Haruo "Mighty Fingers" (self-proclaimed) Yaguchi is horrified to discover that the opponent he has just lost to 7 times in a row is Akira Oono, a privileged, straight-A girl from his class. The year is 1991, the game is Street Fighter II, and the manga is Hi Score Girl volume 1, a cute, nostalgic tribute to classic arcade games, and to the magic of childhood.
The story follows the developing relationship between Yaguchi and Oono in a very believable way, as they go from enemies to rivals to friends over their shared love of computer games. The book has a realistic setting for the most part, except for one scene where Yaguchi and Oono discover a mysterious, rundown games arcade of urban legend - which could have felt out of place, but was handled well so that it still fits in with the nostalgic look-back-at-childhood mood of the book. There are also occasional bits of slapstick (Yaguchi repeatedly getting knocked down by Oono's chauffeur) which adds to the
The main characters are both in the 6th Grade (11/12 years old). The writing captured this very well - they and their classmates all sounded and acted their age very believably. Volume 2 looks like it will be set a couple of years after this first book, with Yaguchi in middle school, so it will be interesting to see how the story and characters develop (there is a short preview of volume 2 at the back of the book, which promises "complicated relationships and feelings abound... this is almost like a rom com?!").
For some reason, it takes Yaguchi half the book to realise that Oono doesn't talk (even though they're in the same class at school). She mainly communicates through grunts, nods and violence. We are never explicitly told why, but it is implied that it is due to the huge pressure she is put under by the expectations of her rich and privileged family. It is in gaming that Oono finds an escape from this pressure, and why she must keep her hobby a secret from everyone.
Although volume 1 of Hi Score Girl has only just been published in English, it is was first published in Japan in 2012, and the full story spanned 10 volumes. There is currently an anime TV series showing on Netflix, with season 2 due later this year. Here's the trailer:
Despite the book featuring elementary-aged protagonists, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone younger than 11-12 (depending on the individual, obviously), due to the the themes, language and incidents in the book - the publisher has rated it T (Teens - 13+).
The central hook of Hi Score Girl is, obviously, the arcade games of the early 90s, and Yaguchi acts as something of a tour guide for the reader, waxing lyrical about his favourite games and consoles. For those of us old enough to remember 1991, this is a fun trip down a digital memory lane. For those interested in computer games and their history, this provides a useful primer. If you don't care about computer games, but like your manga to focus on relationships and drama, there is plenty here for you too.
Oh, and one final thing - keep an eye out for the bonus material at the end of the book, which includes an hilarious "behind the scenes" page at the end featuring Yaguchi's mum spying on him and Oono in his bedroom!
Thanks to Turnaround for the review copy. Hi Score Girl is published on 27th February 2020, by Square Enix Manga.