Hyper Demon review – a playable migraine, in a good way

Compact and terrifying, this score attack shooter feels like it’s from the future.

Isaac Newton was once tricked into putting piping, or a large blunt sewing needle, behind his eye. Or exactly? (I think you would like to be exact on this.) “Between my eye and my bone as close to [the] behind my eye as I could. It’s a hell of a thing to do for yourself, but Newton was obsessed.

Newton was obsessed with phosphenes, the frantic displays of light that erupt when you press your palms over your eyes and disturb the optic nerve. The Light of Darkness: You can see why such an imbalance would have made Newton a little grumpy. But also the wonder: these passages in volutes, tunnels, checkerboards which seem to open between you and the world which surrounds you. Magic.

Would Isaac Newton have liked Hyper Demon? I will leave that to others to judge. But Hyper Demon certainly loves phosphenes. This blazingly fast micro-shooter coats his foes in the shimmering, strobe pinks and dirty golds the phosphenes love to trade. It wraps everything in a fish-eye lens, the nastiest of all lenses, just to give you that extra bit of feeling of being trapped deep in something, subcutaneous or far under the oceans. Horned skulls, praying hands, sparkling diamonds that shatter on impact. Forget Newton, Hyper Demon makes me realize how sad it is that Hieronymus Bosch never did a season for Juicy Couture.

Here is a trailer for Hyper Demon.

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

What’s different here? I’m tempted to say that Hyper Demon deepens things that were implicit in Devil Daggers and makes them explicit. Seems like the first step in design – I’m probably wrong – is to look at how well Devil Daggers played the game really well, and maybe, who knows, how really mindless players approached it, and see what opportunities there were – what just needed a little nudge.

hyper demon

The sound design is gorgeous and just as important as the visuals in guiding you through the action.

So, alongside the shiny lacquered phosphene that was applied to the irritating enemy polygons of the original game, Hyper Demon tells you a lot more about what you can do. Bunny Hops and Rocket Hops – ground fire powered jumps – are both lifts I think from Devil Daggers, but I can’t remember a skill where you can bounce your beam secondary weapon on the ground in order to lock enemies on rebound. The overhead dashboard? Mario’s mass? It may be in Devil Daggers! But now there is a tutorial mode so you can’t avoid it.

Oh yeah, and the score counts down when you’re not driving it, so I finish bad games with scores in the negative numbers. But that’s at the heart of the whole experience, and that’s probably the thing I haven’t clarified yet. Hyper Demon is fast – a spin can be, like, a quick GIF length when you’re just starting out: spawn, kill, die, all before your watch’s seconds hand has really moved (unless it’s is an automatic). And this speed, this succession of games that ended and returned to the leaderboard before I even noticed they had started, dragged me, in a few hours of anger, to understand what I think it’s really .

So it’s a shooter, but where its DNA really lies, I would say, is in something like Tony Hawk, 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 effortlessly? You know that feeling that every second you don’t score is time out, wasted and somehow hateful? You know that feeling that self-expression, stringing moves together, giving it your all for a shine, is the real way to play the game? Meet Tony Hawk and Hyper Demon. I complete a run of maybe two or three seconds and feel like I’ve started to get it right – that it’s really about stringing together a glorious combo and then pulling out.

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How awful.

And how do you do this combo? Understanding each enemy, understanding what to do with the praying hands and the diamond in it, how to use the diamonds whether to smash or throw them, how to make the crumbling skulls fly, how time your dodges just right, how to do all this in a landscape where memory meets improvisation. Eventually, you must also learn to read colors: translate the phosphenes! Some days, I think video games will never run out of new ideas.

Hyper Demon therefore offers very short games, but they leave you feeling like they contain decades of action, if only you could slow them down and play the game properly. It’s a small download, but out there in the cursed darkness it looks gloriously, horribly expansive. Those are old pleasures – shooting, dodging, scoring – but in its moments of near-chaos, its match lengths of a short smirk (at least a short smirk for me; I’m sure some players can string together for entire minutes), its mastery demands, it doesn’t just feel modern but like a game from the future. A gruesome future, sure, but at least the light displays will be pretty special.