Over the holidays, Netflix added animated series Hi Score Girl to their streaming lineup. The anime, based on the manga of the same name by Rensuke Oshikiri, is set in Japan during the arcade boom of the 1990s. Hi Score Girl is a slice-of-life comedy focused on the budding love triangle between three childhood friends, and it also serves as a perfect encapsulation of the era’s predominant method of gaming.
Hi Score Girl follows protagonist Haruo Yaguchi, a complete slacker in every area of his life except for video games, where he excels. Haruo is absolutely obsessed with games, and he treats his trips to the local arcade as something akin to a religious experience. This experience gets turned upside down when he comes face-to-face with an unexpected Street Fighter II opponent: his female classmate, Akira Ono. Akira is smart, cute, and popular—in a nutshell, everything Haruo isn’t—and his shock at seeing her at the game center soon gives way to a frustration that’s less about losing to a girl and more about seeing the one area of his life where he succeeded as getting usurped by someone who seemingly already has it all.
Hi Score Girl then dives into fighting game technique and history that the average viewer might not know and which is explained in such a way as to be immediately understandable. After getting his ass handed to him by Akira’s Zangief, Haruo decides to implement a few noteworthy strategies to turn the tides in his favor: turtling (super defensive play) and tick throw setups (putting the opponent in blockstun with light attacks to easily open them up to throws). Haruo’s main character, Guile, excels at these tactics, but his decision to utilize them draws murmurs of disapproval from the crowd gathered around the Street Fighter II cabinets. Although turtling and tick throws are considered completely legitimate options in the modern fighting game community, the early days of serious competition were much different. What was considered “fair” varied from arcade to arcade; some local scenes even outlawed throws, deeming them too overpowered despite the important role they play in countering blocks. In deciding to do whatever it takes to win, including the use of controversial tactics, Haruo finally overcomes Akira’s impressive Street Fighter skill.
As someone who will be turning 30 in a couple of weeks, I only discovered the beauty of arcades during the tail end of their reign, but they were magical places even in a diminished state. For just a few tokens, a kid could have access to dozens of video games, a far cry from what most families were able to scrape together for birthdays and Christmases. To keep playing, though, you had to keep winning. This resulted in many kids like Haruo who would pour their hearts and souls into learning everything they could about their favorite games. Back then, you got good at Street Fighter because you only had two quarters to occupy your entire afternoon, and that pressure kept players motivated to take all necessary precautions to keep from being kicked off their favorite cabinet.
After Haruo and Akira’s initial face-off, a strange relationship develops between the pair. Haruo finds himself running into Akira often, and they continue to challenge each other in fighting games. On one occasion, the classmates find themselves taking refuge from a sudden storm in the same candy shop, where they pass the time by playing through Final Fight, a more cooperative venture than their Street Fighter bouts. When the rain subsides, Haruo spends his last few coins on a couple of lollipops to share with Akira, who demands both before being whisked away by her personal driver. Still, this chance rainy day meeting sparks a further friendship that leads to them occupying the next few summers traveling the local area to visit the various game centers outside their home town.
In the ’90s, it wasn’t weird to find arcade cabinets everywhere you looked. As a kid, I categorized restaurants and malls by what games could be played there, and I found regular spots to visit just a town over from where I grew up. Walking into a new arcade felt like setting foot on an unexplored continent, each one having its own customs and hallmarks. Will those people be cool if I join their X-Men game? How might that guy react if I beat him and take his place at the Street Fighter cabinet? Haruo and Akira navigate these waters as well during their time away from school, discovering a supposedly haunted arcade a few towns over, and on a different day, ducking away from annoying classmates to spend time at an amusement park game center.
Neither of the main Hi Score Girl protagonists appear to particularly like each other at the beginning of their relationship, and they have good reason for that. Haruo can be an arrogant little brat at times, and Akira is prone to violence (comedic, slapstick violence, but still) if she loses a game or if someone doesn’t act according to her specific standards. Those standards, by the way, are conveyed not with words but with hard-to-read facial expressions and subtle mannerisms. But as the bond they form deepens and time skips forward to middle school, we begin to see a softer side to both of their personalities. When he isn’t busy obsessing over games, Haruo employs an understanding of human emotion that goes beyond his years. Meanwhile, Akira longs for an escape from her restrictive home life as the heiress to her family’s business empire. When it comes time for Akira to leave Japan to study in the United States, Haruo at first refuses to get her a gift with the rest of the class, which everyone chalks up to his usual stubbornness. Then, regret overtakes him and he makes a grand dash to the airport to give her a cheap, plastic ring that he won during one of their many arcade-scouting trips. The typically stoic Akira breaks down, clinging to Haruo before getting torn away by her handlers and shuttled onto the aircraft.
