It's a delightful teenage romance about 1990s video game addicts. (No, that's not a contradiction in terms.) All three main characters are hopeless, each in their own way, but they'll grow and we'll follow that over half a decade. It's charming.
HARUO YAGUCHI is an idiot. He's useless at school, because he can't talk or think about anything but video games. (His embarrassing mother doesn't seem to mind, although at least you can't say he isn't being allowed his freedom.) That said, though, Haruo's a likeable idiot, despite being a motormouth show-off who gloats when he wins and turtles when he thinks he's losing. You might expect a boy like that to be unbearable, but in fact you've got to love his enthusiasm and whole-heartedness. He's putting his body and soul into those games. Real life? Maturity? What are those things? There's nothing fake or half-arsed about him. What you see is what you get. That's quite an appealing quality, if you don't mind friends who can only hold a conversation on one topic.
...but he grows. During the four or five years we're following his life, he becomes capable of thinking properly about his future. He tries to get into a good school, because he wants to support Oono. He becomes less smug. He even has the concept of romance hammered painfully into him, although you'd probably need a nuclear strike to make it stick. Anime's full of pure-minded male protagonists who never have a lascivious thought, but this is an unusually convincing example. Even when he reaches his twenties, Haruo's never going to stop being more interested in games than in sex. Anyone who wants to be his girlfriend will be enduring a lot.
AKIRA OONO is Little Miss Perfect. Rich family, strict tutor, personal chauffeur... oh, and she's also an absolute gaming demon. She'll be dead meat if her tutor finds out, but she must be one of the strongest gamers in Japan and she can wipe the floor with Haruo at the game of his choice. She has a quirk, though, which is that she never talks. Not once, in all these episodes, although there's a chance that she said something offscreen in ep.12. She's a slightly grumpy little princess in purple, stoically playing computer games and kicking or punching Harou if he annoys her.
What's cool about her is that, despite this, she's a really expressive character. We know what's on her mind, thanks to her facial expressions, her game choices and even just the way she plays. (Everyone's gameplay tends to be saying something about their characterisation and mental state, making it feel part of the show instead of just loud, garish wallpaper.) She's even more adorable than Haruo, in her dysfunctional way. We know pretty early that she has feelings for Haruo, but also that she's bad at expressing this. (I don't think she's got social anxiety or anything, by the way. She seems like a pretty normal girl, underneath the muteness. However that's still not a healthy way for someone to be and it's no surprise that she's useless at making friends. She doesn't make any at all in high school.)
KOHARU HIDAKA is a girl who fancies Haruo. She knows he's an idiot, mind you. She's often negative about him, albeit no more so than we are in the audience. She's not even particularly interested in video games. ("Don't mind me. I prefer watching.") However she teaches herself to like them and even trains herself up to Haruo's level, in what she knows is probably a doomed attempt to make him interested in her. Hidaka and Haruo can also be very funny together, in a "Haruo you total idiot" way.
Hidaka is what gives this show its force. Haruo and Oono are charming, but it's Hidaka who complicates the emotional landscape. She can't win. We know it and she knows it, but she keeps trying anyway and your heart will go out to her even as you know she'll never get between the other two.
It's a funny, sweet story. You'll love all three characters. You'll watch them grow, each in their own ways. You'll watch Oono and Haruo slowly go from constant misunderstandings to understanding each other completely, thanks to five years of long, intense conversations in which Haruo's the only one speaking. (How does he do that? Incredible.) Don't even consider skipping the "Extra Stage" OVAs (eps.13-15), by the way, which introduce two important new characters and resolve Season One's cliffhanger ending. That said, though, there's going to be a Season Two in October.
The animation's a bit unusual, by the way. It's cheap-looking but very expressive CGI, juxtaposed with creaky pixelated visuals from the original 1990s game software. (All games and characters here are real, which at one point got the original manga sued. SNK Playmore filed an IP violation claim in 2014 about the manga having over a hundred instances of characters from The King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown and other games. A settlement was reached in 2015.) Anyway, J.C. Staff producer Yuji Matsukura deliberately made this anime in 3D partly in order to do completely faithful arcade cabinets. Every single one is a real-life model, with the animation staff even buying surviving originals. In Matsukura's words... "Not many of the cabinets from 30 years ago remain physically, so I searched Akihabara and elsewhere and had to buy some cabinets from junk dealers."
For me, incidentally, the most important thing about this show's CGI is that it gets the characters right. They feel alive. It's not like watching Polygon Pictures or something, where Knights of Sidonia is saved by its SF setting because you've mistaken its humans for plastic aliens.
You don't need to care about 1990s video games to enjoy this show. I was never a hardcore gamer, although I did at least recognise a lot of what was here. (Individual games and their characters could probably get more famous in those days, with fewer games, far less fragmentation and a higher public profile with cabinets and arcades everywhere.) I admire this show's passion for and expertise in its subject matter, but much more important are the characters. Admittedly they can be brats in the early episodes, especially Haruo. He's still an appalling ego monster as late as ep.5. (Hidaka bringing him a gaming magazine and some Valentine's chocolates is... oh dear. It's funny, but good grief.) By the time I reached ep.15, though, I loved them all.