Super Hexagon Review

I can think of no more fitting game for a sixth review than Super Hexagon. This was developed by Terry Cavanagh, who, if Shinji Mikami has truly retired, probably stands as my favorite active game designer. He might only have three relevant games, and one of those (Don’t Look Back) might be pretty bad, but I’ve gotten more enjoyment from VVVVVV and Super Hexagon than I have from most game consoles’ entire libraries. I still hold that VVVVVV is a masterpiece, and, in its own minimalist, addicting-as-amphetamine logic, the same might just be said of Super Hexagon.

super hexagon review


Part 1: Why Being Cavanaggesque is Striking

You need to understand Terry Cavanagh’s approach to game design. It’s important to me that you do. It doesn’t matter if you plan to go into game design some day or if your grandson once managed to convince you to try out Bejeweled. It’s absolutely genius and instrumental in appreciating video games, design, the creative process, innovation, ingenuity, etc., etc., etc.

There are two ways to keep your game’s mechanics interesting. The first is progressive design. This is adding a new mechanic to your game. When you’ve used your mechanics in every way you can think of, you have to add something new. Progressive design keeps things from getting stale. The second is emergent design. This is when you use two mechanics together to create something interesting. You can have conveyor belts and spike pits separately, but when you combine them, your game suddenly becomes more interesting. This extends the longevity of your mechanics. Of course, you can combine these two mechanics in a lot of different ways. You can have conveyor belts go two ways. You can have spike pits of varying lengths. You can have the distances between pits and belts vary. Theorizing every inventive way you can use a mechanic is key in game design. I like to use mechanical introduction as a blanket term for these two forms of design. I have no idea if this is what’s generally accepted, but I like the ring of it.

Introducing mechanics well is a matter of balancing progressive and emergent design. If you incorporate a new mechanic too soon, you run the risk of neglecting your other mechanics. If you barely do so at all, your game will get stale quickly. This is the balance that makes or breaks a game’s pacing and keeps players from getting bored. Without new mechanics, your game will never remain fun forever. This is why some people are so baffled about the popularity of Tetris. After you’ve seen the seven block formations the game offers, you’ve seen it all. The game can never surprise. This gets boring to some people. The inverse of this is Wario Ware, where a game never stops adding mechanics. Too much of this makes the game feel like a whirlwind. You need some quiet time to allow a player to appreciate the genius of your obstacles. You don’t want to give players who are enjoying a particular mechanic to get blue balls when you switch to something new. Every mechanic should feel fulfilled.

Both Tetris and Wario Ware, of course, have excuses for staying at their respective extremes. But those are the exceptions; most games we play aren’t outliers. Unfortunately, a lot of games struggle to find the exact balance between the two. Mega Man changes things up too often. Shadow Warrior doesn’t really do it enough. There aren’t enough games that actually focus on getting this quite right.. That’s why Super Mario Bros. 3 and Castlevania: Bloodlines and Super Meat Boy are masterworks. They know the exact moment a mechanic gets old, and they introduce something fresh just before players realize they’ve gotten sick of something. Then they let their new mechanics dance with their old ones. It’s a beautiful repertoire.

Nobody understands this balance better than Terry Cavanagh. I don’t actually know the process Terry Cavanagh uses to make his games, but I’ve reverse-engineered how I think he does it. If one fan’s speculation is anything to go by, this should be a step-by-step guide to designing like a Terry Cavanagh facsimile. You start with a mission statement. It can be anything. In VVVVVV, the center of the game was that you could switch gravity and walk on the ceiling. In Super Hexagon, the objective is Don’t Die.

don't die
See? Don’t Die. Did I lie?

The second step is to come up with every available mechanic you can use with that basic idea. This is important. The more interesting, fun-to-play mechanics you can present, the cleverer you are. Clever people make better games.

