Hi Score Girl: Horrible Atmosphere

Hey! Do you like video games? To be specific, do you like arcade games from the 1980s and 1990s? Do you like mastering them and spouting trivia about them to the point where you ignore everything else? Do we have a show for you!

Meet Haruo Yaguchi, the protagonist of Hi Score Girl. He’s exceptionally good at arcade games, and he’s growing up smack dab in the middle of the Street Fighter II craze of the early 1990s. One fateful encounter at an arcade pits him against Akira Ono, a girl from his school and an unsuspected arcade game prodigy. The two of them forge a contentious friendship around arcade games, somewhat impaired by Akira being well-off, graceful, and exceptionally popular at school despite the fact that she never says anything. At all. Stifled by her rich-girl life, she interacts with Haruo through glares, physical violence, and, of course, video games. Her only display of emotion comes when she moves to America and bids Haruo goodbye.

The narrative then moves forward a few years and makes the bold, stunning move of introducing a prominent female character who actually speaks. Really! She forms complete sentences and everything! Her name is Koharu Hidaka and she’s a bookish classmate of Haruo, who’s now in middle school and still so obsessed with games that he’ll spend hours playing the latest Street Fighter update outside of the shop owned by Koharu’s family. This is all the reason she needs to fall for him, and soon she’s doing her best to learn all about these video games Haruo enjoys. And then Akira comes back.

Hi Score Girl‘s true conflict begins here, as two girls fight over a boy who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Haruo is bratty, self-absorbed, vaguely sadistic, relentlessly fixated on games, and, even after he matures, quite boring. His only notable skills lie in playing games and rattling off details about them like a Wikipedia entry in need of editing. It’s hard to imagine what either girl sees in him, though Akira is almost as horrible. She’s admired by everyone at school even though she never talks to or even smiles at them, and she has no personality traits beyond lashing out violently, getting scared of games like Splatterhouse and Space Gun (because she’s still a GIRL, haw haw), and showing our wretched protagonist the occasional hint of affection. Koharu is slightly more sympathetic, simply because she possesses recognizable emotions, thoughts, and the willingness to communicate them.

The manga and anime field is ripe with this sort of fantasy, in which an ordinary guy meets an extraordinary girl who just so happens to be obsessed with whatever the author likes, be it ancient baths or beekeeping or pornographic computer games. Many of these series are actually entertaining, and even the lesser ones offer the basics of storytelling. Disinterested viewers could watch, say, Kakegurui and at least understand why they’re meant to root for its gambling-obsessed, gambling-aroused heroine as she dismantles an abusive school clique. Hi Score Girl leaves us with nothing but an unappealing, threadbare romance and lots and lots of video games.

Oh yeah, the video games. Hi Score Girl is a detailed portrait of Japan’s arcades in the 1990s, from little storefront cabinets to city-wide tournaments. The anime series uses well-integrated footage of actual games for both background decoration and occasional gags, displaying everything from Final Fight and Virtua Fighter to relative obscurities like Viper Phase 1 and Zero Team. There’s a lot to see for any fan of this particular era.

Yet Hi Score Girl doesn’t do anything interesting with it all. Every video-game reference, from Super Street Fighter II‘s secret character to the Sega Saturn launch, amounts to little more than “Hey, remember THIS?” One throwaway scene finds Haruo enduring the notoriously long loading times of the Neo Geo CD, which could set up a decent gag in theory. Not here, though. The joke is just that, well, yeah, that system had long load times. I remember that! So I should like this show for featuring it!

For that matter, the show skips over one of the most fascinating elements of growing up in the fighting-game heyday: the learning process. Haruo and Akira are instant savants at fighting games, so we get no potentially amusing glimpses of how many times they might’ve had to lose before getting better. It’s hard to like them even as a Hardcore Gamer.

Outside of the painstakingly rendered video games, Hi Score Girl is ugly. The original manga’s art is crude and deliberately shows every character as a bleary-eyed goblin or a cutesy noseless girl. The anime series is slightly more palatable, but its flat computer-polished style lacks in detail beyond the video games.

Creator Rensuke Oshikiri is clearly a gamer first, an artist second, and a storyteller third, as Hi Score Girl never ventures beyond a clich├ęd grasp of how real people interact. The cast is nothing but stereotypes, from Haruo’s oh-so-wacky mom to Akira’s fretful butler. Its most realistic conversation comes when Haruo’s classmates mock him for shilling the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 with a fervor that even Johnny Turbo would find ridiculous.

Hi Score Girl might evoke comparisons to the ongoing GameCenter CX, a variety show in which adorable comedian Shinya Arino endures old games, visits arcades, and puts on assorted skits. It’s a charming series that mockingly explores childhood nostalgia without wallowing in it. Hi Score Girl reaches for that same ground, capping each episode with a vaguely GCCX-style snippet about some beloved gaming memory. But here it rings hollow.

In fact, Hi Score Girl has much more in common with this era’s grand emperor of cheap nostalgia, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Both feature hackneyed, bare-bones plots and selfish, dull heroes with no real traits apart from their obsessions with everything the author likes. And both are built on the dreadful presumption that a story doesn’t have to be compelling or satisfying or even grasp the basics of comedy or character development just as long as it shows off something that you, the viewer, enjoyed when you were eleven years old.

Like Ready Player One, Hi Score Girl steadfastly refuses to analyze any of its nostalgia or explain just WHY this stuff is so important. Street Fighter staples routinely pop into Haruo’s inner monologues, but the show never bothers to consider why these video games resonate so deeply with him or what they might say about the characters. It’s too busy showing a high-school Haruo recite Samurai Shodown moves or marvel over Martial Champion, even though nobody was still playing Martial Champion by 1995.

Yes, I’m into this stuff. I dig old video games, I remember useless crap about them, and every trip I’ve taken to Japan involved a lot of arcades. Hi Score Girl should be right up my alley. All it needed was a lineup of dumb but reasonably likable characters surrounded with arcade minutia. Instead, I resented it for appropriating games I enjoy.

Perhaps I have the wrong idea. Hi Score Girl might be deep-cutting criticism. Just about every devoted gamer shown here is a repulsive creep or a tantrum-throwing nutcase, and even Koharu becomes a worse human being once she’s fixated on this stuff. It could be telling us that only horrid, shallow people truly care about just how good they are at video games.

So, do you hate video games? To be specific, do you hate arcade games from the 1980s and 1990s? Do you think that the people obsessed with them are obnoxious, childish, and devoid of anything interesting to say?

Do we have a show for you.

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