Growing up, I spent most of my childhood playing video games. I was there during the later days of arcade gaming through to the arrival of the Super Nintendo and eventually our current next-gen consoles at home. Now I’m gaming with my children and introducing them to a world of wonder and escapism that I feel privileged to have experienced growing up. Over the past 30 years, video gaming has evolved so much that’s it’s hard to remember a world where the only place to play video games was the arcade.
Hi-Score Girl begins as a quirky ode to this bygone era of gaming. The retro soundtrack, the saturated, neon colour palette and the constant video game footage really play into this sense of nostalgia that oozes through the show’s 12 episodes. After a few episodes, Hi-Score Girl catches you off guard and blossoms into something much more beautiful and profound. This coming-of-age tale seamlessly weaves these early changes in gaming with our central cast of characters growing up in school and the changes each of them face in their lives.
The story begins in 1991 with obsessed video game player, Haruo. In the stuffy, cigarette-hazed basement of his local arcade, a crowd gathers as the young kid decimates the competition. It’s at this point where a new challenger steps forward catching him off guard with some profound skills and combos. This mysterious rival? Only the smartest, most popular girl at school, Oono. After their opening game together, the first few episodes establish their little gaming rivalry, rife with punches, jabs and headbutts courtesy of Oono’s silent built-up rage. Throughout this time, we follow Haruo’s narration as he and this silent girl strike up a friendship through the power of gaming.
Unforeseen circumstances force Oono and Haruo apart and it’s at this point where the story skips forward to follow Haruo at Junior High and eventually High School. Over the course of the series, a clever use of narration fills us in on the changes in video gaming, showing those revolutionary early consoles hitting the market before detailing the infamous 3 horse race between Sega Saturn, Playstation and Nintendo 64 (which isn’t really mentioned here) and the very early case of “console wars”. We’re introduced to a myriad of different games too, although Fist Fight and Street Fighter form the crux of playing time here, thanks in part due to their significance with the main storyline.
For much of the series, Haruo is obsessed with the video games around him. He wants to be the best player, decimating and humiliating the competition with little regard for how those closest to him feel. This self-centred behaviour slowly changes as he grows older and it’s here where Hi-Score Girl actually becomes something much closer to Violet Evergarden in terms of emotional weight and power. Even Haruo’s narration changes from how he’s going to win to what Oono is thinking and how Oono is feeling about their gaming together. It’s such a beautifully written series and all of this builds toward a much more emotionally driven final episode than I was expecting, agonizingly ending on quite the cliffhanger.
If there’s one complaint here it comes from the show’s length. Hi-Score Girl reaches its emotional climax around the 10th episode and just kind of drags on a little to its second, less dramatic finale. It’s not a deal breaker and the short episode length makes this an easy show to get into but at times it does drag on unnecessarily. Still, there’s bound to be a second season after the way this ends so hopefully this can be rectified next time out.
Hi-Score Girl is one of those animes that proves you can’t judge a book by its cover. The quirky, cutesy graphics make this appear to be a much more childish animation than it actually is. The gravitas and emotional weight of growing up and maturing is perfectly captured through the two central characters and their shared loved of video gaming. The juxtaposing class, background, family life and education make both these characters polar opposites that shouldn’t have anything in common. And yet they do, through a shared love of gaming. Hi-Score Girl is a wonderful tribute to a bygone era of gaming with a profound coming-of-age tale woven through the core of the series. Hi-Score Girl has certainly left it late in the year but it’s one of the best animes this year and well worth watching.