Hotline Miami Hands-On: What If Vice City Was A Period Piece?

Has the retro game finally come of age?

The resurgence in popularity (during the last half decade or so) of the NES and DOS era aesthetic has produced a lot of really great games. However, the majority of them have been old school platformers. That’s not a bad thing of course; the artistry and fun behind these games isn’t in dispute. But that the genre has largely produced a single game type can leave even the most enthusiastic players feeling a bit malnourished.

Then, along comes 2012. Playing Fez made me feel as though I was experiencing a sea change in retro gaming. Steeped in the NES tradition, Fez also utilizes the capabilities of modern 3D graphics to produce a genuinely intriguing, original and truly difficult experience that builds off the classic platformer and blows it away at the same time. Intelligent and challenging, why not call Fez the ego and superego of the retro game genre’s emerging new psychology.

And now, we have the id. I’m talking about Dennation’s Hotline Miami, a game with an aesthetic so retro it feels like you need to know DOS in order to start it up. We had the chance for an extensive hands-on at QuakeCon 2012, and if we didn’t come away from the incomplete demo completely floored, we were definitely left wanting more. A painstaking love letter not only to bygone days of yore, but also to one of the worst urban crime epidemics in modern history, the top-down, mission-based shooter is possibly drenched in 8-bit trappings, but it’s also brutal and cruel in a way games never could be prior to the advent of the ESRB.

Full of Guns, glitz and period (if pixelated) gore, Hotline Miami feels almost like the game Vice City should have been based on. And that’s a very good thing.

Hotline Miami: PC (Steam), unspecified consoles.
Developer/publisher: Dennation
Released: TBA, likely end of year 2012
MSRP: TBA

Setting

A little history: In the 70s through the late 1980s, when the coke trade blew up into the international behemoth that now destroys entire governments, Miami was America’s point of entry of the drug. The result was an incredible boom, as money gained illegally through the drug trade was funneled into legal businesses. Construction expanded dramatically, and the population exploded, doubling from less than 2 million in the 60s to more than 4 million by 1990. Crime also exploded, turning parts of the city into a warzone until the early 90s.

Hotline Miami takes place near the tail end of this era. It’s 1989, and you play an unnamed contract criminal working for a group of shadowy crime bosses who send you on violent and very risky assignments throughout the Magic City. As befits an a game set in the waning days of a drug-fueled crime wave, things are confused, meandering and vague. The demo begins with your character waking up from what appears to be some kind of drug fueled haze. Vague recollections of horrible deeds plague him, but the memory refuses to coalesce. Walking into a living room, the character is confronted by four masked crimelords who taunt him with the knowledge of his past deeds. The scene then slips to several days prior, and the game begins properly.

Throughout the demo, the story, such as it was, had a trippy, unfocused quality. Despite being firmly NES style and having a limited color palette, the feeling of wasted, urban decay and a bombed out state of mind were conveyed with strange accuracy. For example, one recurring character is a clerk who happens to work at all of the shops you stop in, regardless of time or wares. In each appearance, he has the same crazy look and scraggly beard, but wears a different hat and talks to you as though he’s resuming a conversation you can’t recall starting. Whether it was simply an in joke, or a suggestion that your memory is putting him in places he never existed, it was a nice touch.

As for the criminal bosses, not enough information was provided, but given the content of the game, I’d guess that ultimately the story will feature the player character as a pawn being used by various factions in a criminal turf war. There’s also plenty that suggests a late cold war political nightmare might be underway, which would make sense, as this is the waning years of both the USSR and the CIA’s black book operations that * probably* helped dramatically increase drugs in the US during the 80s. As with the recurring clerk, these details, while arguably vague due more to a desire to replicate the limitations of NES-era technical tools more than anything else, suggested a sweaty, blighted environment plagued by economic and political uncertainty. So yeah, Miami in the 80s.

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