Six-Sided Sadism: Super Hexagon

You can click on images for even bigger hexagons.

When I started this blog over three years ago, I hadn’t intended to only write about PC games. I figured I’d throw a few board games in there, along with any other interesting games I came across. But PC games are what I spend most of my time playing, so I never got around to writing about anything else. It’s high time to break that trend. Recently I’ve been playing games on my phone a lot more often, so I figured I’d highlight the first game I ever bought for it: Super Hexagon by Terry Cavanagh.

It’s a little weird to write about Super Hexagon now, because it was released way back in 2012, and got a whole lot of press back then. But I didn’t actually finish it until this year. That means I’m in a position to write something less common: I can write about the long game.

But don’t worry, I’ll still cover the basics for you.

Terry Cavanagh must be a fan of the number six. His first hit game, VVVVVV, is the letter V six times, as its website title points out. It’s also excellent. It’s simple, extremely tough but perfectly fair, and has a fantastic chiptune soundtrack. Terry went on to create Hexagon, a free browser game starring everyone’s favorite six-sided polygon (brief aside: I was really proud when I thought up this post’s title, only to discover that the same phrase is used as one of the unlockable Kongregate badges for Hexagon. Curse you, Terry Cavanagh!). Terry then followed up with the beefed up commercial release (and his first mobile title), Super Hexagon.

Describing Super Hexagon in words is surprisingly difficult, given that when one plays it or sees it in motion it makes sense immediately. But this is a blog of words, so here goes: in Super Hexagon, the player controls a tiny triangle which can rotate around a hexagon in the center of the screen. There are only two buttons, which rotate the triangle clockwise or counterclockwise. At the edges of the screen, walls begin to appear, each lining up with one of the hexagon’s sides. These walls move inexorably inward towards the central hexagon, and the player must rotate the triangle such that it does not collide with any. The patterns formed by these wall segments soon create all manner of labyrinths from which escape is incredibly difficult. Just to make things harder, the whole screen rotates and pulses in time with another fantastic chiptune soundtrack (provided this time by Chipzel).

Cynical readers may have read my introduction to this post and protested that Super Hexagon is very much available on PC, so it doesn’t really count as a non-PC game. But I feel that it is, in many ways, the ideal game for mobile devices. It’s simple to control — just tap the left side of the screen to rotate in one direction, or the right side of the screen to rotate in the other — and it can be played in quick spurts. Because Super Hexagon is extremely, incredibly hard. Most attempts to play the game will end in a few seconds, and the goal of each difficulty level is to last a single minute. Waiting for the bus? Waiting for the bathroom? Friends or family taking too long to get ready? In line for something? If you have a minute, you have enough time to play Super Hexagon.

It is best if you have headphones, though, because the sound in Super Hexagon is fantastic. It’s not just the music, which smartly starts at different points in the track so players aren’t listening to the same 3 seconds over and over after losing repeatedly, but also the voiceover. When Jenn Frank’s voice commands “begin” as each attempt starts, it sounds an awful lot like the more appropriate “again”. Players will be restarting constantly, eager to try to last just a little longer this time, and since restarts are essentially instant, there’s no time wasted. Again. Again. A particularly good run may result in one of Jenn’s announcements of progress, as certain milestones are reached. “Line” at ten seconds. “Triangle” at twenty. Hearing these is an actual, genuine thrill, an acknowledgment of one’s incredible longevity, one’s defiance in the face of the game’s brutal difficulty. “Square”. You see where this is going.

It took me a long time to reach “hexagon”. In the beginning it seemed impossible. I could barely last a few seconds; everything was so fast, so crazy. But I was slowly getting better all the time. I was learning the patterns I would face, was learning how to enter the state of pure focus that I needed to succeed. It’s difficult to describe how compelling this process was; Super Hexagon is perfectly tuned such that I always believed I could do better. In the beginning it was just the hope that I could last a few more seconds, to hear Jenn Frank’s “excellent” denote that I’d passed my last high score. Once I’d reached “triangle” or “square”, I knew I could do it again, that this time I could make it a little farther. And eventually, I started to believe I could make it all thew way.

The time between “pentagon” and “hexagon” — a mere fifteen seconds — seemed an eternity. An eternity during which my heart raced, and I tried in vain to calm myself, to avoid losing my cool. Don’t screw up. Don’t screw up.

