Nostalgia is a powerful drug. Its ability to flatten our sense of good or bad for the sake of the good feeling it invoked when we were younger is a potent ingredient in the hands of a talented creator. The danger is when the only reason something exists is for the sole purposes of nostalgia. At that point, the show has little to say about our current world other than “it was much better back in the day.”

Hi Score Girl, one of the many popular anime titles Netflix has picked up, leans heavily into nostalgia for its appeal. The same goes for its characters, who are in some ways a product of their time. Whether their relationships vibe with you or not depends entirely on how much you relate to the culture they are immersed in.

This anime is a period piece and takes great care to couch much of what happens in the rise of arcade culture in Japan during the early 1990s. Every episode is steeped in the gaming culture of the time, featuring dingy arcades, rows and rows of game cabinets to indulge in for just a few coins, and most importantly consistent references to popular games like Street Fighter II and Darkstalkers.

The show is a nostalgia trip for those who grew up with arcade culture or simply remember the hours and hours spent mastering old video games in order to impress your friends. All of this nostalgia is woven into the fabric of every episode and the milieu of this anime is strong enough to carry the show depending on your attachment to the culture

The characters themselves are very much a product of the time, which can be either relatable or grating depending on your relationship with the culture that surrounds this show.

The main character Haruo Yaguchi is the poster child for this era of games and any strong feelings about him are linked to your views on the culture he shows single-minded devotion to. Yaguchi is obsessed with video games (specifically fighting games) and his devotion to playing every single arcade cabinet within reach to complete mastery above all else is either admirable or a complete waste of time depending on who you are.

Following him around also gives us a peek into the culture. Everything from budgeting yen coins to play the hottest game, to the performative aspect of showing off to friends and strangers just how good you are at playing an arcade game. People forget that in a bygone era of gaming there was no choice but to be social. All of this backdrop gives context into just who Yaguchi is.

Yaguchi’s hyper competitive nature and single-minded devotion to being the best at videogames shapes his relationships and how he comes to terms with love. Considering this a romance anime centered around him, aside from being a nostalgia piece, Yaguchi is where the anime either clicks or falls off the rails depending on who you are.

Hi Score Girl is a romantic comedy at its heart, centered on Ono Akira and later, Hidaka Koharu. His relationship with these two women is his education into something broader than videogames and his choices about how he treats both of them is a test of patience.

It’s best to start with his relationship with Ono first because theirs defines the entire show. Yaguchi has no inkling about love nor any interest in exploring it when he first meets her. She is a rival in his eyes for her amazing talent at playing Street Fighter II and later it is revealed those talents extend to all games really. It grates on Yaguchi that he can’t beat Ono, and the cut-throat nature of arcade culture brings out his nasty personality when it comes to beating her.

This rivalry he develops with Ono both pushes him apart from her (because his competitive nature only allows him to see her as just another obstacle to climb) and pulls them together because they both have a passion for games. The latter makes for some of the sweetest moments of Hi Score Girl for the simple fact that he learns there is a much broader world beyond the games he’s devoted himself too.

Those times when he takes her on adventures to dingy arcades around Tokyo are heartwarming and those times when he is courteous to Ono really softens some of his hard edges. These moments are necessary to counterbalance some of Yaguchi’s more irritating tendencies to just be a jerk. 

The curious thing about Ono is throughout the entire two seasons of this show, she doesn’t actually speak. We glean her character from the aggressive beat downs she gives Haruo when he acts like an asshole and the more emotional moments as their relationship develops. This is an interesting choice considering all of her actions are filtered to us through Yaguchi and others so and never she is never really allowed to speak for herself.

Despite this handicap, it is sweet in the sense of how their relationship develops. Ono is good at everything and born into a prestigious family so her only escape from this regimented life is playing video games. Of course, she is prodigious at that too and her skill is a point that Yaguchi is jealous of at first.

The rivalry between Ono and Yaguchi turns into a relationship, with games as the common language between them. Their competitiveness drive both to get better and Yaguchi’s respect for Ono comes out in those moments when he is courteous to her. He begins to understand empathy in thinking about her and doing things they both would enjoy.

Making the jump to understanding that those feelings are love is a slow and sometimes agonizing process that tests the audience’s patience.

The introduction of Hidaka and her development as a character is bittersweet and at times problematic. Her love for Yaguchi is her defining characteristic and her devotion to gaining his attention and getting him to recognize her are admirable and borders on obsessive in some instances.

Hidaka gets into arcade games because of her curiosity about Yaguchi and she hones her skills as a way to get his attention and get closer to him. It fuels her to get better, and eventually she becomes skilled enough to be on par with him and anyone else in the arcade scene. Her whole world centers on him, but her biggest obstacle is Ono, whom Yaguchi is intensely focused on.

Yaguchi’s dense nature hurts Hidaka and his inability to recognize her feelings for him is by far his greatest sin in the show. In some ways it hurts both women because he either refuses to see or doesn’t recognize how his actions harm others.

In the end, Hi Score Girl is an enjoyable anime that is heavy with nostalgia and a complicated love triangle. Its dedication to invoking a true representation of the arcade culture of the early 90s is guaranteed to please anybody who was some connection to it. The romance in this show is steeped in this culture, which is both maddening and perhaps true to life.

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