Hotline Miami doesn’t need much of an introduction mostly because the neon-infused brutality simulator does a great job of speaking for itself. In the event you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing (and listening) Devolver Digital’s most prominent published titles, you’re entitled to an explanation. Developed by the two-man team of Dennaton Studios, Hotline Miami and its sequel are top-down, violent action games set against a hyper-stylized vision of Miami in the late 1980s. The game’s deliberately low-tech, heavy pixelated visual style hides a sharp, smart, and razor-sharp focused action game that treats each combat engagement like a puzzle that can be solved in a number of different ways. It also features a fitting soundtrack made up from the best experimental and synthwave music licensing money can buy. Defying narrative conventions, the Hotline Miami series is recognized for its sinister temperament and glorification of brutal ultraviolence. You know, the kind of game congressional hearings were made for. And now, it’s available for the Nintendo Switch.
The appeal of Hotline Miami can be a little difficult to explain without making people wonder whether or not to call the cops. Enthusiasm for both games might be negatively misconstrued given the recent episodes of gun violence in the United States. I say this because Hotline Miami sensationalizes violence against Russian mafia thugs, letting you shoot, stab, and crush your way through their places of business with little consequences. These massacres are accompanied by a soundtrack that pumps red hot electronic music into your veins, keeping time with every kill you perform. Both Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number are built around levels where the goal is to clear all enemies out of various buildings using your fists and a myriad of weapons, from baseball bats to assault rifles and everything else in between. Presented from a top-down perspective, you’ll move from room to room and go up against an enemy AI that reacts strongly if they see and hear you. You don’t necessarily want to burst into a level with guns blazing because that’s the best way to succumb to a one-hit kill. Studying patrol patterns, shifting the map around to determine the number of foes present, and securing alternate routes are the keys to a successful massacre.
It’s difficult to not get caught up in the thrill of Hotline Miami’s snappy gameplay, music, and visceral sound design. Climbing atop stunned enemies and punching their heads in is sickening yet satisfying. The gun combat is simple but effective and bursting into a room and taking out two enemies with a single shotgun round never gets old. The best thing Hotline Miami and Wrong Number has going for themselves is the little time spent reloading a sequence after you die, allowing you to hop back into the action without missing a beat. Some of the later levels in both games ramp up the difficulty and introduce new challenges and while they can be frustrating at first, practice makes perfect and there’s no better feeling than seeing your efforts pay off in more successful runs thanks to solid planning and a little bit of luck. Pushing the odds further in your favor are collectible masks that come with special perks, like stronger melee attacks, lethal throws, and additional ammunition. Everything that makes Hotline Miami so interesting - the music, the violence, the easy to learn controls - comes together to create a symphony of carnage that doesn’t stop until the stage has been cleared. At that point, everything goes disturbingly quiet. Guns stop firing and the music is jarringly cut short, leaving you to reflect on your atrocities without any distractions. The long walk back to the getaway car is an effective and somber experience that is punctuated by the blood soaked floors left in your wake.
This is the part of the Hotline Miami games I find really interesting. Someone more erudite and eloquent can discuss the deeper meanings but I’m captivated with how the game goes out of its way to build you up as this total badass mafia killer only to bring you down when the work is done, leaving you little to show for it except a high score and some unlocked gear. There’s no pat you on the back or someone to say “Good job! You killed the bad dudes!”. In fact, there’s nothing on the surface to suggest that you’re doing the “right thing” at all. You’re just following the whims of some anonymous dude one the phone that tells you to kill people. The tone of the story and the interludes in-between levels where the character visits different shops managed by the same person feels very David Lynch because of their surreal nature. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number uses the same vibe but cranks it up to eleven with an abstract narrative that involves thirteen different characters separated by time, namely the months and years before and after the events of Hotline Miami. Neither of these games are mild experiences. The violence is over the top and the visual and audio design is made to keep you on edge. However, Wrong Number takes its subject matter to further extremes through its new cast and instance of implied sexual violence. Yikes.
The Hotline Miami Collection is a smorgasbord of violence that is surprising to see on a platform that is home to Nintendo’s family friendly cast of brand ambassadors. After so many years since its debut, Hotline Miami is still a really tight and focused game. Wrong Number carries over much of its predecessor’s greatness, though I don’t like the larger levels that much only because it makes getting ganked by unseen enemies a little too easy. To hand-wave away these games because of their misanthropic tone and senseless violence is to ignore a product that’s addictive, well-designed, and even fun. As for their status as console ports, both titles are a great fit and have arrived on the Switch with nary a blemish. There is no better time to experience the acid trip that is Hotline Miami if you haven’t done so before. For everyone else, this is one double dip that won’t do you wrong.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.