction, and a requirement to know exactly what the next action should be. ‘Beating’ a Hotline Miami level entials planning a route around it, and precisely what you will be doing/who you will be hitting/shooting/stabbing at every point within it. Every door, window, enemy, weapon and obstacle in that level is there for a reason: nothing is superfluous.

Whatever else it is, however much that soundtrack helps and however much all that violence hinders (for some), Hotline Miami is an incredible, impeccable machine.

44 Comments

  1. Eight Rooks says:

    As ever, I could hardly disagree more. And I went back and played it quite recently, so I know it’s not mistaken impressions from back when I reviewed a preview copy. It’s frequently utterly brilliant: it’s just as frequently (if not more so) glitchy, inconsistent, nonsensical and downright unworkable. It deserves much of the praise it gets, and I do hope the sequel hasn’t gone off the deep end. But to call it an incredible, impeccable machine is… no, there’s no way I can finish that sentence and remain polite.

    • dysomniak says:

      I played it for about 15 minutes. I found the controls clunky and entirely un-fun. Maybe the rest of the game is brilliant but I’ll never know.

      • Continuity says:

        It takes more than 15 minutes to get the hang of it. Its worth it, put a couple of hours in and you’ll see if its for you. Personally I enjoyed it, played though a few times tried the missions with different masks etc, then put it down and haven’t felt like going back since.

      • Frosty Grin says:

        If you were playing with a gamepad, you can try swapping buttons and triggers in the game’s settings. Makes a big difference.

      • P.Funk says:

        This game is roguelike in its brutality and schizophrenic in its pace and intensity. It has a rhythm and a tempo. It also on my first play through nearly made me rage quit. “This is too damned hard”. Then I remembered that I hated how easy modern games were. This is a game that makes me think of standing in an arcade well past the peak hours pouring change into a machine to keep trying to get to a new high score.

        You can’t just play 15 minutes.

    • Shazbut says:

      Nonsensical I agree with. I don’t think now that the game is as intelligent in it’s narrative meaning as it appeared to me originally, but I’m not sure about your other criticisms. It seems beautifully tight to me, an all too rare example of a robust set of mechanics begging to be bested and exploited ever further. I wouldn’t describe the levels as “puzzles” as Alec does, because they defy a set solution. There’s always another way to get that high score. Chain a combo through the whole level, go for maximum exposure, go for sharp shooting, go for weapon variation, speed…

  2. alright says:

    It’s really impressive that it was made with GameMaker.

    • Cash at Folsom says:

      Going through the Tom Francis “Making A Game With No Experience” series right now, I frequently catch myself thinking, “I can see how with enough time and skill, this could become Hotline Miami.” Then my player character suddenly shakes himself to bits and the game crashes and I come back to reality.

    • SuddenSight says:

      This surprised me so much I had to look it up.

      Not that there is anything wrong with GameMaker, it’s just that Hotline Miami feels so intentional in the way it looks and works, from the gorey graphics to the pulsating menus. Really well done.

    • RuySan says:

      The brilliant Risk of rain was also done in game maker.

      • alright says:

        Gunpoint and Nidhogg too.

        • LionsPhil says:

          Gunpoint was rewritten.

          The original was good despite the tech. Its level editor never really worked and the finale had some odd and unhelpful bugs.

  3. Monggerel says:

    Hotline Miami is almost The Nile Song of video games.

    …if only it could keep a straight face. Though I suppose anyone would have trouble doing that after getting worked over with a lead pipe.

    Still, “I’M HERE TO TEACH YOU HOW TO KILL PEOPLE” is one of the strongest opening lines to just about anything I can think of.

  4. bonuswavepilot says:

    The title music and psychedelic palm trees are utterly monged. First time I loaded it up I just sat and listened to that surreal slowed surf-rock and watched the colours bleed out of the oddly familiar looking palms (were they ripped from some old driving game, or do they just look like it…?) for a good few minutes, wondering what the hell I was in for.

    • dethtoll says:

      Yeah HLM’s weird 80s glitch-kitsch aesthetic is by far one of the most striking things i’ve ever seen in a game. And it’s responsible for me discovering synthwave — one of those great moments in my music history where it just overtakes everything else.

    • Oozo says:

      Now that you mention it: the palm trees really could be the tall, ravenous, drugged out cousins of the ones that line the road in Outrun.

