Super Hexagon
Image: Terry Cavanagh

Irrespective of your opinion on the merits (or otherwise) of smartphone games, there's no denying that the market for them is utterly huge – and sometimes, there are games on phones which are so compelling that prior prejudices should quickly be forgotten, lest you miss out on a classic slice of interactive entertainment history.

It might seem odd to say this, but Super Hexagon is a part of that history, because it turned 10 years old last year. Its origins can be found in Hexagon, which was produced during the twelve-hour IGF Pirate Kart game jam in early 2012 by Irish video game designer Terry Cavanagh, the brains behind VVVVVV and Dicey Dungeons. Hexagon, however, was borne out of the desire to fly against convention, even in the chaotically productive environment of a game jam.

"The Pirate Kart jams were amazing," Cavanagh tells us today. "The goal was to make as many games as possible and put them all together, which I saw as a kind of protest against the IGF's narrow view about what was important and notable in indie games. Quantity over quality, as many weird ideas and fragments of individuality as possible. In the end, I only made one game for this jam, Hexagon. Which is very much against the spirit of the thing, really, but I'm pretty happy with how it turned out."

Hexagon would lay the foundations for something that has had surprising longevity, and we owe it to that Pirate Kart jam. "Some local game developers and I organised a get-together where I lived at the time, and a bunch of us hung out in a local cafe and tried to make things for the jam," Cavanagh continues. "I don't remember the theme, but Hexagon was the result of the first 'three-hour jam' of the day. After the time was up, we were supposed to just upload it and move on to the next game... but I wanted to work on Hexagon for a bit longer! So I did that instead. I remember feeling kinda guilty about it, like I spent the whole day just making this one game when I could have been making three. I wish I was still this productive!"

Super Hexagon
Image: Terry Cavanagh

Hexagon clearly made an impact, and rather than discard the idea, Cavanagh began to refine it beyond the event. "I was really proud of Hexagon, but, you know, it was just this throwaway one-day game. Over the next few months, I found myself thinking a lot about why I worked like that, why I would take a promising game and move on from it after just one day. I kept thinking about Hexagon, [and] what it might look like if I took that small idea and took the time to explore it properly. I loved the idea of diving into this game in particular because I loved the prototype – it was so simple, and pure – like, it's something you could have made in the '80s. I became really obsessed with it."

Hexagon became Super Hexagon, and Cavanagh feels that fine-tuning the game's challenge was the hardest task he faced during its development. "When I started working on it, I was a fairly average action game player. As time went on, I got better and better at the game, as I was making it. It was a feedback loop – the harder sections of the game are tuned to my growing reflexes, with the last level pushing against my own outer limits. I'm incredibly proud of the game's pacing, as a result – that's a trick I can never repeat."

One of Super Hexagon's trademarks is its strikingly simplistic presentation style, which gives the game a solid visual identity which is instantly recognisable – in very much the same way you can always spot someone playing a game of Tetris. This was very much a result of the environment in which the game was conceived, according to Cavanagh. "In the jam, I started out trying to do vector graphics, which just seemed like an obvious way to express the idea – using filled polygons instead was kind of a happy accident. One of the first things I did, when I started expanding on the jam game, was to try making more complicated visuals – using shading and 3D effects – but I ended up taking most of that out, and just focused on the colours instead. There are still some 3D effects in Super Hexagon, but they're mostly pretty subtle. I couldn't be happier with how it ended up looking."

It would be remiss to discuss the creation and impact of Super Hexagon without also touching upon the game's amazing sound design. From Chipzel's driving, urgent soundtrack to Jenn Frank's strident narration – which practically forces the player to keep going after repeated failures – this is a game that is as confident in sonic terms as it is in its bold visuals.

"I just asked on Twitter if anybody wanted to do a quick voiceover for my jam game, and Jenn responded," explains Cavanagh when asked about the all-important voice of Super Hexagon. "Jenn's voice is intrinsically linked to the game for me now, I can't imagine it without it." For the music, Cavanagh explains that he happened upon the chiptune artist Chipzel – who is also Irish – quite by accident.

"I saw Chipzel on a Bytejacker documentary about chiptune, heard her Derry accent, and discovered her music from there! There wasn't really much of an indie games scene in Ireland back in 2012, which is why I eventually moved to the UK. I had a bunch of her songs downloaded from an old, now-defunct chiptune site, I picked one that I liked for the jam game (Courtesy), and it went from there. For Super Hexagon, I got in touch early in the process, told her what I was trying to make, and asked if I could use some of her other songs! I basically had those three tracks, Courtesy, Otis and Focus, playing on a loop for months while I was working on the game. They've seeped into its DNA."

What has made Super Hexagon's subsequent popularity all the more surprising is that it's quite a brutal experience, especially for casual players and newcomers. This is a trait that is shared with VVVVVV, another of Cavanagh's creations, and he admits that he initially felt it would prevent the game from reaching a wide audience. "Super Hexagon's success came as a bit of a shock – I made this game expecting it to be a kind of weird niche thing, that maybe a handful of people would really get into. I think a big part of it is just that a lot of people underestimate the level of challenge that players are up for. Casual players don't like to be frustrated, sure – but that's very different from not liking a challenge. Super Hexagon is accessible and fast, and conceptually simple, and I think that's why it found a casual audience that people might not have expected it to."

In the years that have followed its release, some critics have tried to look for deeper messages in Super Hexagon's constantly rotating world, even going as far as to say that, like so many other video games, it is subconsciously about death. Cavanagh isn't so sure. "Ahh, I don't know, that's complicated. I think of Super Hexagon as its own little self-contained universe, which begins and ends. And I think of it as being about how we perceive the world, but I don't think I can articulate very well exactly what the game means to me, beyond that."

Looking back on the game now, 10 years after it was created, Cavanagh admits he is somewhat taken aback by the game's lasting legacy. "I'm proud of it," he says. "I never expected it to have the kind of impact it's had – it's a game I made for me, tuned to myself, that I didn't really expect anyone else to 'get'. I wanted to make something that you could kind of obsess over, and master. I'm eternally grateful that it found its audience."