Mini-Review: Hotline Miami

Steeped in the 80s-retro aesthetic of its soundtrack (including synthwave leading light Perturbator), Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and other manifestations of 80s nostalgia (there’s even cathode ray interference lines over all the graphics), Hotline Miami is a viscerally enjoyable and infuriating slaughter simulator that takes fairly simple principles of play and comes up with a delightful range of challenges based around them. You play an anonymous schlub in a Drive-esque Letterman jacket who gets mysterious phone calls euphemistically instructing them to go to a designated location and murder everyone there – but you’re just as fragile as the various gangsters you fight, so one hit will kill you. Stealth, speed and strategy are therefore your friends; guns are handy but are loud and will bring enemies running and have limited ammunition, whilst melee weapons tend to require you to take the risk of getting up close and personal (though nicely you can throw them too, leaving yourself unarmed) but are nice and quiet.

With a simple top-down presentation and controls (mouse does attacks and facing, arrow keys move), the game is nice and easy to get into but quickly reveals hidden depths. On your crime sprees you wear various animal masks which each have their distinct powers, and selecting the right mask for a job can be a significant tactical choice. The masks also seem to have a bit of a life of their own, confronting the anonymous protagonist in dream sequences between parts of the game, and then there’s the question of who’s setting all of this up in the first place, which is explored down two different timelines…

That said, the game isn’t without issues. The depiction of women is glibly fetishistic, with the protagonist getting an implied lover as a prize on one level and then her getting fridged later on for a cheap extra twist of the knife. There’s also a rather simplistic and cartoonish take on race, where for much of the game the only significant people of colour represented are “big black bruiser” archetypes. It is, in short, about as problematic and glib as much of its source material, which at best amounts to putting fidelity to that above the obligation to improve on one’s inspirations.

In addition, the comparative lack of a conventional mid-level saving process can make the game frustrating at points – though on the other hand this does tend to encourage you to experiment a bit with your tactics rather than constantly trying to get one fiddly bit just right, so I’m hesitant about declaring that an outright flaw. Overall, Hotline Miami is a charming, brief little piece which doesn’t outstay its welcome and offers ample replay value in terms of trying different ways of gruesomely murdering dozens of people.

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The Sega Mascot History Tour

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

People have given a lot of stick to AtGames’ recent Sega Mega Drive Flashback HD model. AtGames have produced emulation-driven handheld and TV-hookup consoles under licence from Sega for a while now, and the most recent Flashback which hooks up to your TV with an HDMI cable to allow for mild upscaling to 720p quality has come in for a barrage of criticism. AtGames claimed that the bad early reviewers were down to a bad production batch and the issues were corrected in the retail version; since the product is pretty cheap and cheerful I decided to give it a go and I’m actually inclined to believe them. I can spot small but important distinctions between the menu presentation on mine and in the reviews, for instance, which suggests that these got an urgent firmware update.

Yes, there’s a bunch of shovelware non-Mega Drive games on here which AtGames could have happily left off without complaints from everyone, and yes the main menu system is a bit off – but Sonic the Hedgehog feels like it plays like it always did for me, and the controller feels close enough to my recollections of the Mega Drive controller that I have no complaints there (though I didn’t have a Mega Drive myself – ours was a SNES house, I only occasionally got to play with friends’ Sega consoles). I hadn’t noticed either the wireless controller lag or the emulation issues others have flagged, and I suspect part of the enduring animosity towards the product hails from the fact that emulation geeks can get incredibly fussy about stuff like dropped frames which no human being would actually notice by themselves unless you drew attention to them or analysed the output from the emulator.

In general, the box feels like it accomplishes what these retro consoles are supposed to accomplish – giving you the experience of playing a cross-section of classic games from the console in question, in something which feels like the original hardware without taking up a bunch of space with a stack of cartridges. (That said, a nice touch is the inclusion of a cartridge slot, which means that many – but not all – Mega Drive cartridges can work on the system.)

One of the nice things about Sega was that they were a bit friendlier about backwards compatibility – one of the first peripherals they put out for the Mega Drive (and perhaps one of the few which actually constituted a good idea) was an adapter that let you play Master System games on it, and because the Game Gear shared enough of its guts with the Master System that it could run its games, some Game Gear titles are included here too. That’s a really nice touch – in particular, it’s nice to have a collection with all four of the original Phantasy Star games in the first place. (Though Sega have put out numerous compilations of their games over the years, many irritatingly don’t include the full run of Phantasy Star I to IV.)

There’s some frankly odd gaps in the collection – why include Sonic & Knuckles without also including Sonic 3? Why leave out Alex Kidd In Shinobi World when it was considered to be one of the better Alex Kidd games? Still, there’s enough here that you can actually use the flashback to explore a fascinating cross-section of Sega’s history – and in particular, their multiple attempts at producing a corporate mascot who could compete with a certain rotund plumber who was drawing lots of dimes for Nintendo at the time.

Continue reading “The Sega Mascot History Tour”