As anyone who has ever fished around in the murky depths of mobile app stores in search for gaming knows, finding something worthwhile to play on your smartphone is surprisingly difficult. Most mobile games are absolute garbage, abusive attention traps designed around nickle-and-diming your money away with absurdly offensive microtransaction-based features. It is ironic then that the game I’m a about to talk about is both absurd and abusive, but at least it’s not trying to get to your wallet. No, Super Hexagon is after your sanity. It’s a game that bores its cruel barbed drill right into your cognitive center, forcing you to submit yourself to it’s peculiar brand of hypnotic masochism. Playing Super Hexagon is probably bad for you, but it’s also one of the best gaming experiences I’ve encountered on my Android phone. Keep reading.
Let’s start with a bit of retrospective. Back in the tender days of late 90’s and early 2000’s, mobile gaming on cellphones was synonymous with the legendary worm game on early Nokia cellphones. In hindsight, that pioneering game laid down the groundwork for what has been proven to be key design points for a successful mobile game. We play games on our cellphones while waiting for something else to happen, to feel engaged for a few moments that would otherwise be wasted in boredom. The classic worm game managed to fill this space by being short and simple, providing flexibility to fit a gaming session to those pesky 3-minute waits so often experienced in modern life. The game also features simple high-score based incentive combined with a steadily rising difficulty curve, which create both continuity between sessions and addictive qualities in the form of hunting for a new high score. The effectiveness of these qualities has been most recently demonstrated by Rovio’s Angry Birds franchise, which has quickly risen into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Just like Nokia’s worm game a decade ago, Angry Birds is the defining mobile game of the current generation. However, as a so-called core gamer, I feel dissatisfied with the inaccurate controls of the bird sling and the sluggish pace of the game. I require intensity and gripping pace to flush my junkie brains’ starved receptors with that sweet, sweet adrenaline. I need something more hardcore. Luckily, Super Hexagon delivers.
Created by Terry Cavanagh, Super Hexagon is based on an exceedingly simple premise stripped of all unnecessary context or explanation. You are controlling a small triangle, orbiting a hexagon in the middle of your vision. Your aim is to dodge incoming walls by moving the triangle either clockwise or counter-clockwise for as long as possible. This simple task is made more difficult by the fact that the whole play area is constantly spinning and throbbing and flashing in multitude of colors to the pulsing rhythm of the game’s excellent chiptune soundtrack. There is nothing more to it, nothing to distract you from this psychedelic geometric nightmare of an experience. Like in Cavanagh’s previous game VVVVVV, the key feature of Super Hexagon is it’s fine-tuned difficulty. If you are not familiar with VVVVVV, then let me enlighten you: Super Hexagon is balls-breaking hard, and that’s just what makes it brilliant.
Difficulty of a game is always an interesting design challenge. Rovio approached the difficulty of Angry Birds from accessibility standpoint, and crafted a game that is just challenging enough to keep interest while being accessible to the large masses. Cavanagh’s approach is completely different; his games are experiments in the high end of difficulty. Super Hexagon is defined by it being almost unbearably hard, while never quite feeling unfair. This approach might alienate the most casual of players, but provides plenty of meat to sink your teeth in if you enjoy the challenge. The difficulty of the game makes it fast, brutal and unforgiving, but these features work brilliantly for its advantage as a mobile game. A session of Super Hexagon might take only a minute, but those 60 seconds are filled with surprising amount of pure gameplay. The game’s challenge is so straightforward and simple that the only variable is your own skill as a player. When you beat your previous time, the accomplishment you feel is the high of personal achievement, not satisfaction of overcoming the game’s features. Super Hexagon manages to mirror the compelling qualities of Nokia’s venerable worm game simply through the application of gameplay challenge.
It is also this challenge that makes the game so damn intense. I assume many of my readers are familiar with The Zone, also known as flow state in psychology. I am a big fan of games that allow me to succumb deeply to the zone. A personal favorite of mine is the excellent twin-stick shooter Waves, which lends itself beautifully to this submersion of consciousness. Maybe it is just me, but I enjoy merging my cognitive processes with the game mechanics, allowing me to escape from reality to the alien challenges of virtual space. Super Hexagon is similar to Waves in this matter, but with a crucial distinction. Super Hexagon doesn’t just allow you to merge yourself with it, it requires you to be in the zone from the very first second if you wish to prevail in it’s madly spinning maelstrom of colors and shapes. The game doesn’t offer you any choice in the matter, but instead forcibly turns your thoughts into a perverted machine for pattern-recognition and hand-eye coordination. It sucks you in and keeps you in its grip for a few moments, and then lets you go as you inevitably fail and crash into a wall. You blink and frown, look at the screen for just enough to realize you didn’t beat your previous time, and then tap with your finger to start a new game. Just one more game, you see, one more good game where you don’t do the stupid mistake you just did, just once more and you’ll surely unlock the next difficulty level. Super Hexagon is a drug, firing a scarily addictive cocktail of adrenaline and dopamine straight to your nervous system with each beat of its mesmerizing soundtrack.
Playing Super Hexagon is probably bad for you, but you should do it anyway, because I need more burnt-out Hexagon junkies around to make me feel better about myself. I hate you, Terry Cavanagh.