‘Don’t forget about us,’ laughs John Johanas, director of Tango Gameworks’ Hi-Fi Rush. The rhythm-based action game, featuring a world and style fashioned around early 2000’s pop culture, was simultaneously announced and released completely out of the blue at the beginning of 2023, to much shock, and more importantly, much critical acclaim.
At the time, it was almost immediately cited as 2023’s first real ‘Game of the Year’ contender, though the many months that followed saw the conversation move on to games like Resident Evil 4 Remake, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
‘There are too many good games this year, what happened?’ Johanas laments. ‘But you can’t get mad, because they’re all really good games. Everyone should be happy.’
The Hi-Fi Rush Legacy
There are some heartening indications that the fire Hi-Fi Rush lit is still burning, however. At the time of our conversation, Johanas had just returned from Anime Expo 2023, where he sat, for the first time, on a public panel with members of the Hi-Fi Rush cast – Erica Lindbeck (Peppermint), Sarah Elmaleh (Korsica), Gabe Kunda (Macaron), and Robbie Daymond (Chai) – to talk about creating the game’s memorable characters.
‘Going in, I didn’t know how many people were going to be there. I just assumed if there’s more than zero, it’s a success,’ Johanas remarks. ‘But we went to this room, and there are hundreds of people. They’re probably mostly there for the voice actors, but they’re also coming up to us and super passionate, telling us about how much they love the game – they made unique art for us to have as gifts.’
Johanas tweeted that it was surreal to hear an audience chat ‘Chai, Chai, Chai!’ during the panel, mimicking the in-game crowd chants that egg on the protagonist, Chai.
‘I almost didn’t know what to do. I’m not used to people saying they like our game in person. It was a little bit overwhelming, and I think I got blindsided by how many people were there. I wish the whole team was here to see it.’
Despite being a brand new intellectual property, Hi-Fi Rush itself is a callback to the console action games of the early 2000’s, like Okami and Viewtiful Joe, and other media of the time, like Futurama and the films of Edgar Wright. Looking back, the arrival of the game actually heralded a year that featured multiple remasters and remakes from the same era – among them, Metroid Prime Remastered and the remake of Resident Evil 4 – and capitalised on the nostalgia of an ageing population of game lovers.
Here Comes A New (Arcade) Challenger
The game’s free Arcade Challenge Update, released six months later (around a day after Anime Expo) is an attempt to continue to sate the audience hungering for this now-classic style of character action game.
‘When the game came out and we saw the positive reception, one of the things that came back from a gameplay perspective was that people actually played the extra [Rhythm Tower] content, and they just loved the gameplay of it.’
The team at Tango, who only had solidified post-launch plans for additional costumes at the time of release, decided to additionally expand on those modes with increased challenges, which also seemed like a reasonable task, given the relatively short turnaround, in terms of development time.
What resulted was a new mode, BPM Rush, which pits Chai against increasing waves of enemies. The catch is that the music tracks, which inform the cadence of enemy attacks and have the potential to power up Chai’s moves (providing you can match your inputs to the beat), increase in tempo each time. The mode increases the maximum tempo limit of the combat system to a blistering 200 beats per minute (BPM), where the original ceiling was 160 BPM.
The second, Power Up! Tower Up! puts a roguelike twist on the mechanics, starting you off with a vanilla version of Chai that must tackle rooms of enemies and earn upgrades as he progresses. ‘With these two new modes, the gameplay is essentially the same,’ says Johanas. ‘But the spin that they put on how you approach combat really makes it feel like a whole new experience.’
‘I know that sounds like a marketing thing, but the people in the office originally were sceptical, and then when they finally played it, they were like, “Oh, okay! This is like its own thing.”‘
At the time of our talk, the audience reception to the newly-released modes had been positive, but also quite surprising to Johanas. ‘I mean, we’re probably looking at a very specific audience who are super hardcore and coming back into it, but they’re kinda breezing through it, which is like a shock because even our teams internally took a long time!’
The Next Hit Record
As to what the future holds for Johanas and Tango’s future projects, he continues to be emboldened by the success of Hi-Fi Rush in the wake of its successful surprise release. ‘No-one expected us to make this game. But we did, and I think we did a good job with it. And I like to think that we can kind of do anything now.’
As to what kind of broad form that takes, that’s still an unknown to him at the moment, despite having several ideas in his head. ‘You need to look at what you have in your mind, and then how the timing feels.’ For off-mainstream game projects to make a splash, that seems to be the key – the team behind the unique medieval narrative adventure Pentiment also made similar remarks in the wake of the game’s successful release.
‘And it’s not just about you, it’s about your team and who’s available, and things like that. My biggest thing, I would say… just don’t expect us to do anything specific,’ Johanas said, referring to the tonal disparity between Hi-Fi Rush and Tango’s previous horror-focussed titles The Evil Within 2 and Ghostwire: Tokyo.
Given the strong genre focus and era-specific tone Hi-Fi Rush achieved, it’s likely no surprise that Johanas’ biggest takeaway from working on the project has been the necessity of a very clear initial vision. ‘Whatever you want your game to be known for, you need to nail that really, really early and hold on to that tight, especially if you believe in it,’ he said.
‘I spent a lot of time thinking about the game, and we spent a lot of time prototyping the core concept of the action, so that when people joined the team, there wasn’t any “I have no idea what this game is about, I’m confused, I’m making the wrong thing, I’m going in wrong directions.”‘
‘We were able to look back and we’d almost laugh at how unchanged the documentation was from the initial pitch, because it was so rare. Like, that never happens. And the team members said the same thing: “Well, you basically have been saying the same thing from the beginning to the end.”
In the days following our talk, Johanas travelled with members of the Hi-Fi Rush development team to the Develop:Brighton conference, where the game won the award for Best Original IP during the Develop:Star awards. It was also nominated in the Game Design, Visual Art, and Audio categories.
With any luck, the accolade will be the first of many, as the industry begins to head into awards season, and reflect on the stellar year for games that was 2023.