Terry Cavanagh’s latest, Super Hexagon for IOS, is a throbbing, pulsing, electro-psychedelic experiment in video game minimalism that calls to mind classic games like Tempest and Reactor. But it’s more elemental, evidencing a purity of design that isn’t common even among simplistic, retro indie games. Super Hexagon is not retro. You don’t get to this level of reductive, razor-thin design without having decades of antecedents to harrow away to get to the core of what video games are. Or what they should be.The concept is survival, the input is touching the screen to rotate a tiny triangle left and right around a central hexagon, and the gameplay is avoiding a never-ending stream of lines and polygons that form a spinning maze. Touch anything with the triangle and it’s over. There are no power-ups, unlockable abilities, or boss battles. Like many classic arcade games the challenge- and reward- comes from getting just a little further than you did the last time you played.
That last time might be two seconds. Or, you might have a victory run and make it 20 seconds, unlocking extra levels. It’s the kind of game where when you cross your previous survivability threshold, it suddenly feels like the stakes are astronomical. Your nerves sizzle and spark. It’s like the frisson of getting just a little further on a level of Super Ghouls & Ghosts and being terrified of death, resurrection, and starting from scratch.
You’ll hit the ten second mark and suddenly the game speeds up dramatically. Or maybe the randomly generated level will suddenly start spinning right while you’re turning left. You’ll get disoriented, at least until you accept the game’s invitation to tap a vein, feel its pulse, and tune into it at an almost psychic level. Connecting with the game is an essential skill, as is feeling the right timing for holding the movement buttons.
It’s a death of a thousand cuts. You may play it a hundred times today. Hitting the ten second intervals is a major victory. Adding one second to your best time is a minor one. Through it all, a female voice intones “again” every time you start again as if she were some kind of master and you the learning pupil.
And you will start again. Super Hexagon is ruthlessly addictive- at least in small doses, before the novelty wears out and frustration sets in due to some collision detection issues. You’ll also come to the realization that some games will be seconds longer simply because of the random nature of the maze- not because of your skill. It’s kind of disappointing, but over the course of longer games it all evens out. If you can develop the skill to play longer games, that is.
As great- and I do mean Great- as Super Hexagon is, it’s still just as ephemeral and of-the-moment as any other single mechanic IOS game. You’ll fall in love with it but it’s a fling, not a commitment. Will you play it in six months? Probably not. But you’ll remember it, if only for its difficult, skill-based gameplay and its devastingly great soundtrack that gives the game a relentless beat and measure that makes your iPhone feel like it’s crackling with living energy.