Hi Score Girl offers a humorous romantic comedy with a particular kind of charm. Nevertheless, despite its unique core features, most readers will find something to love here because of the broad emotional throughlines.
The emphasis on video games is the first and most noticeable feature of Hi Score Girl. Like any activity, playing video games takes time and could be a barrier or source of closeness in a relationship. Many romantic movies play up eccentric interests as a roadblock to romance, a challenge that needs to be cleared before their relationship can progress. To make the relationship work, the partner who is more interested in hobbies frequently needs to strike a better balance and pursue some personal development. Interestingly, Haruo’s obsession with gaming sets him apart from his friends, yet Akira has the same trait. They are actually drawn together by their common intensity, which isolates them from other children their age and moves them up the pipeline from rivals to acquaintances to something more (though it is unclear exactly what). It’s not precisely clear from their early fights in the arcade that they’re falling in love, but it’s obvious that they’re pushing other people away and giving themselves more time to get to know one another.
Koharu finds gaming to be more of a draw than a turnoff. She initially finds Haruo’s infatuation to be an odd curiosity because she has no background in video game enjoyment. Even when she plays and achieves feats that would make anyone envious, like accidently unlocking Akuma in Super Street Fighter II: Turbo, she has little interest in the games themselves. Koharu drifts in and out of the games dependent only on the game that Haruo is playing, but Haruo and Akira are intimately familiar with every detail.
The historical period and the arcade theme are more distinctive aspects of the series than the characters themselves. The novel begins in 1991, and during it, we receive brief updates on world events, such as the start of the Gulf War. Arcades were still very popular at this time, both in Japan and the United States, but obviously less so than in Japan. Given how popular Street Fighter 2 was when it first appeared in the early 1990s, using it as the center of the plot is extremely interesting. We really enjoyed it, and I thought Haruo’s remark was quite relevant. For instance, he picks Guile and plays the typical very defensive style out of desperation to win, much to his chagrin and the scorn of others watching. In a way, this was a social taboo, or at the very least, it was something that people would nag you about while you were playing (“Dude, don’t select Guile again. “He’s so inexpensive!”
A recurrent story device is the incorporation of the arcade and console games. It depends on you whether you find this particular information amusing or sympathetic. Most readers, in my opinion, are probably too young to remember many of these movies, and Lord knows even I don’t know much about consoles like the PC Engine. However, I believe that the overall tone is sympathetic enough for readers to connect with on some level (for example, Haruo’s nervousness causes him to feel as though he must continuously defend the PC Engine against everyone else possessing a Nintendo).
As the narrative develops and the years pass, new video games offer Haruo thrilling new opportunities while other news events serve as stage decor. The manga does a fantastic job of capturing this never-ending influx of brand-new, genre-defining works. At the time, I was also a video game-obsessed primary schooler, and it seemed like every month a brand-new release blew our minds and offered us fresh experiences. They were certainly halcyon days as we spent them running around arcades, debating whether Scorpion could kill Ryu on the playground, eating pizza while demonstrating crude Doom mods, and picking our jaws up off the floor when we first saw the (in our opinion) lifelike 3D worlds of Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. I adore that aspect of the work because it so closely mirrors the constant boiling thrill and sense of growing entertainment that Hi Score Girl depicts.
The visual aesthetic is intriguing. It has a very (I know this will sound absurd) humorous feel, but in a more traditional way. It’s a deliberate kind of exaggeration. These characters have purposely warped sizes and weird appearances, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Hey Arnold! And Rugrats with their facial features. It serves to both recreate childhood memories and highlight the general awkwardness of those years. Most children are, well, children! They are silly, clumsy, and still learning how the world works. Therefore, the cast’s somewhat silly appearance underlines the trivial choices and overreactions they make.