Let me give you an example of a game that fails at this miserably. Flappy Bird is a shallow game, and it’s no fun to play after three minutes. It might still be distracting or addicting, but it’s never satisfying or exciting. That’s because its only obstacle is pipes of varying heights. This gets boring fast. When you don’t do anything new with your mechanic, you’re rising to the same challenge over and over again. That gets tedious.

nothx

On the flip side, if you want a game that does a great job of this, check out Maverick Bird, a Flappy Bird fangame. Now, its concept is exactly the same as Flappy Bird‘s. You ascend awkwardly, and you have to avoid hitting anything. Otherwise, you crash, and you lose. The difference here is that things are constantly changing. There are diagonal shafts you need to ascend. There are sharp vertical edges. There are pillars, forks, crevasses. bits that require quick diving, bits that require precise taps, spikes, waves… inhale quite a bit, to say the least .These are all great. They all force you to play differently. They keep you on your toes. They force you to fully master the gameplay and stay able to react to all its possible situations. All this constant switch-up keeps things engaging and satisfying. It’s insanely cool to see something rise from the ashes of another game. This, I think, pretty distinctly shows how important introducing your mechanics well is.

Yeah, this is like a sixth of the game.
Yeah, this is like a sixth of the obstacles.

So, uh… who did you say made this game again?

FORETELLING

Oh.

So hopefully this gives you a pretty good understanding of the Cavanagh method.Now let’s try to use this system to try to re-invent the six-sided wheel. First, let’s pick its concept. Super Hexagon is a lot like similar orbit-the-circle twitchy games. You’ve probably played a free downloadable or a Flash game like it. As I type this, I realize that there isn’t an especially popular game of this sort; the best-known example of the type that I can think of is Kanye Zone

Remember this? Remember that week? No?
Remember this? Remember that week? Throwback? No?

So we’re a game about avoiding things. As an aesthetic choice, we’ll be minimalist, and themed around a shape. Shapes are cool. They keep things simple. The goal of the game is to avoid the sides of the shape as they close in on you. We know that players naturally tend toward the middle of the side, so we have to have an even number of sides. This way, players will have to instinctively move. In any other spot, they’d automatically move whichever distance is shorter to an opening. If they’re directly opposite an opening, they have to fight the instinct to analyze which side is faster and just go. Four sides is too few. Eight is too many. Hexagon it is.

Most people aren’t clever enough to list many arrangements for straight lines – but, then again, most people aren’t Terry Cavanagh. The concept of the game might be as simple as moving clockwise and counter-clockwise, but the catalog of mechanics is so fully-fleshed that the game still feels complex. Let me repeat: in a game that can really only impede you in one way – forcing you to start over – the game still manages to present a lush array of interesting challenges to the player. Obviously, the game doesn’t block single sides. That gives the player a five-in-six chance of surviving. Instead, the game almost always blocks at least half the sides of the hexagon off. This means a player always have to move their triangle exactly right. Even a slight miscalculation can force a reset round.

Trust me, this is harder than it looks.
Trust me, this is harder than it looks.

Impressively, this is merely scratching the surface. Every round of Hexagon begins with a few simple lines to avoid. At around the eight second mark, a more elaborate obstacle appears. On the first level, this can come in several flavors. There are spirals that only require circling in one direction. There are barrages of alternating side blocks that make you zigzag back and forth. Terry Cavanagh called these segments “gauntlets,” and I think that’s a pretty good term for it.

Experiencing a gauntlet for the first time is an incredible experience. Novices at Hexagon invariably do terrible. It usually takes about an hour just to last ten seconds to get to a gauntlet. Suddenly switching gears from the basics to a more intense challenge is stressing to the player. It’s ruthless, and, like the feeling of a fine, warm mist of your skull melting off, it’s exhilarating in the most masochistic way.

This has the added benefit of separating the men from the boys. You never know what the next gauntlet you’ll encounter will be. Some are harder than others. Holding one direction for three seconds, i. e., is comparatively easier than rapidly and accurately flip-flopping between two sides. Furthermore,in any given level, the different gauntlets all test a variety of your skills. All of this is to say that the slough of gauntlets obligates players to get good at all facets of the game to advance. You can hope to get lucky, of course, and hope the game generates a few of the easier gauntlets, but that strategy isn’t conducive to long-term advancement.

