Hyper Demon review a playable migraine, in a good way

Isaac Newton was once moved to put a bodkin, or large, blunt sewing needle, behind his eye. Where exactly? (I feel you would want to be exact about this.) “Betwixt my eye and bone as neare to [the] backside of my eye as I could.” This is quite a thing to do to yourself, but Newton was fixated.

Newton was fixated with phosphenes, the frantic scattering light displays that erupt when you press your palms to your eyes and bother the optic nerve. Light from darkness: you can see why such an imbalance would have made Newton a bit grumpy. But also the wonder of it: these scrolling, tunneling, chequerboard passageways that seem to open up between you and the world around you. Magic.

Would Isaac Newton have liked Hyper Demon? I will leave this to others to judge. But Hyper Demon certainly loves phosphenes. This implausibly fast score-chasing micro-shooter coats its enemies in the shimmering, strobing pinks and dirty golds that phosphenes like to trade in. It wraps everything in a fish-eye lens, the queasiest of all lenses, just to give you that extra sense of being trapped deep within something, subdermal or far beneath the oceans. Horned skulls, praying hands, glittering diamonds that shatter on impact. Forget Newton, Hyper Demon makes me realise what a shame it is that Hieronymus Bosch never did a season for Juicy Couture.

There were warnings that such a game was coming. Devil Daggers, another score-chasing micro-shooter that tore up Steam a few years back is from the same developer and has much the same DNA. The dark arena from which medieval nightmares emerge, the deadly firepower located in your outstretched hand.

What’s different here? I’m tempted to say that Hyper Demon looks deeper at things that were implicit in Devil Daggers and makes them explicit. It feels like the first step in the design – I am probably wrong – is watching how really good Devil Daggers played the game, and maybe, who knows, how the really witless players approached it, and seeing what opportunities there were there – what just needed a little nudge.

So alongside the lacquered phosphene gloss that’s been applied to the itchy enemy polygons of the original game, Hyper Demon tells you about a lot more stuff that you can do. Bunny-hopping and rocket-jumps – jumps powered by firing at the ground – are both lifts, I think, from Devil Daggers, but I can’t remember a skill in which you can bounce your secondary weapon beam off the ground in order to lock-on to enemies on the rebound. The air dash? The Mario ground-pound? Maybe this is in Devil Daggers! But now there’s a tutorial mode so you can’t avoid it.

Oh yes, and the score counts down when you’re not driving it up, so I end bad games with scores in the minus figures. But this gets at the heart of the whole experience, and it’s probably the thing I haven’t made clear yet. Hyper Demon is fast – a round can be, like, GIF-length fast when you’re starting out: spawn, kill, die, all before the seconds hand of your watch has really moved (unless it’s an automatic). And this speed, this succession of games that were over and back to the leaderboard before I’d even noticed they had started, trained me, over a few angry hours, to understand what I think this really is.

So it’s a shooter, but where its DNA really lies, I’d argue, is in something like Tony Hawk, the skateboarding games. You know that feeling you get in skateboarding games that the opportunity to do something dazzling and score really, really big, is all around you, but it won’t come to you without effort? You know that feeling that every second where you’re not scoring is dead time, wasted and somehow hateful? You know that feeling that self-expression, chaining moves together, giving it everything for a burst, is the true way to play the game? This is Tony Hawk and Hyper Demon. I finish a run of maybe two or three seconds and feel like I started to get it right – that this really is about chaining together one glorious combo and then ducking out.

And how you do that combo? Understanding each enemy, understanding what to do with the praying hands and the diamond it contains, how to use the diamonds, whether to shatter them or fling them, how to kite the tumbling skulls, how to time your dodges just right, how to do all of this in a landscape where memory meets improvisation. Eventually you have to learn how to read the colours too: translating phosphenes! Some days I think video games will never run out of new ideas.

So Hyper Demon offers very short games, but they leave you with the sensation they contain decades of action, if only you could slow them down and read the game properly. It’s a tiny download, but out there in the cursed darkness it feels gloriously, horribly expansive. It’s old pleasures – shoot, dodge, score – but in its moments of near-chaos, its smirkingly short match-lengths (smirkingly short for me at least; I am sure some players can string it out for whole minutes), its demands of mastery, it feels not just modern but like a game from the future. A horrible future, sure, but at least the light displays will be pretty special.