Negatives include Akira’s silence, which is a bit disappointing. It seems strange to have her either respond with random acts of violence or not at all, though I suppose this is a stylistic choice. She occasionally expresses herself by symbols, and Haruo can decipher what she means when she does. The fact that Haruo speaks for both Akira and himself makes the entire relationship seem strange and unbalanced. The claim that this happens over the course of one academic year clearly strains credibility. I initially questioned whether there was anything more going on than just a choice to be silent or shyness. She never seems to utilize sign language or anything comparable, although she does occasionally vocalize while she feeds. Despite her timidity, she seems at ease enough with Haruo to visit his home and spend the entire night in his room. So, I assume she’s just choosing to remain silent for whatever reason.
Other readers might find this to be effective, but I thought it odd that she purposely said nothing. I might have purchased it when she and Haruo were just getting to know one another or during social gatherings in public. But my enjoyment of the story decreased as it went on. She only uses headbutts to communicate, so Haruo has to interpret what she is thinking, which makes it more difficult to become emotionally immersed in the plot.
I find Koharu to be much more fascinating. A co-lead’s voice adds significantly more intrigue to the story. Koharu feels like a genuine person, in contrast to Akira who, because to her voicelessness, comes off as a story element posing as a person. As she tries to comprehend this odd young guy, Haruo, this makes her a lot more fun to read along with.
Koharu constantly coming back to the battle to make sense of the circumstance. She seems to be fond of Haruo, but how? Is he merely a friend, an intriguing acquaintance who acts differently than everyone else? Or does she just have a romantic crush on him? Does Haruo feel the same way about her, and if so, how? Does Haruo have feelings for other individuals in addition to video games? By the end of the book, Koharu is still wrangling with this plethora of questions and uncertainties and has not come up with a definite, unambiguous solution.
Part of what makes Koharu feel believable as a character is this inquisitive questioning. Yes, it’s a stretch to imagine that there is yet another female in Haruo’s class who finds him attractive when, by his own admission, all he does or cares about is playing video games. Koharu’s struggle with the issues, however, is incredibly relatable to most young people. I am aware that there have been instances in my life when I was drawn to someone even if I couldn’t explain why, and dealing with those feelings is a difficult, messy process. The most moving scenes are when Koharu knows where Haruo is but is unsure of what he is thinking. Koharu continuously poses hypothetical questions in her brain to figure out what is happening.
Another difficulty is that Haruo is frequently a character that is utterly unlikeable. It’s difficult to think of someone who would want to be around someone who is blatantly stupid. After a while, it’s difficult to see why anyone would bother with Haruo because of his apparent selfishness and obsession. Then again, Koharu seems to be having trouble with unrequited love and the idea that Haruo represents a different outlook on life than her own. Even so, it’s difficult to see Haruo’s evident desire being a truly unique quality—many young people exhibit this trait—to the extent that she must remain with him.
The dynamic of the volumes becomes more nuanced as they go on, which is pleasing. Even when circumstances defy belief (would Haruo’s mother really pay for him and Akira to remain in a hotel room overnight while giggling the entire time at the things they would get up to? ), the tension between the three characters increases and becomes much more compelling. Akira’s severe pressure and the reasons behind her repeated running away from home are revealed. We observe Haruo trying to improve his academic performance and applying himself for a change. We witness Koharu making her own demands and taking an active role in her own life. The emotional breakdown between Akira and Haruo at the end of volume 4 is particularly interesting for both of them since it shows how young people express their bodily angst. These character alterations are subtle and occasionally fleeting, but they make sense given how confusing and fluid adolescence is.
Hi Score Girl’s first four volumes make for entertaining reading. Since romantic comedies with a video game theme are uncommon, the novelty alone is a major selling point. As someone who experienced these years firsthand, its greatest merit is the realistic lived experience shown in those computer games. The characters occasionally have strange idiosyncrasies that strain your capacity for believing, but nothing too ridiculous. I suggest the series if you’re looking for something unusual, especially if you want to understand what it was like to be a young game nerd in the 1990s.