What is synthwave? If you’ve been on the internet, especially in the last ten years, your mind’s eye…and mind’s ear are probably already giving you some ideas.

Synthesized, electronic music which sounds like the nostalgia after the 1980s, neon purples and warm oranges tracing the contours of cityscapes, or depicting a sunset in cyberspace. You know what it’s like, right?

Now, how would you feel if you could also know how that feels? Well, you’re in luck, because synthwave as a musical and aesthetic direction also has wormed its way to video games in various various ways.

As synthwave is based in nostalgia after a certain vision of the eighties, games created in this spirit might, for example, actually look retro, despite modern gameplay design principles. Or they might just play it completely straight and put you on maps which look exactly like the visualisations for your favorite synthwave YT mixes, like the first game on our list of…

Synthwave Games
GameReleaseGenreDeveloper
Hotline Miami 2012-10-23 Adventure Dennaton Games
Hotline Miami 2 Wrong Number Digital Special Edition 2015-03-10 Adventure Dennaton Games
Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon 2013-05-01 Adventure Ubisoft Montreal
Trials Of The Blood Dragon 2016-06-13 Race Redlynx
Outdrive 2016-02-22 Indie D Ξ N V Ξ R
Katana Zero 2019-04-18 Indie Askiisoft
Furi 2016-07-05 Action & Shooter The Game Bakers
Inertial Drift 2020-09-11 Racing Level 91 Entertainment

Neon Drive

Release date:2016-05-12
Genre:Action & Shooter
Developer:Fraoula

Neon Drive looks and sounds precisely like what you’re probably already thinking when you see the word “synthwave”.

Electronic beats, neon color palettes, and a vague sense of futurism as envisioned by the 1980s cinema. This is the “Poster Image of Synth: The Game”. It’s also a very fun and pleasant rhythm-like game asking you to keep a vehicle going across vibrant locations.

For a game with such a simple premise, Neon Drive offers diverse experiences, with different maps, vehicles, and even perspectives. Every time, however, the task is the same: avoid obstacles and keep going as long as you can. All set to the electronic tunes exemplifying the synthwave aesthetic. It looks amazing, sounds great, and despite the simple gameplay, it has a few tricks and challenges.

Key features
  • An excellent synthwave arcade game
  • Multiple maps with very different styles
  • Excellent original soundtrack
  • It takes great reflexes to keep a map going for a long time

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

Release date:2013-05-01
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Ubisoft Montreal

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a weaponized synthwave. It has every bit the aesthetic flair, with electric colors and retro-futuristic vibe, and it slaps all of this onto a loving pastiche/tribute to the dorkiest corners of 80s action cinema.

It even stars Michael Biehn (of Terminator’s Kyle Reese fame) as the protagonist called, we kid you not, Rex “Power” Colt. It’s wonderfully ridiculous.

Between the purposefully silly synth-punk trappings it’s also a very competent first-person perspective action game built on the basis of the action classic Far Cry 3 . In addition to the explosive gunplay it’s also quite comfortable with stealth and sabotage, including baiting the titular laser-powered monsters to attack enemy outposts. Be careful: there will be many, many one-liners.

Key features
  • The synthwave aesthetic applied to an FPP action game
  • Open-world FPP with a neon-lit and laser-blasting setting
  • Inspired by the “direct-to-VHS” kind of 80s’ cinema
  • A standalone expansion for Far Cry 3

Hotline Miami

Release date:2012-10-23
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Dennaton Games

Neon Drive is a chill ride against synthwave-y backdrops. Blood Dragon is a modern tribute to the niche movies from era synth aims to emulate.

Hotline Miami goes in a different direction: it looks and sounds like something from the 80s, it even has the arcade trappings for extra effect, but it’s a tight, modern-to-the-core top-down shooter game with an extraordinary level of violence.

Hotline Miami is also nail-bitingly hard. Your job on each mission is to clear all enemies from the level, but you’re just as fragile as your targets, so you better plan ahead, and get yourself a weapon. However, planning can only get you so far: you have only a limited ability to see into any given room, so only your reflexes can save you from a surprise enemy.

Key features
  • Retro pixel-art aesthetic
  • High difficulty requires a lot of trial and error
  • Wearing different masks tweaks your abilities and access to gear
  • Great soundtrack

Furi

Release date:2016-07-05
Genre:Action & Shooter
Developer:The Game Bakers

We’re staying in the high-difficulty zone for good, but now instead of a top-down pixel-art murder sim, we’re dealing with a stylish 3D twin-stick action game.

Furi has all the aesthetic traits of a great synthwave-inspired game, complete with vivid neon colors and an electronic soundtrack, but the gameplay is a series of increasingly difficult boss fights testing the limits of your reflexes.

The plot involves the protagonist, known as The Stranger trying to escape his captivity in a prison which seems to have just him as the inmate. Each stage of the prison is protected by a different boss, and over time we learn more about what’s actually going on here. Unless you perish in the bullet hell fights and have to start over, slowly getting better and better.

Key features
  • Excellent soundtrack
  • Intense bullet-hell boss rush
  • A mix of melee and ranged combat
  • Branching endings

Katana ZERO

Release date:2019-04-18
Genre:Indie
Developer:Askiisoft

Katana ZERO is in a way a cyberpunk, side-scrolling, platforming cousin of Hotline Miami.

It’s also another game on the list which, despite the bright and colorful vistas, takes place in a fairly dark world. In this case: a dystopian city after a devastating war. You’re playing as a katana-wielding veteran who can’t remember his past, but, ironically, has limited precognition.

Like in Hotline Miami your job is to dispose of all enemies on the map, and everybody (except for bosses) dies after one hit. Your precog abilities grant you a bit of bullet time to make decisions, and each unsuccessful run is framed like a premonition of a future you should avoid. And all of that is supported by an electrifying synthwave soundtrack giving the game a proper vibe.

Key features
  • Tight 2D platforming
  • Old-school pixel art aesthetic
  • Lethal action: everybody dies after one hit
  • The kind of soundtrack you’d want to put on in the background on a loop

Ride the synthwave

This concludes our quick look at modern games dipping their toes into a nostalgia-filled synthwave aesthetic and music. Oddly enough, for such a relatively relaxing genre, most games here have very little chill, but that’s somehow still on-theme.

Hopefully, you’ve found the kind of synthesized challenge you’re interested in, or at least you’ve found something new to add to your synthwave music playlist.