    • MrFinnishDude says:

      I love how they put the calming music in the main menu. When the game has gotten too hard and you’re getting frustrated as hell, you just rage-quit the game and it puts you in the main menu.

      Then, you are greeted with the calming music, listen it for a bit and slowly all the rage and frustration washes away with those tranquil surfy sounds. Suddenly you are calm and clear headed again, and decide to give that level a one more go.

      That was my experience with it, at least. I think the devs did it on purpose.

    • Asdfreak says:

      The music is certainly one of the best video game soundtracks ever made. It is as memorable as, say, all those pokemon or mario themes that everyone who played those can happily humm along even years later, but the great thing about those songs is that allmost all of them work outside of the game as well, and are, subjectively of course, amazing songs on their own. But unlike most soundtracks, which may be interesting and good and all, a lot of these songs have a feeling of an artistic vision, they WANT something.
      They also took an interesting approach to the music, asking CC license artists if they want to help(for a share of the profits i think), giving them unexpected exposure. Not that kind of “I will allow you to play music in my bar FOR FREE, you can get exposure right?” thing. It actually worked. I am more of a audio book guy, but I got myself the OST and to this date it is one of the three only albums that I own.

      • Shadowcat says:

        Wait, what?!? You do realise that Desert Island Discs is about making agonising choices, right? You’re not supposed to have room left over for a second luxury!

  5. TomxJ says:

    The Nightmares this game gave me were horrific.

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      Grizzly says:

      For some really odd reason, Hotline Miami’s pixelated mess gets me more then any other violently gibbing game.
      And that’s just from watching the trailers whilst I actually played those other violently gibbing games.

      • Emeraude says:

        I think when the starts you don’t really mind what it is you’re doing because, when you’re being told ” “I’M HERE TO TEACH YOU HOW TO KILL PEOPLE” the game aesthetic is too simple and still foreign for you to really grasp what’s happening as anything more than you’re usual early 80’s arcade game.

        Then as you play the game, you get used to its artistic direction, until it finally it hits you in a fit of exuberance through it sfairly simple and figurative, but now perfectly readable sets. And then it becomes quite shocking.

        Still, I do think the charm of the game is half accident and half craft. Very punk in that “randomly found something simple that worked and tried to see ti through” way.

  6. MiniMatt says:

    The music is worth the price alone. I still fire up for “Hydrogen” & “Paris2” every now and again.

    The game itself, I kinda bounced off.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I loved it, mainly for the music and the psychedelic style. After the first few missions though, I found it took me tons of retries to finish each mission. After the “ending”, I just couldn’t get any further, which was a bit disappointing. Could really have done with an easy mode to finish the story.

    • Asdfreak says:

      That’s the appeal of it. You have to master it to get further, just like those old megamen games or darksouls, at its harder parts at least.
      Some games are not meant to be just consumed. Some games are not meant to be rushed through the story. You have to earn it. Thats the fascinating thing about the interactive medium video game, that makes it different from so many movies and books, and those are where people get their expectations from.
      But just like some movies require patience and can not be enjoyed if you have none, or some books need to be disected and carefully processed or invite you to re-read and rediscover them with what you have learned, Hotline Miami needs the repetiton and the mild difficulty to get you into the right mindstate for it’s input. That’s the interesting thing about video games, that they can actively try to get you into a certain state of mind required to most enjoy their other inputs.
      I find that Hotline Miami’s difficulty (which is not really that high mind you) fits its psychadelic theme, where you retry and retry and retry and mostly get a little bit further than last time. Combine that with the music and the graphics and it has something meditative about it. If you could just skip all of it in an ‘easy mode’ it would cut out a crucial part of the artistic impression the game leaves on the player. Of all games that I have played, Hotline Miami was one of those that put me the most into some kind of ‘flow’ state, where nothing else matters. I think that was what Alec wanted to say with the second and third paragraph.

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        Andy_Panthro says:

        I know all that, but my problem is I reached a point where the sheer frustration prevented me from getting any further. There’s only so many times you can repeat a section before it becomes too frustrating to continue, and I have so many other games to play (and not enough time to play them!).