During Akira’s time away, Japan’s arcade scene expands rapidly, and fighting games begin to pop up everywhere, thanks to the popularity of Street Fighter II. Haruo continues to play, but in the back of his mind, he constantly wishes Akira was still in Japan to experience the boom with him. A few years pass and Haruo enters middle school, growing taller and more mature. He still loves visiting the arcade, but now he must avoid getting caught by school officials, who demand students stay out of these “delinquent” game centers. The officials kind of have a point; almost every cabinet in the show is accompanied by an ashtray (smoking was and continues to be a big part of arcade culture in Japan), and Haruo has gotten into multiple scrapes with older kids who are pissed off after losing to him in Street Fighter or Samurai Shodown. This, too, reminds me of real life. Almost every fighting game player I know who grew up in this era has a story about getting accosted by someone who wasn’t happy about being thrown too many times or losing too much money. It was the yin that went along with the yang of the more positive experiences, like the friendships that can arise in these spaces.
I’m a fairly anxious person, and while it’s difficult to deal with as an adult, it was a nightmare as a kid. Arcades were a minefield; there’s no way you would get a cabinet to yourself, no matter how nicely you asked, so you’d have to deal with learning and inevitably failing as strangers watched. In order to take full advantage of the games that I wanted to play, I also had to learn to deal with other people and their unpredictable reactions without going into a full-blown panic, making these experiences almost like exposure therapy. In arcades, I learned to manage my social anxiety, and watching Hi Score Girl made me incredibly nostalgic for those times. These days, you jump online, some kid on a headset many miles away calls you gay, and you hop off. There’s so little relationship-building or socializing like the kind we had in the arcades that it’s hard not to look back on them with rose-colored glasses.
Hi Score Girl continues with Akira returning to Japan. While she was away, however, a girl named Koharu Hidaka has grown close to Haruo, drawn towards his passion for gaming, which kicks off the plotline about their confusing love triangle. Haruo, in his video game frenzy, is oblivious to the fact that either girl could be interested in him romantically (to be fair, they are in middle school), and Akira’s reticent personality won’t let her just come out and tell him how she feels. Koharu, herself a bit of a homebody, has grown to love video games thanks to Haruo’s influence, and they bond thanks to a collection of arcade cabinets that her father has installed outside the family store. Soon, her natural talent and desire to learn more about the games Haruo loves makes her into a formidable challenger, especially in newer games like Darkstalkers and King of Fighters. Haruo’s relationship with Koharu blossoms in much in the same was that it did with Akira as they find common ground in the arcade experience, and it’s here that Hi Score Girl draws a clear line between playing games at home and at the arcade.
The culture that developed around arcades was such that a newcomer stepping into the game center might look at the usual customs and wonder what the hell they were seeing. As Haruo navigates this world, he details these traditions in his own excitable way. The mass of coins on the cabinet, he explains, are to designate that people have saved their spot at the game. When Koharu asks how players remember which coin is theirs, Haruo indicates the importance of socialization; you need to communicate with your fellow players to remember who’s supposed to step up before and after you to keep your place in line.
This type of social interaction is also how you learned to access new moves and characters in fighting games. Before the internet, it wasn’t as easy to figure out how Ryu threw a Hadouken or how Guile performed a Flash Kick, especially if the cabinet’s command lists had been removed or obscured. Those who had learned these secret techniques held them close and taught them only to the worthy, adding a layer of mystery to the typical Street Fighter experience. Akuma, who was first introduced in Super Street Fighter II Turbo as a secret boss, had a similar aura of mystery in that he could only be used in regular play by inputting a very specific set of commands at the character select screen. Messing it up meant being stuck with Ryu and his alternate brown gi, a mark of shame that told the world you couldn’t perform a simple series of timed button presses. These touchstones are all explained in great detail over the course of the Hi Score Girl story, dramatized but still providing a authentic view of the times.
Although Hi Score Girl’s plotline about the love triangle follows a rather predictable series of events through to the end of the first season, the rest of the show serves as a remarkable portrayal of arcade culture. While I’m not yet old enough to start getting nostalgic about every aspect of my childhood, I definitely still feel nostalgic about arcades, given the way that they shaped me as a person and also gaming in general. While nothing beats the convenience of a home console, I can’t help but think video games lost a bit of their soul when game centers began to dry up, especially now that arcades are increasingly hard to find outside of Japan. Hi Score Girl is a charming homage to the arcade era, where 25 cents was enough to open up an entire universe of entertainment and community, and I can’t recommend the series enough to anyone looking to relive those days vicariously through Haruo, Akira, and Koharu.
Ian Walker loves fighting games and writing about them. You can find him on Twitter at @iantothemax.