Gaming, like most electronic technologies, has developed with stupendous speed over a short period of time. Those of us who are in our mid thirties are old enough to remember the old 8-Bit home consoles and the thriving arcade games industry, or when the first PlayStation was released. Hi Score Girl features a coming of age tale set against the backdrop of a booming video game industry, and how games have the power to create, and destroy, friendships.
We join Haruo Yaguchi in 1991 as an elementary school age boy in Japan. He is obsessed with all things video game, especially Street Fighter II. He isn’t academic. He isn’t athletic. He isn’t good looking or particularly popular. But he doesn’t care. All he wants to do is play games. Quite the master of the arcade fighting game battle, he is astonished to be thrashed by a beautiful girl his age, Akira Ono.
How did she get so good? And how can he beat her in the future? This is the loose plot thread that will keep most of the 12 episodes chugging along, and charting the development of video game landmarks along the way.
Hi Score Girl is drawn with all the usual tricks and shorthands that make up most anime. Characters yell their dialogue when excited or mumble with covered eyes when annoyed. ‘Veins’ throb when anger rises, and backgrounds shrink away to bold colour pallets when characters experience big moments.
The series dedicates vast swathes of time to lovingly recreating the graphics and gameplay of the games it showcases. Street Fighter II (and the many many variations thereof) is almost a character itself, with several of the fighters appearing to smack, chastise, or encourage Harou in his endeavours. Musically the show is very pleasing with a mixture of all the bleeps and bloops you’d expect, combined with some atmospheric scoring that sounds almost Studio Ghilbi-esque (Japan’s premier animation studio) at points.
However, those not enamoured with near omnipresent narration (a staple of many Anime shows) will find Hi Score Girl irritating. Harou is literally the friend / son / nephew most of us may know who literally talks about nothing other than gaming. His detailed descriptions of tactics and his ability to turn any situation into a gaming analogy are part of what make other characters warm to him but as a viewer it can get very tiresome. This is especially so in the early episodes as his ‘rival’, Ono, never speaks at any point. At all. Throughout the whole show.
She ‘communicates’ by facial expressions or (more frequently) violence. So to start with the show consists of Harou projecting his thoughts at her, and Ono hitting him when annoyed. Ono, we learn, has extremely strict parents and her prodigious talent at gaming is a secret one.
By the time we get to episode 4 there are actually other characters who have actual conversations, which helps the show no end. Hidaka lives above a shop that gets some arcade machines installed, and she becomes fascinated with Harou’s single minded determination to do nothing but play games. Over the rest of the series as our cast progresses through middle school up to high school (with all the games that come in between) the sort-of-love-triangle between Harou, Hidaka, and Ono is what balances the breathless gaming peddling. But Harou’s utter obliviousness to this means that the weight of carrying the show’s emotions come from the girls, and one of them never speaks……
Hi Score Girl is fully aware of the power of nostalgia and populates its characters smack bang in the middle of the most iconic and prolific of gaming time frames. As a fun nostalgic trip through Japan’s booming arcade industry and home console wars there is plenty to like in Hi Score Girl. Despite Harou’s sole focus he is a genuinely likeable character, as is Hidaka. For the most part this carries the show. But really the lack of any real plot or characterisation means that Hi Score Girl is a show for gaming obsessive or slice-of-life Anime fans only.
Words by Michael Record