This approach also excels because it means the game will never get old. A player will never know what will come next, and he or she will never encounter the same series of challenges more than once. At the same time, the game throws so many walls at the player so rapidly that it’s impossible to call the game “unfair.” It would be impossible to get a remarkably high score in Hexagon on luck alone. This also creates some intricate core loops. For players to regularly last long in Hexagon, they must be good at everything the game can possibly throw at them. When a player struggles to advance, he or she must note their weaknesses and improve on that front. This keeps Hexagon endlessly entertaining and forces players to always improve.

Once a player gets good enough to survive a few gauntlets and last into the thirty second range, he or she is greeted with more cleverness. On the first level, for example, the stage begins to remove sides temporarily. This almost seems to speed your movement up while slowing the level’s movement down. It’s a difficult feeling to articulate, but the game handles differently in these sections. This moment is small, but it comes completely out of nowhere. It’s pretty damn insulting when it seems like you’re locked in a pentagon only to have in open without warning, so it adds a little humor to the game, too.

This wondrous sense of discovery continues further into later levels of the game. For the sake of leaving a few surprises, I won’t detail exactly all that’s to come in later levels of the game. What I will say is that every level of the game adds new types of gauntlets, and they each change the gameplay just enough to give it zeal.

superb hexagon

Hexagon is a brilliant example of how smartly revealing more of yourself to the player can work. When you understand just when the player thinks you’ve run out of ideas, and when you blow their mind when you reveal that you had huge ideas they hadn’t even considered, you’ve made something extraordinary. What’s even more amazing is that this game manages to work its high difficulty and Game Over density into its pacing. Cavanagh understood the approximate number of times a player would disgrace his or her family before making it far enough to deserve more of the game. From within the confines of a level and with consideration to the context of a player’s session, the game manages to progress at just the right moment. Stuff like this should be quintessential to games, and yet a lot of times it’s completely thrown out the window. Even great games disregard it sometimes. This game proves why this approach to design should be universal to video games. It’s in this way that Hexagon thoroughly demonstrates why it earns the “Super” in its name. Terry Cavanagh, I salute you.

Now wait a second. He's a ginger? I take it all back. Take your mutations out of the gene pool, freak.
Now wait a second. He’s a ginger? I take it all back. Take your mutations out of the gene pool, freask, and maybe leave your island long enough to stop your inbreeding.

Part 2: Addiction and Rhythm

Yeah, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah, all the blabbering about how well a game is designed doesn’t make it fun to play. I get it. Really, I played Papers, Please. I get all this. Rest assured, Super Hexagon is the kind of game you’ll accidentally click on, start up, help yourself to a round, and correlate to the mysterious advancement of the hour hand. This might seem unlikely, given how simple the game appears. But, at the time of writing, I’ve only owned this game for about three months and have already lost all hope of beating my addiction. Protip: don’t leave this game running and leave if you intend to come back to it later and do something productive. It just won’t happen.

So what makes Super Hexagon so addicting? Lots of things. It’s a really easy game to fall into. You can see it in your peripheral vision for the first time out of the corner of your eye and immediately get how to play. Coincidentally, it’s a game that looks fun to play. I can’t help but have suspect that’s why most people wind up buying the thing. This is also one of those games that’s easy to sit back and play for hours on end. You can play it with one hand, if you’re on the PC at least, and that gives you time to do plenty of free time to do things with the other one.

What did you think I meant? You're a knit- I mean, NITwit.
What did you think I meant? You’re a knit- I mean, NITwit.

Super Hexagon has surprisingly good game feel, for something about moving a tiny shape around another shape. This could be the super-springy mouse I got right before I bought the game talking, but I love the feeling of this game in my hand(s). Even on mobile, it feels great watching your little triangle zip around the hexagon. I love the small blur effect the game gives the movement. You can never be too sure of where you’re about to land in Super Hexagon. At first, your movement will be so sensitive that you’ll keep overshooting your position. Just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of things, you’ll start to undershoot things. It’s very slightly awkward, which can and will screw your entire mojo.

