These four volumes of Hi Score Girl continue literally and thematically where the first four volumes left off. Everything in volumes 5-8 is larger and more sophisticated, though the core romantic pull is as simple as it was from the beginning. It creates an engaging dynamic where the fundamentals of the romance remain steady as the world around the cast changes in increasingly unexpected ways.
The biggest positive development by far is Haruo’s growth as a protagonist. His child-like joy for gaming and having fun remains the same, yet there’s a different texture to it now. Whereas before his joy was obsessive and deeply selfish by and large, time and life experience have dulled some of the rough edges. Haruo’s love of gaming has become more of a refuge from a weary world and a joy that he shares with others, rather than something he uses as a way of avoiding growth or development. Watching Haruo share these with Akira and Hidaka (and his other friends) is really great, and video games become less a means of disconnecting from others and the world and more a way for him to connect with people who are important to him. Video games are now a common thread that facilitates relationships with people around him instead of a wedge he gleefully drives between himself and others.
Haruo’s relationships with Akira and Hidaka do not change all that much here. The stakes are higher, to be sure. There are tournaments and face-offs, heated exchanges, and lines drawn in the sand. But the core fundamentals of their relationships have not changed appreciably. Akira is burdened by her family’s expectations of her. Hidaka is adrift and unsure of herself. Both of them like to play games with Haruo and appreciate his simple, direct focus. Haruo enjoys playing games with them too. He can’t seem to sort out his feelings for either, though the leanings clearly are in Akira’s favor, though that is not to say that Hidaka means nothing to him. This is essentially the same status quo that we have become accustomed to from the first four volumes, though here it is stretched out and placed in new situations.
And my, what situations they are!
Volumes 5-8 ramp up the outrageous external circumstances that pull on our leads. It seems like every time you turn the corner there is a new development threatening to upend the kids’ world or change it in some big way. Akira’s family connections become more of a presence in these volumes in particular. Her “always trying to help” kind driver, her “constantly butting in and making strange remarks” older sister, her “hell-bent on making sure Akira adheres to her role” tutor, and most of all, her “completely absent from her life yet ever-present in their demands” parents. The entire Oono family creates an unending sea of variables that disrupt Akira’s life and her relationship with Haruo, making sure that every time they grow closer there is some obstacle placed to tear them back apart.
The various side characters in the city also make more of an appearance in these volumes. The other kids at school become increasingly aware of Haruo’s relationships with Akira and Hidaka. There are local fairs and tournaments that provide backdrops for their will-they-won’t-they encounters. There are other schoolkids seeking to ask out Akira and Hidaka because they have massive crushes on them. There are even underground video game gangs that hold secret meetings to test their skills in all-night arcade venues.
These two distinct vibes come together quite nicely across these four volumes. The core relationship dynamic between Haruo, Akira, and Hidaka is simple and unchanged. The outside world around them is increasingly chaotic and unrealistic. These crossing textures culminate in an engaging mix that makes it hard to stop reading. Whereas before I thought the simplicity of the core relationships was something of a letdown, now that the rest of the world has gotten more bonkers I think that simplicity has become a strength.
Haruo, Akira, and Hidaka become a calm rock in a stormy sea of strange events happening all around them, and every time the narrative pauses to show them gaming together it becomes a welcome refuge through all the strangeness. In this way, I find the narrative reaches its most compelling and relatable zenith. For myself, gaming has been a personal activity for my own amusement, but more critically it has been something that I share with others. This is perhaps best exemplified in my love of fighting games, which are inherently social experiences at their core. Sure, you are testing yourself against someone else, and there is the obvious conflict that comes with that. But you get to know your opponents – who are often your friends or perhaps soon become them – in a very interesting way. You learn their habits, their strengths, and weaknesses, their preferences, and all sorts of things. And you learn those same things about yourself and even learn what you project to others through your play. Hi Score Girl really comes into its own in this display of how we show ourselves to others through how we play alongside and against them in the seemingly innocuous realm of games.
Speaking of the games, they have of course changed with the times. The series’ measurement of time through the technological advancement of the games of the 90s is the most relatable element of all for me. I think many of us who are in the video gaming space have at one time or another used game releases as a way of setting yardsticks in our lives. “Ah, 1997, when I spent the entire summer playing Total Annihilation” or “I remember getting a Gamecube for Christmas in 2001…” and so forth. The 90s have a particular place in my heart not only as my earliest gaming memories but also for their rapid advancement in the arcade and console markets, and that is something Hi Score Girl captures quite well.
Of particular note are these volumes’ focus on Darkstalkers, Virtua Fighter, and Street Fighter Alpha. These series were hugely influential on me and they represented the advancement of the fighting game space like no other. Of course, at this time my friends and I also spent way too many hours playing Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, Killer Instinct, and Tekken 3, it’s not a stretch to say that Darkstalkers, Virtua Fighter, and Street Fighter Alpha were incredibly cutting-edge games. Comparing the change from Virtua Fighter 1 to 2, or comparing Zangief’s sprites from Street Fighter 2 to the Alpha series – it really felt like the future was coming at an increasingly rapid pace. Not to mention the technical and mechanical advancement of fighting games at this time, exemplified by games like Darkstalkers (which I never really mastered back then, truth be told). The sheer variety and fidelity of all these titles were overwhelming then, and looking back at that time through the lens of this manga is a real delight.
It’s also great to see Rensuke Oshikiri articulate these exact same feelings of bubbling excitement that I had when I was that age at that time. There’s a sense of kinship in knowing that video games in their own little way could bridge time and space in such a manner – that across oceans, across language barriers, kids were feeling the same enthralling sense of wonder at these same experiences. It creates a kind of retroactive bond that was an unexpected discovery as I read.
If I have any complaints, it is my same complaint as before: Akira’s complete silence is very odd. Perhaps this works for other people and I’m the odd man out, but her silence becomes more unbelievable with every passing chapter. I get the sense that it was a limiting factor for Rensuke Oshikiri as well, as the introduction of Akira’s sister – who looks very similar to Akira, hangs around Haruo’s mom all day, and acts as a surrogate for Akira in voice and in action – is a way to address this issue. I think it works at face value, though yet again the recurring presence of the sister as a means to facilitate Akira’s relationship with Haruo without seeming to have anything going on in her own life strains the narrative’s believability on every level. At some point, I feel it would have been easier to just have Akira talk a little, rather than be completely silent.
In any case, I’m continuing to enjoy Hi Score Girl and looking forward to the final volumes of the manga. It’s a simple, comforting story where the stakes are both sky-high and completely average at the same time, ultimately fostering joy for these characters, the games they play, and when they played them. Hi Score Girl in a way evokes the feeling of finding a time capsule – despite the passage of time, the hope that clings to the container is palpable.