After thousands of losses and months of play, I am just 17.87 seconds away from beating the final level of Super Hexagon. And when the clock ticks pasts 60:00, I will prize that moment as one of my greatest gaming achievements.
This is weird for me, because I’m a brain-games person, not a finger-games person. I like games that take forever to play and even longer to master. Games where you spend as much time learning how to play as you spend actually playing the damned thing.
Yet Super Hexagon, in which my all-time average round length is probably somewhere under ten seconds, is also one of my all-time favorite games. There’s a lot to learn from a game that can break my expectations of a genre, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how Super Hexagon makes me feel and why I play it.
It Feels Good to Know I’m Improving
Almost from session to session, I know I’m getting better at the game. This improvement might be incremental, but it’s there and it’s gratifying.
Super Hexagon’s game design maximizes this feeling in a couple of ways: it has a focused objective (survival over time), and you are given many (many, many, many) trials in which to improve.
Moreover, the game is awesomely efficient at bringing you back to the action. After you lose, a single tap anywhere on the screen takes you right back into the fray. A game isn’t menus. It’s a game. For small arcade-style games, it’s especially important to keep your player playing the game as much as possible. Super Hexagon nails this.
In a single session, you will play dozens and dozens of seconds-long rounds. All that focused feedback makes you hypersensitive to small improvements. It feels like a big deal when you pick up the game and find yourself consistently reaching ten seconds past yesterday’s performance.
To win, you must move precisely, navigating and switching between particular wall patterns. The walls you get aren’t completely random, but a series of wall patterns, and you start mastering them each in turn. You end up improving in phases, and noticeably so, as sections that once seemed impossible become trivially easy. It’s far more gratifying to know that you can “beat” this or that pattern, because you often can’t tell that your reaction times are getting better–that sort of thing sneaks up on you.
Super Hexagon’s modular level design gives you more chances to feel better about your performance in every session.
It Feels Good to Have a Goal
Months after its release, I still play Super Hexagon, an arcade game that technically never ends, because I have a goal: beat all six levels by surviving for sixty seconds in each.
Now, sixty seconds is just an arbitrary stopping point set by the game’s designers. But reaching that final sixty seconds is no mean feat, so it’s a goal that seems both worthwhile and attainable. The game keeps on going after that, but once I break past sixty seconds on Hexagonest Hyper Mode, personally, I’m done. I’m retiring until the sequel comes out. And I will be exceedingly happy.
It Feels Good to Stop Losing
This is my favorite part of Super Hexagon. You spend most of your time losing, but you get pretty zen about it. Losing happens in Super Hexagon, and it happens a lot. You know it and you expect it. But starting again is so, so easy. Each new round is enticingly full of potential, and the amount of energy you need to invest to try again is ridiculously low.
But the best part of frequent losing is that once you’re on a roll, you are on a fucking roll.
You might be stalling at a 10- to 15-second plateau, and then suddenly find your time shooting up past 20 seconds–25, 26, 27… And when you realize it, you get this kick of adrenaline because you have no idea how far you can go. Your movements are so correct and so masterful that you can’t believe it’s you doing what you’re doing. It’s like you’re a runner breaking away from the pack and pulling mysterious speed out of nowhere to finish way ahead of your competitors. It’s thrilling, and it washes away the frustration of your numerous previous failures. And it makes you want to play more.
IT FEELS GOOD, MAN
Super Hexagon deserves the praise it’s getting because it does what few games, brain-games or finger-games, do well: it streamlines an experience down to its very essentials and makes that experience worth more than the sum of its parts.