  8. aoanla says:

    Hypothetically, I should have liked Hotline Miami, as the only ‘hardcore’ action games I like are twitchy things like Super Meat Boy and Nuclear Throne.

    I really didn’t like Hotline Miami. It’s certainly twitchy, but it also feels random and, as dysomniak also found, clunky. I didn’t give it past the middle of the second mission.

    • Killergran says:

      I understand how you feel. Took me a while to get used to the controls and to get good at the game. Once I did though, I could recover from minor mistakes and handle the randomness well enough for it to just add extra spice to each retry.

      Tried going back a couple of months later and found I’d lost all my skills. Sections that used to be exciting opportunities once again turned into impossible problems. That’s frustrating.

    • P.Funk says:

      I finished the game in one night on my first play through. It was definitely hard to feel in control but I found that it wasn’t until I was in the middle of the bleary eyed 3am demand for sleep that things clicked and I was one with the lead pipe.

      I personally gravitated immediately towards the mask that makes thrown items lethal. Once I got into that every level felt like I was choregraphing a gory version of a Jackie Chan movie, and if you’ve ever learned how many takes Jackie Chan does then the comparison feels all the more relevant to HM.

      • aoanla says:

        So, sure, but the secret is making the player want to invest sufficient time in the game that they get to 3am and attain their oneness with the game’s intent and mechanics. For me, while Super Meat Boy, et al, were effective in encouraging me to spend time trying to master them, Hotline Miami turned me right off very quickly and didn’t make me feel like it was worth trying to invest time in mastering it (the difference in feel, I think, is that SMB feels like you know what you’re missing and can aim for it, while HM just felt random and clumsy because it’s not clear even what you’re supposed to be mastering).

        (Edited to add: Plus, to be fair, I think you have to probably gel strongly with the aesthetic as well. I was mildly uninterested in the ultraviolence aspects of HM’s presentation (despite SMB’s more cartoonish presentation being more OTT, perhaps), and so that was possibly a contributing factor.)

    • Emeraude says:

      If anything, my issue is that it’s not random enough. You have all those weapons introducing small variations of tempo that could have forced you to improvise and play differently, but then you can only find them at some very sporadicly peppered spawn points, while everything else is hand-placed.

      A game plus of sort with more randomization could have been really good.

  9. Stayche says:

    Can’t ever get the appeal of this, it’s like far more has been read into what the game actually is than what it actually is, a violent, repetitive twitch game with hipster-friendly music and aesthetic.

    • P.Funk says:

      Your citing of something by describing a ‘hipster’ label tells me that you are denigrating it for a lack of understanding of why people dig it. Saying things are hipster is a way of saying its fake and put on without being that direct in my experience.

      Its not DEEP. Its just a vibe where so much of it is about your personal emotional relationship with the aesthetic and the attitude of it that anything further isn’t required. The gameplay is deep though. There’s a powerful design at work in terms of how it hits you with the need for pace and in many ways the attitude of the game feeds off that frantic requirement of the player to accept and enjoy the chaos of failure, the chance at success, and the final pay off of stringing together a brilliant streak.

      The aesthetic is itself a direct homage to the film Drive which is an homage to 70s and 80s crime films. So much of that film is attitude and atmosphere and aesthetic and long drawn out silences and kitschy music that those who don’t really understand the vibe of it think its a hipster pile of garbage. The film also had lots of brutal gore mixed into a tragic love story.

      If you look at the comments that sensible non-hipster sounding people write who loved the game you’ll see that ‘feeling’ is a word they use a lot. Thats all its about, how it makes you feel. With strong gameplay mechanics you can make a good game but paired with a style and aesthetic it captures also a feeling. That feeling is difficult sometimes to describe, but misunderstanding it as hipster put on fakery is unfair.

      • Stayche says:

        Maybe that’s it, someone reading how they feel whilst playing is in a way projecting a feeling onto the game that isn’t there for an awful lot of people. I didn’t get it, loads of other people didn’t get it but equally a lot did. It does strike me a the kind of experience that will have people fawning over it when they don’t get it just because of it’s exclusivity, and they want to feel part of that hip crowd that ‘get it’.

        I’ll never like it, it’s just a randomish twitch shooter in an arty package, and about as deep a puddle. I can sort of see what your’e getting at with the drive for getting that perfect streak and acceptance of failure, but I’d consider my life too short to master something as twitchy and arbitrary, i’ve got a job and wife and mortgage and a million other demands for my time, maybe staying up till 3 isn’t what I can do! Lots of people do love it and that’s cool.

