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My Defense On 'Hi-Fi Rush' And The "Indie" Genre

Hi-Fi-Rush - Xbox Series X and Microsoft Windows

Last week we took a look at Hi-Fi Rush, a game that was released seemingly out of nowhere and received high acclaim from many who played the game for the first time. Its vibrant colors, easy-to-follow plot, and diverse cast of main and supporting characters felt like a Saturday morning cartoon. That, coupled with a world and gameplay that revolves around the music surrounding Chai and 808 crossed genres that made it accessible for action and rhythm game fans alike. Its literal overnight success had been a talking point among players and one of the key topics brought up is its status as an “independent game.”

Hi-Fi Rush is not an independent game, however. In fact, it’s the furthest from an independent title for several reasons. The major one is the publisher behind the title, Bethesda, and by extension Microsoft. Bethesda’s status as both a developer and a publisher makes them one of the largest companies in the industry currently, but even the developer of Hi-Fi Rush, Tango Gameworks, have decades of credibility under their belt. The company’s founder, Shinji Mikami, is nothing short of a legend. 

Hi-Fi Rush - Another game victim to gaming discourse.

Before creating Tango Gameworks, he was best known during his time at Capcom, directing the first Resident Evil as well as its GameCube remake. He directed Dino Crisis, Resident Evil 4, God Hand, and even P.N.03, a game that arguably didn’t make as big of a splash as his previous work. Despite this, his work ethic continued with his time at Platinum Games before founding Tango Gameworks and this set the precedent for many titles released in the past, present, and future.

So calling Hi-Fi Rush “indie” is like calling Bayonetta 3 “indie.” It’s far from it, but you rarely, if ever, hear anyone call the latter an “indie title” so why Hi-Fi Rush? What even makes an independent title to the general populace of gaming culture and why is this phrase passed around like a common buzzword? I may not have the exact answer to this question admittingly. But, as someone who had played hundreds of games in the past two years alone, I do have several theories as to why this is the case.

Cel-shaded graphics were introduced long before Jet Set Radio yet it still set a trend for what could be considered "indie."

The actual definition of an “independent game” is a game that is developed by a small studio or a sole developer who works on all aspects of the game’s progression. Not all small studios are “independent,” and some larger studios fit the same definition as well. I’ll use Jitsu Squad as my first example, a beat-em-up from an independent studio that was released in December 2022. Jitsu Squad saw its plans come to fruition largely due to crowdfunding, as can be seen from its successful campaign of over 109k Pounds.

Crowdfunding is one of the major sources of income for a game’s production as developing a game is not cheap, much less publishing the game and meeting bonus incentives. With the backing of a larger publisher, like Bethesda, Hi-Fi Rush had not only bypassed the crowdfunding phase, but Tango Gameworks was able to stealthily release the game, something that’s rare for indie games to accomplish. Usually, the one takeaway from an independent title is if it’s a sole developer working on the title. Such is the case with GOODBYE WORLD, a narrative-based game that showcased the developer’s own struggle with developing a game in-game.

Jitsu Squad - Still remains one of the coolest cameos

What both Jitsu Squad and GOODBYE WORLD has in common is that they both reflect on nostalgia to push their games across. I remember getting excited over seeing a frog do a “Genocide Cutter” in the game as well as Maximillian and his dog Benny (RIP) being an assist fighter. GOODBYE WORLD’s entire gameplay is a game within a game on a Game Boy-like device. Players can even go as far back as Undertale, with its retro 16-bit style graphics and its unique story relative to its time.

Over the years, “indie games” have been synonymous with “nostalgia bait,” or titles that attune to a player’s yearning for the “good ole days” of gaming. What gave me the motivation to discuss what makes an independent game an “indie game” to the public was a tweet I read. I’ve blocked out the name of the tweet, but upon reading it, this person was incredibly misguided as to what an “indie game” is. Then it hit me—I’m just as guilty of making this assumption as well with certain titles. Researching the developmental process of each title you cover is enough to know whether to call it "independent" or not.

Hi-Fi Rush, with its cartoon cel-shaded graphics, can be considered a call back to the 2000s era of gaming where everything was “cool” and “radical.” Games like Jet Set Radio, Gungrave, and even lesser-known titles like Crimson Tears all followed this arcade style of action gaming and Hi-Fi Rush was a cool homage to that era. However, homages and capitalizations on what’s considered “retro” aren’t “indie game” exclusive. It comes off as derogatory to assume that all indie games are this way, as some of the best indie games I’ve played this year like Neon White are titles that more than hold their own against other “AAA” titles.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if a game is “indie” or “AAA” as a good game is a good game regardless of who makes it. It is, however, dangerous to assume all “indie” games “look” and “feel” alike. If it gets to a point where it becomes necessary to criticize a game for being fun and looking good because it feels too “indie,” it’s a slap in the face to all developers, including independent ones. Liking a title shouldn’t come with accusatory tones of “only liking it because it’s trendy.” 

Most "AAA" titles like Horizon Forbidden West are often cited for being "cinematic." Again, not all AAA titles are like this.

Being “trendy” shouldn’t be synonymous with being “indie” either. I’ve always been a firm believer in “if you enjoy something, you enjoy something.” Hi-Fi Rush and many other titles including Sunset Overdrive fill the niche of a cool and fun action title that doesn’t compromise itself to be the next “blockbuster title.” Having fun is the only thing that should matter,  right?

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