#180: Perfect timing
This newsletter was written in immaculate 4/4 time, at 170 keystrokes per minute. (That's quite slow, isn't it.)
Hello, folks! Today’s edition is for paid subscribers, but free readers are getting a very generous preview — the whole top story, in fact — as a sort of taster of the delights that are on offer to Hit Points supporters. A subscription unlocks at least one extra post per week and costs just £4 a month, and I hope this persuades a few of you (okay, a lot of you) to join the crew. Onwards!
Despite all that stuff I wrote recently about my intention to disembark from gaming’s hype train in 2023 — to no longer chase after the new and shiny things everyone’s talking about — I have played quite a lot of Hi-Fi Rush this week. I do like to contradict myself. In my defence, the surprise new release from Tango Gameworks is so up my street I have asked it to put my bins out on Sunday, and invited it to join the local Neighbourhood Watch.
Conceptually, it makes me feel like a young man again. Well, younger. Back in the PS2 days I played every 3D brawler I could lay my thumbs on, from God Hand to DMC3, Yakuza to Bujingai: Swordmaster. If a game had light and heavy attacks, flashy combos and ideally some kind of parry system, I was all over it.
Brawlers were my favourite genre of game back then, but rhythm action — whether driven by a console controller, a plastic peripheral or the touchscreen of a DS — was close behind. The first time I played Guitar Hero I remember feeling as if someone had made this game for me, and me alone; then I played Gitaroo Man and realised someone had done it again. I think about another Inis game, the DS rhythm classic Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, at least twice a week. God, what a banger. Do seek it out if you’ve never played it — it’s a real all-timer, and has one of the great last levels.
These two genres are like catnip to me: fast-paced and buttonsy, hugely replayable, progressively more satisfying the better you get at them — all the things that flick Hit Points’ switches, really. So of course I am going to be drawn to a game like Hi-Fi Rush, which builds a 3D action game around the concept of timing your attacks to the beat. Quite frankly I would still play this game if it looked like I drew it, but it’s absolutely sumptuous in motion: like Arc System Works’ recent games, it animates cutscenes at 60fps but the characters at a fraction of it, so it looks like a cutting-edge game and a classic cartoon at the same time. It is packed with little references, not just to games but anime, film and TV as well, from Xenogears to JoJo, Scott Pilgrim to Twin Peaks. It’s a real labour of love, this thing, and I’m delighted it exists.
I do, however, find it rather awkward to play — or, more accurately, to play its two component genres at the same time. I can hit things in a rhythm just fine: in fact the musical component is a blessing for combo timings, the soundtrack a handy metronome for my violent ballet. But that is only part of the battle, and I find that positioning, crowd control, and smart defensive play become quite cumbersome when you have to do everything in 4/4 time. I had a similar problem with Metal: Hellsinger, which does for metal and the FPS what Hi-Fi Rush does for action games and hard rock: the more attention I pay to my rhythm, the less effective my aim, and vice versa. At times these games feel less like I’m playing a genre mash-up, and more as if I’m switching between the two on the fly; attempting to do both well is like trying to tie my shoelaces while walking up the stairs.
I wonder whether this is just the price I have to pay to get my hands on a big-budget, or even mid-budget, rhythm game these days. It is often said that the music game died in the transition to HD, the variable input latency of modern televisions making the exacting timings of a Gitaroo Man or Amplitude too tough to implement, or to play. It’s a fair point: when I miss a combo ender in Hi-Fi Rush I am never sure whether the error was truly mine. That must be a factor in why big rhythm games are so rare these days, but I imagine it’s more that the genre is no longer deemed sufficiently marketable by the people that sign the cheques, forcing developers to layer the musical aspect over something more likely to find an audience.
Sure, some modest indie team can make a labour of love like Rhythm Doctor or Just Shapes & Beats and achieve a certain level of success; they might even end up punching far above their weight, like Crypt Of The Necrodancer. But further up the budgetary scale, the death of Guitar Hero must loom large. Mention a music game in these circles and no doubt the conversation quickly turns to manufacturing, to inventory management and, before long, to landfill. You want to make rhythm action? Combine it with something we can actually sell.
Even on those terms, Hi-Fi Rush is a tough pitch. It’s not like linear, singleplayer brawlers are exactly defining the zeitgeist right now. But this is where Game Pass comes in, and why I’m more optimistic for the service’s future today than I was two weeks ago. Until now, Microsoft’s stable of studios have conformed largely to type: the Forza team still makes Forza, Ninja Theory is working on a Hellblade sequel and the Skyrim folks are making another big RPG, but now you get them for sort-of free. But the grand promise of subscription services is that they can mitigate risk, which in theory allows developers to step out of their comfort zones and explore fresh territory. Yes, I want Game Pass to give me the things I expect from Microsoft’s firstparty teams. But I also want it to help push the medium forward by challenging the game industry’s traditional pathways to success. My subscription should be justified by the unexpected as much as the expected.
Hi-Fi Rush was, of course, unexpected, joining that rare cohort of games to be announced and released on the same day. (Hit Points is desperately trying to avoid using the term ‘shadow drop’, which sounds like we are talking about sneakers or some kind of Call Of Duty killstreak; I shall update the 2023 Style Guide in due course.) I totally get the thinking behind this decision. A blend of two unfashionable genres, made by Shinji Mikami’s studio but without the master’s involvement, was always going to benefit from the extra jolt of hype that a surprise announcement and release (sorry, really trying to avoid it) provides.
At the same time, I wonder whether it really was the best course of action for Game Pass, and for Xbox in a broader sense. The consensus view throughout 2022 was that Microsoft’s firstparty operation was failing, its army of studios producing just one new game — Obsidian’s Pentiment — all year. Knowing about Hi-Fi Rush wouldn’t have countered that perception entirely, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt.
Moreover, it would have signalled to players, press and the wider game industry that Microsoft is well up for backing risky, outré fare from Japanese studios. Phil Spencer is on record as saying he would love to add more Japanese teams to the Xbox family; might public knowledge of Hi-Fi Rush have made those conversations a little more straightforward? I could certainly see it causing an uptick in console sales in Japan, and around Asia more broadly — which makes sitting on it until just before the announcement of a Japanese price rise for Xbox Series S and X even more questionable.
I love Hi-Fi Rush, don’t get me wrong. I hope Spencer and Xbox have many more surprises like this up their sleeves. And I suppose I can see the sense in Microsoft deciding to pretty much write off 2022 and start 2023 with a bang(er) instead. But these are interesting things to think about, and are a handy reminder of just how disruptive — in both the positive and negative sense of the word — Game Pass could, and should, be to the game industry’s traditional rhythms. I hope this is a sign of things to come, rather than a well-timed one-off.
(Right, free readers, we must part ways here. I hope this has convinced some of you to help support this newsletter for the cost of a pint a month. Cheerio!)