Since moving into my new apartment I’ve become interested in video games more than usual. The last two weeks have been spent grinding in Super Mario Bros. 35, falling off the slide racing the penguin in Super Mario 64, and restarting The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
I don’t even like that game!
I’ve also watched two video game documentaries — Console Wars (CBS All Access) and High Score (Netflix).
High Score must be what triggered the algorithm to recommend Hi Score Girl. It makes sense. They’re both Netflix Originals, they have near-identical names, and they take place in the same era.
When Hi Score Girl came out, I wrote it off because I thought the title was dumb. But things are different when you’re four Jameson and Waters deep at 4am.
The mouse in my apartment told me I should give it a chance.
The first episode is rough. The minimal dialog and extensive use of gameplay footage make it feel more like a commercial than an anime. It’s a chore to watch, but for some reason — probably the booze — I kept going.
Four days later, I’m watching the final episode.
Hi Score Girl is based on a manga by Rensuke Oshikiri. The episode breakdown is a little odd, with an OVA bridging the two seasons. Fortunately, Netflix plays everything in proper order.
Haruo Yaguchi loves video games to the point that his inner dialog is narrated by Guile from Street Fighter II. He’s a top-tier fighting game player that can play a dozen versus matches on a single coin. Despite showing no interest in dating he is caught in a love triangle with two girls from his class — Akira Ono and Koharu Hidaka.
The romantic conflict between these characters is what drives the narrative, but it’s also the least interesting part of the show. What Hi Score Girl excels at is its authenticity.
All of the video games and consoles they play are real. The story takes place over several years as gaming technology evolves. In some ways, it’s like an anime documentary of gaming history in Japan.
But that’s the only thing it does well.
The main characters are all despicable. Yaguchi’s only interest is video games. That wouldn’t be a problem if he was honest with Hidaka and Ono. Instead, he strings them along while he puzzles out his feelings for them.
Hidaka is arguably worse. She knows that Yaguchi doesn’t like her back, but she continues to aggressively pursue him. At one point she tricks him into going on a date with her. At the end of the date, she tries to pressure him into going to a love hotel.
Ono is alright for the most part. She lives in an abusive household, so it’s understandable that she has difficulty opening up to people. But she also spends the entire series going back and forth on whether she likes Yaguchi. One moment she’s battling Hidaka for the right to date him (which in itself is weird), the next she’s having someone kidnap Yaguchi and forcing him to hang out with her.
She also doesn’t speak a single word in the entire series. It was a cool stylistic choice at first, but it stopped working after the first season. Characters have full-on conversations with her where they seemingly read her mind for her responses.
The closest she gets to speaking is through the actions in the game she’s playing. It’s possible that it was a subtle nod to how the protagonist in video games sometimes doesn’t get any dialog.
The only interesting characters are Yaguchi’s mom and Ono’s older sister. They’re the only two that have any depth, but even they spend most of the series trying to force people into situations they want no part in.
Hi Score Girl also looks bad. I don’t know the proper terminology for this, but it was done in a strange semi-3D style. It doesn’t quite blend with the background as well as it should. At times character movement like walking is so poorly done that it looks like they’re gliding.
If that’s not enough, the story doesn’t have a resolution. It just stops. No one gets together. No one learns anything. It just stops. They adapted the entire manga, so maybe it was canceled before the story was done. Who knows.
Despite all of its flaws, I couldn’t stop watching.
The only reason I can think of is that I’m predisposed to enjoy stories like this. I’ve been playing video games my entire life. Seeing games I’ve played get referenced in media is fun to me. I can’t help it. It’s why Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of my favorite movies. The difference is that Scott Pilgrim is a competently made film with a complete story arc.
I can only recommend this show with qualifications. If you want to take a journey through video game history without watching a documentary, this might be a good option. While I found the story of Hi Score Girl consistently aggravating, the real-world gaming references were enough to keep me interested.
It’s also a show where I cried as Zangief did a spinning piledriver, so I guess it gets points for that.