        • dethtoll says:

          You sound fun.

        • wu wei says:

          I’ll never like it

          Can’t you just stop there and accept it’s not for you without speculating on the insincerity of other people’s feelings about it?

    • RuySan says:

      Love the music and the aesthetic. If that makes me an hipster, so be it.

      Long live hipster games.

  10. piedpiper says:

    It’s stupid. Gameplay is primitive and uninspiring. Plot is is idiotic, Nontheless its music and aesthetic makes it a really good game.This is what you call not a game but exppirience.

    • Emeraude says:

      I’ll leave you your “stupid” and “uninspiring”, but clearly I’d argue “primitive” is one of the reasons the game is so good when it clicks. It’s one of those games that plays using only your spine and the reptilian part of your brain.

      But then I’m one of those people that still think Pac Man is a good game. Primitive as it is.

      I mean, the aesthetic is… interesting I guess and music is nice if you’re into it, but I don’t care that much about either, and will once in a while play with sound off.

      Hell, my favorite perfect run on Assault was done on Micheal Gordon’s Light is Calling.

  11. baozi says:

    Extremely good game IMO. Very decisive, has a very specific mood created by perfectly fitting visuals and audio. Challenging, frenzied gameplay. Definitely something I’ll remember. Did like the twist a lot, because (*spoiler*) it turns out, we (or, at least, presumably, a lot of us) really don’t need many reasons to commit acts of violence in a video game.

    I don’t think calling the controls clunky is right. I thought they were simple and precise.

  12. Scrape Wander says:

    One of the most perfect examples in gaming of the thrilling experience of Grace Within Chaos. Yes, it gets clunky and fumbly, but as you get good, you’re able to LEAN INTO the crusty asymmetry of it. Maybe, in this way, it’s not for everyone. I, for one, DID get that good. You end up taking supreme advantages of the AI’s stumbling idiocy, and becoming icily quick to counter the AI’s stumbling unfairness. You dodge and weave, and weave while dodging simultaneously. The shit can get enlightening, to be frank.

    I’ve heard criticisms that Hotline Miami is not as smart as it first appears. I can’t disagree with this more, it’s arguably smarter than I even grok it. There is plenty to chew on, even though the scraps thrown to you are poisoned.

    The only other game I can imagine that hits that sublime mix of aesthetic and gameplay is Bastion, which is as far from HLM’s thesis as can be, but in both cases, you remove one piece of the puzzle and the whole thing shatters and fails. Taken as a whole, both are a nutritional experience that inspires me to no end.

  13. Shadowcat says:

    Alec did his best to make me lose all interest in this game early on, but I eventually did buy it cheaply “just in case” (because lots of people were clearly enjoying about it and, upon investigation, the soundtrack did seem nice). It really is pretty good. Possibly the most violent game I’ve ever played, mind (it’s disturbing how much detail those big pixels can convey — which says good things about the technical skills of their animator, and worrying things about their state of mind). If you can deal with the ultra-violence and the twisted storyline, though, the moment-to-moment gameplay is a lot of fun.

  14. Folly Incorporated says:

    When this game came into my collection I was ill. A particularly aggressive fever was working its way through my system. I remember playing this, Far Cry 4 and Receiver. Between Hotline and Receiver I… transcended a bit. Life became death became life in a overheated and dazed cycle. individual lives were not of concern but for the picture they helped paint. and art form of flying pipes and pixel perfect jabs. The Snake became my favorite as it made thrown weapons a poor mans silenced pistol or a perfectly timed kung fu maneuver,

  15. Enkinan says:

    I bounced off the first few times I tried it out, but once I really gave it some time and effort…holy shit, what a blast. I remember at some points just blankly looking at the screen after a ridiculous combo and thinking “Damn, I’m good”. That is another great compliment to this game: There are almost never accidents, you either roll in as a skilled killing machine, or you end up a splatter-mark. By the end it is almost scary how skilled you have to be to beat the whole thing. It turns you in to a calculated murder machine. This goes great with the insane story line, psychedelic music, and gore level. It makes you start feeling a little uncomfortable at times.