Super Hexagon
Posted at 22:16 on 17th September 2012 - permalink

Terry Cavanagh recently released his first mobile game, Super Hexagon. The game is notable for (at least) two technical reasons – firstly it is a conversion and expansion of the game Hexagon which sprung almost fully formed from a game jam, and secondly as it’s an iOS game coded in Flash (something of a rarity).

Super Hexagon’s defining characteristic in press coverage is that it’s unforgivingly difficult. Super Hexagon is not actually a difficult game. It’s a normal game developed and balanced by a man with freakish, superhuman reflexes. For the remaining 99% of the population, it may as well be a slot machine. With extensive amounts of practice it is possible to get better at the game, but only within the hard limits set by biology and genetics.

The game has three gameplay modes, which in addition to being progressively faster, also focus on testing different abilities.

The easiest mode, Hexagon, is about reacting intuitively to the obstacles the game throws at you, as in a racing game (or the ‘escape from the Death Star’ sequence in various Star Wars licensed games). This mode is fun and exhilarating, and offers the chance for even players with average reflexes to tangibly improve with practice.

However after a few hours of play, patterns become apparent that impinge on the player’s enjoyment. Deaths cluster at the 25 and 40 second marks, points at which the game frequently changes up the pattern in such a way that the player has a split second to decide whether to move left or right with no chance to course correct.

Game over! (You are a gradually deteriorating biological machine.) Begin!

Unlike Bejeweled Blitz or Jetpack Joyride, it is too starkly obvious that a proportion of the rounds played come down to blind coin flips. I would hazard a guess that if the patterns weren’t composed in a random order each round, and the only variation was each was just given a 50% chance of being mirrored, most players’ statistics would remain pretty much the same as they are now.

The second slowest mode, Hexagoner, is less about reacting to patterns by thinking about space, and more about learning and executing (with an almost non-existent margin for error) the correct pattern of inputs to deal with each pattern on sight. It’s here that you learn to exploit the ability to ‘grind’ on the side edges of obstacles (only the front faces are lethal). Unfortunately, the fun is limited in this mode by the presence of patterns that demand counterintuitive inputs from the player. For a game that draws comparisons to Rez and Tempest, games about flow, this feels like an incongruously cheap trick.

The third mode is Hexagonest. Unless you have hummingbird DNA the only possible critique of Hexagonest is “Yeah whatever.”

It sounds like I have a huge downer on Super Hexagon. I honestly don’t, and have enjoyed the hours I’ve spent with it a great deal, stressful as they may be. But I worry that the focus by reviewers on its “purity” is getting in the way of it being critiqued in depth. Unlike with other narcotics, for games purity doesn’t correlate directly with quality.

In some games, removing everything extraneous results in shallowness. In some games, it’s not a case of how few components remain but how cleanly and sparely they’re packed together. There are even some games (made by Bethesda) where clutter, sprawl and inelegance ultimately don’t prevent a coherent and memorable game from breaking through.

Reviewers: It’s okay to say that you have reservations about a game even if it achieves what the creator set out to achieve. Developers don’t define how their work should be interpreted. At some time between the release of Doom 3 and Bioshock it seems that a lot of people forgot this.

Super Hexagon is a game almost purely based on manual dexterity. That’s dangerously close to being a sport. But unlike ‘e-sports’ like Quake 3 and Starcraft, there isn’t even room for players to express strategy or any kind of initiative. (The best shooting games aren’t tests to see who is quickest on the draw, they’re games of cat and mouse.) This doesn’t make the game any less valid, but there is a reason that the golden age for games based exclusively on twitch had their commercial heyday thirty years ago.

This is why I find proclamations that Super Hexagon is Terry Cavanagh’s masterpiece a bit much. This is what Terry can craft in a weekend. Games like VVVVVV, CatChat and Don’t Look Back show that he can provide entertainment for the rest of the brain and not just the parts concerned with motor function.

If you have normal reflexes, you should at least try playing Super Hexagon, but you will get more enjoyment (albeit perhaps not quite as much satisfaction) from Minotaur Rescue, Jetpack Joyride or (if you don’t mind the sub-par controls) Super Crate Box. If you have insane reflexes, like the dozen or so players out of several tens of thousands who as of this writing have clocked all six game modes, then… oh you’ve downloaded it already. Righto.

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