The game can also be enjoyed forever. Using time as a score system is simple, but it works. I can’t imagine a better way to quantify a player’s success at the game. Online leaderboards help. When you’re not trying to best yourself at Super Hexagon, you’ll be trying to stomp your friends at the game. You’ll fail, though. I’m at the top of all mine. I’m a pro.

NONE SHALL BURGLE MY CROWN.
NONE SHALL BURGLE MY CROWN. (I like how the leaderboard literally tells you “Get friends, loser.” At least it gets me.)

This is like junk food in video game food. It isn’t taxing, and you could probably do something more beneficial than play it, but it’s just too enjoyable to rot away your brain playing something so compelling and base. When you scrape past your records with a ballsy dodge, you get the same rush as when you make that one tricky jump in BIT.TRIP Runner or execute a n ingenious kill in Hotline Miami. There should be PSAs warning people to play less Super Hexagon. I guess the biggest complaint you can make with this game is that it’s bad for your health.

I’m also reminded of both those games because the music adds quite a bit to the experience. It lulls you into a trance that you never want to wake up from. Once you start playing, for a while, you’ll never want to play anything else. There’s a certain pulsating rhythm to these games not unlike the percussion of their musical scores, and the combination of the two sort of puts you under. You can just get buried underneath the intensity of these games’ difficulty and presentation. They’re as much crazy emotional experiences as they are solid games. I’m kind of torn between calling these potato chip games or crack cocaine games, but I guess it doesn’t matter. Thinking about stuff like that is too hard when I play Hexagon sooner the faster I wrap it up.


Part 3: Substance

OK, so, you’re probably looking at these .gifs and thinking to yourself: “that looks absolutely insane.” In part, that’s because the game is, but it’s more accessible than you’d expect. A lot of the reason people talk about how impossible this game is in their heads.

The challenge of Super Hexagon might be unforgiving, but a lot of it is willing to lend you a hand. Menus, for one thing, are as streamlined as possible. You’re allowed to restart even before the game so much as tells you your score, if you’re quick enough with your clicks. You can cut all the crap if you want. As a plus, the level select looks pretty baller. Controlling everything is effective as well. Everything is demonstrated to you in the menus alone. You left click to move left, and you right click to move right. I know it boggles the mind that someone would have implemented such a daring control scheme, but it works. The only thing that requires you move outside of the mouse buttons to access are online high scores, and who needs those anyway?

*soft cries from a disregarded corner*
*soft crying*

To assure yourself that those are the game’s controls, you’re given two seconds to familiarize yourself with them before the action starts. Then, you’re immediately thrown into the seventh circle of bullet hell. (Or is it straight line hell? Whatever.) I know this game probably looks like something you’d use to check an astronauts’ gag reflexes, but let me guarantee that the game is surprisingly easy-to-follow once you get the hang of it. The key thing is getting a hold of its rhythm. You can’t focus on the stage itself for bearing; you need to watch your character. Even that’s disorienting, though. The entire level moves on its own, and it takes you with it even when you don’t click anything. This is a pretty subtle effect, and it’s used really well. It gives the incentive of “don’t consider vomiting” to moving constantly. It leaves the game feeling perpetual and dynamic. The machinations of the level also mean that your perception further into the level varies. This gives some moments when you’re given less time to react to incoming walls more intensity.

That isn’t to suggest that you don’t always have time to react to what’s incoming, though. You always have plenty of time, since so much of it can fit on the screen at a given time. The trouble is that there’s so much that it’s hard to focus on all of it at once. Getting good at Super Hexagon requires you to be cognizant of both your current predicament and predicaments as yet unknown. You’re never blindsided in Super Hexagon, and if you are, it’s because you weren’t good enough at the game to deal with the sensory overload. Everything feels like your fault, so you never get frustrated with it. You get mad at yourself, motivate yourself to do better, and start another round.

