Mixing elements of racing, rhythm and shooting games, “Sayonara Wild Hearts” spins a disposable story (voiced by Queen Latifah) around a heartbroken young woman whose world is literally upended after a butterfly-like creature from another universe wakes her up one night and flips her room upside down. The otherworldly emissary hails from a place that was once ruled by three benevolent aracana — i.e. divine tarot cards — until “a cursed arcana” crossed the trio on the “astral highways.” Backed by its “star-crossed” conspirators, the dastardly arcana plundered the harmony from that universe and cached it in their corrupt hearts.
Tumbling outside the window of her room like loose change spilled from an overturned pocket, the woman alights on a skateboard that fell with her. Taking it all in as one might a dream, the heroine doesn’t pause to adjust to her surroundings. Instead, she skates. The nocturnal road that uncoils in front of her is made up of lanes outlined in shimmering colors. The road spirals, twists, loops, and breaks off into sections which twirl through the air as discs before joining other segments. This is not a game that’s hard to get into.
As a modernized version of Debussy’s “Clair de lune” plays, the woman zooms down the road and over jumps acquiring whatever hearts she rolls over, contributing to the player’s final score. Gold, silver, and bronze ranks are awarded for obtaining a certain number of hearts per stage. At the end of her initial run, the woman falls from the road through the air. Ever the symbol of metamorphosis, the butterfly turns into a tarot card and then zaps the heroine so that her clothes are replaced with a mask and costume in a scene that’s pure glam.
The next stage introduces the first of five “heartbreak” stages, spread across the game. Unlike later stages that introduce different adversaries, these stages are devoid of other people. The goal here, as elsewhere, is simply to acquire as many hearts as possible — whether surfing on a tarot card down a tight heart-shaped tunnel or piloting a boat through turbulent waters. Watching the levels contort themselves into different forms to accommodate different mechanics, such as top-down or side-scrolling shooting, is hypnotically satisfying.
The first adversaries you meet are the Dancing Devils, a motorcycle gang which engages you in a dance battle before hopping onto motorcycles and speeding away. Easily timed button presses will get you through the dance-off and help you to perform some acrobatic jumps off and back onto your motorcycle when you later chase the Dancing Devils. One of my favorite stages in the game is far more tricky in terms of timed events. In Parallel Universes you go after the Stereo Lovers on your motorcycle. This androgynous pair can float through the air and, with a snap of their fingers, change the layout of the road between two different states, each with different sets of obstacles. I loved the disorienting effect of trying to hold a picture of a vanished road in my mind in preparation for when it might reappear. #GhostRider.
None of the stages in “Sayonara Wild Hearts” take longer than a few minutes to complete. Indeed, the game can easily be finished in under two hours on one’s first attempt. That said, I’ve played through it a few times now and I’m nowhere near tired of it. Obtaining a gold ranking in each of the stages is far more challenging than just completing them since many of hearts required to get a high score are nestled among obstacles that require a bit of finesse to acquire.
“Sayonara Wild Hearts” is a concentrated blast of audiovisual delight — its minimalist graphics evokes an era where wire-frame graphics and on-the-rail shooters were dazzling technology. It is a game that excels in instilling an ephemeral sense of elation. It’s obvious why the developers dubbed in a “video game pop album.’ It goes down easy and begs to be played repeatedly.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.