Speedrunning has become the established way to wring a hardcore challenge out of even the most fluffy, easy-going of platformers. Getting through a level as quickly as possible will stretch your skills to the max in much the same way as a time trial run in Mario Kart. Developer Laser Dog understands this. In fact, the entire game of HoPiKo is built around the principle of speedy precision. The margins between success and failure in its bite-sized levels are razor thin, and failure is never more than a millimetre - or a millisecond - away.
To reach this heightened state of focus, HoPiKo does an interesting thing. It's a platformer that does away with movement altogether. Only the jumping remains, as your character leaps between platforms and towards the level exit. The idea is to aim where you want your little character to go with the right Joy-Con stick, then release to ping off in that direction. When you enter one of the game's Donkey Kong Country-like barrels, a press of R will fire you out. Indeed, firing a gun is an apt analogy, as your character tends to shoot across the level like a bullet from a gun until you hit a flat surface.
It's not a completely new approach to Switch gamers, as 2018's quirky Metroidvania Dandara adopted a similar approach. However, HoPiKo actually preceded that game on other platforms by several years. Besides this traversal system, moreover, the two games couldn't be more different. In HoPiKo, each compact level can be completed in a matter of seconds. Indeed, they must be if you're to ace the level and received a big blue tick. Despite their brevity, though, these levels are designed to thwart you in a range of punishing ways. The glowing boundaries of each stage spell instant death if touched, while spiky obstructions and laser barriers cut across your potential flight path.
Each level forms a run of five, and failure in any one will send you right back to the beginning of the run. Again, this only represents a matter of seconds in game time, but nailing all five levels in a row is the real trick here, and the pressure you'll feel as you reach level five is ramped up as a result.
We haven't even mentioned HoPiKo's setting or its pixel art aesthetic yet. That might be because all such window dressing tends to melt into the background as your eyes and brain focus in on hitting your next mark. But the way HoPiKo looks and sounds is a key part of its appeal. The game casts you as an antiviral superhero sent in to debug a retro console, and it's got the blocky, garish sprites and bleepy soundtrack to suit. It's impressive how much character, colour and variation Laser Dog has managed to wring out of these basic components. Each move to a new world brings about a striking palette swap and the introduction of all-new defensive units, which helps keep things fresh even though the pace and nature of the gameplay remains brutally fixed in place.
If we were to level any criticism at HoPiKo it would be that its stream-lined, unforgiving approach will likely alienate a fair portion of Switch owners. Repeated failure on one of its trickier runs can feel a little like banging your head against the wall, and if you don't have that masochistic gaming streak in you then there's really very little to hold onto here. If you're the kind of person who derives great pleasure from honing your technique and your muscle memory across repeated attempts and failures, from racing against the clock, and from the kind of vibrant pixel-art worlds that have come to define modern indie games, then HoPiKo could be your next pick-up-and-play Switch obsession.
Simultaneously hardcore and casual, HoPiKo is a pick-up-and-play speedrunning platformer delight that demands the utmost precision and perseverance from the player. It's not for the easily dissuaded, or for anyone looking for anything other than a manic arcade experience, but those who dig its frantic ways will find it very hard to stop snacking.