I like how Cavanagh’s sense of humor remains present in this game. That’s the thing about Maverick Bird. It kind of feels soulless compared to VVVVVV. Super Hexagon falls somewhere in between those two games. I love the names of the difficulty levels, the way your progression through the level is labelled, and the branding of this game in general. Being hexagonal doesn’t actually add anything to this game, but it’s an important detail that gives it an identity. After all, “Rotate around a Central Object while Avoiding Incoming Death Conditions” doesn’t have the same ring as “Super Hexagon.” A lesser title might not concern itself with coming up with some characteristic.

All in all Super Hexagon might appear simple, but has so much depth to it. Every stratum of this game has fossils of Terry Cavanagh’s ingenuity and personality. You can drill into the core of Super Hexagon and still find bits and pieces of brilliance. If every game were half as good, there’d be peace on Earth, I swear.

pretty cool hexagon


Part 4: Style

There’s a lot of moaning about how games don’t need pretty graphics or glossy textures to be good. The thinking is that the bigger reviewers – IGN, Gamespot, and so forth – give higher review scores to better-looking games. That’s just plain dumb to suggest. IGN isn’t so daft as to look at which games have higher-quality appearances. They look at which ones need more A’s to label their blockbuster status.

Oh, baby, a triple!
Oh, baby, a triple!

Obviously, the graphics of a game aren’t a primary concern. If your meat isn’t good, then it doesn’t matter how nicely you dressed up your platter. But… which of these would you rather eat?

steak

Do people outside of Pennsylvania even know what this is? Because you REALLY don't want to.
No, I’m not letting how vile Scrapple is go.

Exactly.While it might not be a major concern, the way a game looks and sounds can add so much. I especially love how some of these same people berate people who so much as mention the graphics in a game, yet turn around to laud a game’s music or voice acting. You realize that that’s as superficial a concern as visual design, yes? Hell, I’d argue that visual design is more invasive. You can mute music, but you can’t make visual design less ugly.

*COUGH HACK COUGH* OH GOD THAT'S MY LUNG.
*COUGH HACK COUGH* OH GOD THAT’S MY LUNG.

I’m blathering on about this because I know that a strong presentation can really hammer a game’s emotional impact home. Super Hexagon understands this completely. This game has one of the most intense presentations I’ve ever seen. Visually, the game is a borderline epileptic assault of strobing colors and crisp angles. Just as the gameplay is unforgiving and dichotomous, the game’s art is decisive and sharp enough to cut yourself on.

hexagon another

I also like all the little pulsating effects the game does. They not only add to the game’s EXTREME attitude. They add to the game’s otherworldly feel. Between its minimalist abstraction, violent machinations, and high speed, Super Hexagon is absolutely exhilarating. It’s not liberating in a spiritual sense, but more like the rush of playing an intense round of Canabalt.

This game’s soundtrack is only twelve minutes long and comprises just three songs, but oh my god, does it make up for it in quality. This might be one of my favorite game soundtracks ever. It’s only fitting that a intense, inhuman game has a fast, computerized soundtrack. And it’s not on the offensive nonstop, either. It’s the kind of music that knows exactly when to stop and when to start, and manages to get your toes tapping and your blood pressure dangerously raised. It doesn’t cheat its way to this with a blaring presence or constant bombast or carotid blockages. It’s all through sheer masterful composition. I especially like how the music stops and starts whenever you die. It’s like the game is punishing you for dying with a momentary lapse of auditory bliss. Any Pantera fan can break out an electric guitar and quickly strum it for ten minutes, but they’ll never have the dexterity to do something that sounds this good.

My musically-inclined friend tells me the songs do some crazy stuff. For instance, there’s a part where the components of the song are actually played backwards, creating a distorted effect that makes it distinct from the bassline and creates a unique “wub” sound. That’s fucking amazing. The lady who composed this, Chipzel, has also done some other cool things. She actually samples Game Boys to generate her songs. Check her out. It’s fantastical. What makes this game really phenomenal is how everything I just talked about comes together. The amazing soundtrack and abrasive visuals set the scene. The gameplay’s difficulty and fast pace pull the strings. The incredible mechanical implementation give you jolts of renewed interest whenever things start to get a little stale. Finally, the game’s addictive fun take you by the balls and make sure you’re going to be playing for a while. It’s a wonderful cycle that other games wish they could emulate successfully.


