THE FIRST SIX SECONDS
Here is what I am going to to do. I am going to run through that door and knock that guy flat on his ass then in the split-second pause before he realises throw my assault rifle hard at his friend knocking him against the wall then grab the baseball bat that the first guy dropped then smash his face in with it then kick the second guy’s head against a wall until he stops moving then run out of the room and kill two dogs with the bat then a third man who comes to investigate then throw the bat at a fourth man and grab his golf club and stove his head in with it as he lies on the floor.
This is Hotline Miami. This is not an invented scenario: this is the first six seconds of one of the levels, and I now know it by muscle memory because I played through it fifty times in the course of ten minutes. Sometimes the assault rifle would miss and I’d get drilled by the second guy, and have to restart. Sometimes, timidly hiding in a doorway, the dogs would attack before I could get the drop on them. Sometimes I’d be too fast, and man three and four would rush the first room and knock my brains out over the tiles. I became lost in it all, the endless spiral of death and replay and death and replay.
BITS OF BLOODY SKULL
A brief summation of the game for anyone not up to speed – Hotline Miami is a top-down murder simulator that looks like Grand Theft Auto 1 and plays like Manhunt stuck on fast-forward, dripping with both 80’s neon-punk style and bits of bloody skull. It is not the sort of game you would want your daughter to bring home. It is blessed with excellent retro visual assets, a fascinatingly ambiguous storyline, and a soundtrack so good I want to go down on it while it drinks single-malt scotch straight out of the bottle.
Listen to this song while you read the rest of the article. It is the grubby, under-appreciated jewel in the soundtrack’s crown.
You play a man – unnamed – who wears a series of rubber animal masks and kills bad men in Miami circa 1989 by performing high-speed improvised murder on several of them at once. It is every workplace shooting fantasy you’ve ever had sawn off, stuffed into a duffle bag, and left incriminatingly in your back garden.
A GOOD THREE HUNDRED TIMES
There is no other game like this game, and I say that with all honesty. It feels like a stealth game, to begin with, but it’s not. Hesitation and waiting are the keys to dying or a low score. Every time I died – and sweet Jesus, I must have died a good three hundred times in the eight hours I’ve spent playing it – I knew what went wrong. I knew it was my fault. I waited for a fraction of a second to swing. I played it safe, and that – paradoxically – got me killed.
Because caution is not the way to win when playing Hotline Miami. It is lightning-fast – too fast for a lot of players, it would seem – and the slightest mistake is penalised for your death. The game forces you to act at its own breakneck speed. Of course, most humans can’t improvise at that speed, so you iterate.
The first six seconds are important, but from that you enter the terrifying hinterland of the next ten – strange, uncharted territory, reached once or twice out of fifteen attempts. The ten seconds after that are scarier still. You improvise, and you die, and you learn and you try again. You start to build. You get kicked in the stomach over and over again until you learn how to grab the foot and twist.
THE VICTORIOUS SAMURAI
It doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience, described like that, and it’s almost not. If it was even five percent harder, it probably wouldn’t be. But the only playthrough that matters is the one where you don’t die. All the others are fakes. Didn’t happen. This is a rhythm game where the rhythm is half 80’s synth-dance and half your fists mashing a dude’s blood-wet head into bathroom tiles. I played that above level for the best part of forty minutes. What actually happened, the actual story, is:
you burst in and killed that dude and that dude and then the two dogs and then the third man then threw your bat at the forth and choked him on the ground then threw his knife at a fifth then grabbed his golf club then killed three men in the space of a second then got your rifle back then killed one two three four five men through glass then last shot fired into skull of patrolling enemy then throw assault rifle at face of last man and kick his head against a wall until it pops then END
That’s what happened. That’s what you did. It took forty seconds, tops. The closest way to describe the rest of it, and to tie this ridiculous post back to the headline, is the way that Samurai duel in old movies – by staring at each other, and running through the combat in their minds over and over, second-guessing their opponent’s style and technique and instincts until they’re sure, and one fatal swipe decides the battle.
In Hotline Miami, you are always the victorious samurai. All it takes is time.