Time is ever-flowing, but it’s also undoubtedly a flat circle. Trends come and go, and loop back around, and here we are – it’s the year of our lord 2023, and a time portal has just opened above our heads and dropped a Dreamcast classic into our laps. Or a GameCube classic, to be fair – it feels like it’d be most at home on either of those. The point is, the latest first-party addition to Xbox Game Pass feels like it’s time traveled from circa 1998-2003. And I mean that in the best possible way.
A new off-beat action game from Tango Gameworks, the Bethesda studio that up until this point has been all about survival horror. The studio was founded by Shinji Mikami, the man most often credited as the most influential person in the creation of the Resident Evil series – and thus far, the studio’s works have matched up to that. But this game, on which Mikami is the producer behind director John Johanas of The Evil Within 2 fame, demonstrates that he – and Tango – can do so much more.
Colorful, slick, and with a gorgeous aesthetic and bright-eyed attitude, Hi-Fi Rush recalls a lot of my favorite games of that era, where the spirit of approachable and accessible arcade games merged with the first console hardware that was truly on par or more powerful than what was available in arcades. When I talk about this era, I’m talking about stuff like Crazy Taxi, and Jet Set Radio, and Viewtiful Joe – the latter of which was actually produced by Mikami. That’s the energy on display here.
In real terms, Hi-Fi Rush is an interesting sort of mix between a character action game like a Devil May Cry (another Mikami-produced joint) and a rhythm game. The entire world pulsates with the BPM of whatever music is currently playing, and although you can just button mash your way through things, the way to deal more damage and handle enemies efficiently is to do so with timing, allowing your hits and combos to directly line up to the pulsing music.
It’s just good-ass video game action. You’re slapping people about with a guitar that’s made of scrap metal. You have a robot arm. And because everything is tied to the music, there’s a toe-tapping poison that slowly seeps into your very pores.
By the time you reach the game’s first proper boss encounter, which takes place to a licensed Nine Inch Nails track, you’ll feel yourself slowly slipping into a goblin mode stance most familiar to drummers and DJs – I can speak from experience on the former – into a slight slouch, Gollum hunched, but shoulders rocking and popping as the rhythm takes you. The world around you melts away.
The best character action games and intense arcadey video games always have this sort of quality, to be fair. I can slip into a similar trance playing Crazy Taxi, or Ikaruga. You don’t need the music to line up in this way – but god, it helps. I think Hi-Fi Rush is good enough to get there on its own – but the music lets it take your soul in record time. It’s a genius bit of design that elevates what is basically a fun and pretty accessible action brawler into something else entirely.
What also elevates the experience is how it looks. Beautiful animation, popping colors, and cutscenes that honestly gave me a brief pause for thought of ‘is this real-time, or pre-recorded’? There’s style here. This is a new-generation only game, available on Xbox Series X/S and PC, but it justifies that not with lashings of superfluous detail but just with a sense of raw, crisp style – and in running silky smooth.
If you’re not too comfortable with rhythm games, there’s plenty of helping hands, from permanently pulsating UI and in-universe elements to help you keep to the beat to additional optional interface pieces that make everything even more explicit. If you really struggle, however, the game is playable enough hammering through it – but it feels at its best when you embrace and match the music.
I just love what this is. This is a video game with a fucking capital V. It has zero pretentions, and no real aspirations to be considered high art. It’s just a wholesome-ass video game that sucks you in and makes time melt away. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, but this isn’t just about being old-school and tickling this thirty-something’s memories. What makes this work is that it’s new, fresh, and exciting, too, while undoubtedly referential and reverential to some classic games from the era I’ve evoked throughout this article.
It’s the sort of game that typically might struggle to find an audience – not a realistic visual showcase, not serious enough, not enough sad dads frowning and sighing, not enough multiplayer hooks to keep you trapped forever. Released on Xbox One, I could see where this would’ve gone: a cult hit, liked, but a sales bomb. There was a similar sort of energy to Insomniac’s Sunset Overdrive, in fact. Though that wasn’t nearly as good a game as this, it deserved a bigger audience, but never found it.
But hopefully, on Xbox Game Pass, this can be a huge hit – as I honestly think if you play the first level of this and don’t want to continue, you have to be an absolute wrong’un. And just think; we didn’t even (officially) know this existed yesterday. This is the magic of digital distribution and subscription services, even more so than playing Starfield ‘for free’ on day one.
I’ve not finished Hi-Fi Rush yet. In fact, I imagine I’ve got a ways to go. But already, early on, I know that it is one of the best games of 2023. I feel massively refreshed and invigorated by it – which is exactly the sort of escapism games should strive to be.