Part 5: A Considerable Number, though Not All of, the Small Things

The thing about reviewing a game as simple as Super Hexagon is that any problems you encounter stick out. Even tiny issues glare, and so if it sounds like I’m nitpicking more than usual here, it’s only because these problems hold greater weight for a bite-sized game.

There’s this disembodied female announcer who says only a handful of things in the entire game who really pestles my mortar. Every time you die, she says “game over,” and every time you start up again, she says “begin.” It’s distracting. There’s something about sensuality that turns me right off. Simply stopping the music and restarting it is a satisfying enough effect. It’s almost condescending having to be told that you’re starting and stopping again. Adding a distinctly human element to the audio breaks the immersion from the distorted, abstract geometry of the game and aggressive electronic music.

As much as I love the huge pool of mechanics this game has, it isn’t infinite. You’re prone to seeing an identical section over and over again. The double-edged sword of going for something trying to be so varied is that, when you run out of variety, a player can’t help but be disappointed. I’m not smart enough to come up with an actual solution to this problem. I’m just pointing out that it exists, and I wish it didn’t have to.

I should probably address the issue of length here. This game has five levels, all of which can be beaten in under two minutes. That’s short. The thing is, this game is difficult enough that you pretty much have to play for twenty hours just to get past level 2. Persistence really is your best friend here. There might not technically be a lot of content here, which can be a turn-off, but you’re probably going to get a lot more play time out of this game than you will most 60-dollar titles. As far as I’m concerned there’s no issue here.

When you beat your previous high score, Sensual Voice Lady says “excellent.” This is an obvious missed opportunity to combine the words “hexagon” and “excellent.” I’m disgusted by Terry Cavanagh and shall be boycotting all his games until this injustice is righted.

Frankly, the “end” of this game is stupid. It’s cute that everything changes, sure, but that’s only a temporary effect. Afterward, it’s just kind of annoying. I’m not good enough at this game to survive at the end longer then three seconds, but I’ve seen videos of people who are actually good at this game, and it’s really boring really fast. Visually, things are toned down, which makes the game less exciting, and the soundtrack… seriously? Are those ocean noises? Is that what you think worked about the rest of the soundtrack? I know this is basically here as a joke, but there’s no reason to put on a sleeping tape.

I praised the twirly-whirring this game does before, but I have to admit it’s disorienting at times. If you have motion sickness, there’s a chance this could drive you insane. Sometimes, the game will also go through a really tight spiral. This looks really stylish, sure, but it also makes it almost entirely impossible to see where you are in relation to oncoming obstacles. Adding flair should never interfere with gameplay. It should complement it. This game would’ve looked fantastic even without these riffs.


Part 6: Conclusions

…I have to say, it’s nice being able to have a list of problems with a game that’s so short. That was like, what, five teensy issues? Half of which were, like, half-complaints? This has got to be some kind of personal record.

I don’t think you should go out and buy Super Hexagon. Instead, I think you should completely reject everything I’ve said here. Let the flood of rave reviews this game has gotten wash over you. Bombard yourself with recommendations from friends and people you respect. Do all of this with the most cynical attitude you can have. Then, when you have an extra dollar in your Steam account, and the stars align so that the game goes on sale at the right moment, buy it. Go into it with the mindset of “this game can’t possibly be as good as people say it is. I’ll show them!” Believe you me: the effect of how good this game is gets stronger when you have the lowest possible expectations. Then you can come crawling back here when you feel like an idiot for having not bought the game before. I have time. The only thing I have on my agenda anymore is playing more Hexagon. It’s cost me my education and my job. It’s totally worth it.


FINAL SCORE: 9.5/10

Call me a hex maniac, because this game hits on all sixes.


…Seriously, EDGE, this doesn’t even hold a candle to VVVVVV. Hexagon might be fantastic, but it’s not one of the best games ever.

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