Here one second, hexagon the next.
Since I’ve started playing it, I’ve heard countless theories on how to best the endlessly twisting geometric minefield of Super Hexagon. Keep your eyes on the outer edges of the screen to stay ahead of incoming walls. Avoid staring at the rotating background. Make sure to stare at the rotating background. In truth, though, it’s all heresay. There’s only one thing you need to do for certain in this retro-tinged thunderdome. Only one strategy: avoid everything.
From independent developer and newly minted sadist Terry Cavanagh (VVVVVV) comes the gaming equivalent of those obscenely hot wings you get from the secret menu at the dive bar. You know…the ones you have to sign a waiver for. And your friends, they’re all saying, “seriously. Don’t get those wings. I heard they melted someone’s colon.” But you get them any way. You poor sap. And then, against all odds, as you crawl your way up from the fetal position on the bathroom floor, the first thing you can think is…wow, I could go for another one of those.
The first thing you’re told – in fact, the only thing you’re told – as you begin Super Hexagon is that you tap the right side of the screen to move your triangle to the right, and the left side to move it left. Then, unceremoniously and for the rest of the game, you’re on your own to survive an endless barrage of incoming lines and shapes as they close in around your titular hexagon. Armed with split-second reflexes, unwavering focus, and the occasional stretch of plum luck, it’s your job to keep your triangle out of harms way for as long as possible. Man…talk about your geometry wars.
There’s a lot of reminiscing about games that evoke the do or die coin-op glory days, but Cavanagh takes things a step further here, ratcheting up difficulty to a level that would have bankrupted unsuspecting arcade goers inside of five minutes. In fact, on your first few tries, don’t be surprised if you’re down and out inside of five seconds. The game’s backdrop, pulsating and spinning aggressively to a chiptune beat, seems to purposefully obscure your view of incoming obstacles, all of which reveal their exit points at the last possible moment. Need help? That’s what your dead simple controls were for.
The result is an experience caught perpetually somewhere between hypnotic and infuriating, which teaches you to appreciate all the “little wins” that occur as you game. What really takes Super Hexagon from a passing gaming vice to a perverse way of life, however, are the almost imperceptible masterstrokes in its design. The game gives you no time to dwell on your losses, and doesn’t much care about your victories either. The only acknowledgement of your existence is the game’s younger Glad0s entering to say “game over” as you suffer a loss and “begin” as dive right back in… something that happens in one tap of the screen. And besides running the game’s gauntlet, the only thing you can do when you tap the screen is try again. Both aurally and mechanically, the game doesn’t let you quit, and leaves little time for your adrenaline to do anything but flow.
Underlying the game’s little brushstrokes are broad ones that play just as big a part in the success of Cavanagh’s audacious concept. Rather than procedurally generate all incoming obstacles, the game’s tiers (named things like “point” and “triangle” after the the flow of attacking shapes) each seem to employ one of a couple frenetic patterns. And while you may not be able to memorize them with any success, the game’s ability to have you trying “just once more” for thirty minutes generates an almost kinaesthetic symbiosis…an understanding of what’s coming rhythmically trained into you at a level you can feel, but not quite perceive. Super Hexagon gets inside your gut and makes it ache for another round, for the surpassing of your previous time, and for an expertise you’re not quite sure you’ll ever attain…but need to.