I screwed up, of course. Countless times. But eventually, one day, I made it. I won’t tell what happens at “hexagon”, because it wouldn’t sound nearly as momentous as it actually was for me (and besides, you can just find it on Youtube if you really care), but also because I don’t want to cheapen that for anyone else. The reward is in the achievement itself, but the game understands this and accentuates it perfectly. And, lest you worry, know that I was nowhere near being done with Super Hexagon. I had only completed the first and lowest difficulty level, aptly named Hexagon. I still had to conquer Hexagoner and Hexagonest, not to mention the three Hyper modes that are unlocked after defeating each of those.

My experience with Hexagoner was similar. Here there were new patterns to learn, and the little triangle rotates much faster, so I had to recalibrate the instincts I’d honed on the Hexagon level. But I improved, slowly, bit by bit, always sure that with one more try I could make it that extra second. And again, after countless attempts, countless failures, and a high score that painstakingly inched forward, I finally managed to last a whole minute. It didn’t feel like such an occasion this time; I knew what to expect, having completed the earlier level, and I was instead anxious and eager to try my hand at Hexagonest.

Hexagonest. Man.

On the Hexagonest level, the little triangle rotates so fast that it’s nearly impossible to control. Every moment is a knife edge, where holding a screen tap for a millisecond too long spells failure. I was failing in just a few seconds, no matter what I tried. My high scores were not improving. I could barely make “line”, and then only if I was lucky. For the first time since I’d started playing, I actually lost hope. There was no way I was ever going to get anywhere on Hexagonest; it’s just too fast. It was beyond me. I was defeated.

So I stopped playing. If I’d written this post a year ago, I would have said that this is where Super Hexagon’s difficulty curve finally breaks down, the moment where it simply becomes too hard. I would have gone on to recommend the game anyway, because there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had on the lower difficulty levels, but I would have warned readers that Hexagonest would defeat them, that it’s designed only for the most hardcore of players, for the elite. The rest of us must satisfy ourselves with the lower difficulty levels.

But I would have been wrong. After a months-long break from Super Hexagon I found myself dipping in again when I was done with the other games on my phone. I knew that the Hexagonest setting was essentially impossible, so I didn’t have any expectations of besting it. I was literally just passing the time, the few seconds or minutes of free time I’d have between other things. But, slowly — even more slowly than before — I realized that my high score was starting to increase. For the first time ever, I heard Jenn Frank say “square” while I was playing on the Hexagonest level. And, more slowly even than my crawling high score, my hope began to bloom again. I actually started to believe I might, one day, complete this.

Jenn Frank said “pentagon”. Those last fifteen seconds were probably the longest fifteen seconds of my life. In real time it took months to go from “pentagon” to “hexagon”, and this time, even though I knew what was coming, it was sweeter than ever (and I was pleasantly surprised to find something new at the end too).

This victory was the turning point. I would not doubt myself again. I tackled the Hyper modes, which are basically harder versions of the standard difficulty levels. The first two were amazingly easy now. Had I every really struggled with these? They were almost comically slow and serene compared to what I’d just endured. I conquered them in a matter of weeks. Before I knew it I was facing Hexagonest again, except even harder. But this time I knew I could do it. It took a long time, as I knew it would, but I played with a grim resolve and I watched my high score creep up with a sense of the inevitable. And inevitable it was. I finally saw the game’s true, magnificent ending as I sat on a bench in a mall.

I could keep playing Super Hexagon if I wanted to. There are always higher scores to be achieved, times stretching beyond sixty seconds and into the unknown. But there seems little point to that, now that I’ve conquered the challenge it set before me. The promise of a slightly higher score was merely a stepping stone. It was that seemingly impossible goal that really kept me coming back, even when I thought I was truly defeated. Super Hexagon has the same appeal as a super-hard platformer, or even a roguelike: players must learn its rules and how to face its challenges, must slowly learn to master it completely, if they hope to prevail. It’s remarkable: a simple game I played on my phone, with a goal of lasting one minute, that actually lasted years. And when I was done, after my elation began to fade, I realized I missed it. It left a hexagonal hole in my life that I haven’t been able to fill. Maybe I never will.

It was worth it.

I haven’t played many games on my phone, but Super Hexagon is definitely the best. It’s available on iOS, Android, Blackberry, and PC. Pro tip for those playing on a touchscreen: don’t think your thumbs will be dextrous enough for this game. Index fingers all the way.

Good luck.

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