words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by FarSpace Studios for PC, originally released in 2014.
The gameplay in Hyphen is built entirely around a spinning stick. Players must navigate various neon-lit obstacle courses with a stick that is constantly rotating, and touching the walls or any other obstacle means instant death. Since the player has no control over the speed of the stick’s rotation, he must instead wait for the perfect opportunity to dodge around moving objects and slip through tight spaces.

The only other notable entries in the sparsely-populated spinning stick subgenre is the Kururin series, but despite their similar gameplay, Hyphen offers a very different sort of experience. The Kururin series features a cutesy design with digital movement, a 3-hit health bar, static checkpoints, and (starting with Kururin Paradise) the ability to speed up the stick’s rotation. Hyphen, on the other hand, features a neon aesthetic, analogue movement, 1-hit kills with infinite lives, player-controlled checkpoints, and fixed rotation speed for the stick. This design makes Hyphen a more challenging and more frustrating experience, while also reducing the amount of time needed to return to a failed challenge.

Hyphen features no formal tutorial, but instead offers a few easy levels at the start of the game to get the player accustomed to the mechanics. The 36 levels are labeled as easy, normal, hard, very hard, and insane, and the player begins to encounter some very challenging situations after the first few levels.

Fortunately, each level grants the player a certain allotment of checkpoints, which he is free to drop anywhere he likes… even in places where he shouldn’t. Generally, you have enough checkpoints in stock to place one before or after each challenging sequence so that you don’t have to go back too far when you fail. Some early levels give the player three or four checkpoints, but that number quickly grows into the double digits with some of the longer and more challenging stages.

In the early going, most objects are static and simply require that the player wait until the stick is in the correct position before dashing (hyphening?) forward to squeeze through the opening. The fourth level introduces projectiles, including turrets that turn toward you and periodically spit out long slow-moving laser blasts. Eventually, you’ll face stationary turrets that light up when you get close to them and send triangular projectiles straight across the screen, as well as bubble turrets that send small projectiles wobbling slowly outward.

Another obstacle comes in the form of octagonal objects that spin when you get close to them, eventually exploding and sending out triangular projectiles in eight directions… even passing through walls. Often, these octagonal objects are placed as obstacles, preventing you from moving forward until they explode, or potentially acting as a trap in an enclosed area. In any case, they are activated by your proximity, and you have a long time to react before they explode. On the other hand, if you do manage to get killed further down the line, these objects will still explode, potentially killing you instantly when you respawn at your last dropped checkpoint.

Other obstacles come in the form of wide glowing beams that change color from green to red. While green, you may pass safely through, while touching the beam when it’s red will kill you. Also present are walls of teeth that slide open and clamp down, leaving you just enough time to move between them before they close.

Magnets make an appearance as well, offering a weak tug toward deadly walls, or repelling you from them. The analogue control makes these largely harmless, however, except in situations where they are mixed in with moving obstacles or spinning rooms. Similar to Gravitron (which also has a neon aesthetic), Hyphen features a number of challenges that center around large rotating rooms with designated safe areas. Players must slip into these rounded cutouts and move slowly along with the room to avoid touching the sides. Eventually, these rooms spin around to other openings where the player may continue his journey.

Unfortunately, these spinning rooms present another challenge, and that is the fact that they can change direction on a dime, without any advance indication given to the player. Essentially, the only way to learn of this devious trick is to experience it for yourself and get killed, and then retry the challenge and get ready to react. Because these large rooms spin slowly and can change direction multiple times, you are sometimes forced to ride these terrible carrousels of death for quite a long time before you can make your escape.

The most difficult part of the game is simply navigating the environments, which are populated with tight corridors and moving objects that offer very little margin for error. The stick turns red when the player is dangerously close to a wall (accompanied by controller vibration if you are using a supported device). Given the tight spaces and the narrow criteria required for setting it off, this warning usually means you have about a half a second to live.

It’s also worth noting that a number of the obstacles in the environment can spin as well. Since the player has no control over the rotation speed of the stick, he is often left sitting and waiting for a spinning object to get into just the right position in order to move forward. Also, when respawning, the stick’s position is reset, but the environment is persistent, so the stick’s position relative to moving objects may change upon respawn. In any case, the game’s design relishes in offering frustrating and difficult challenges to the player, and then further increases this frustration by forcing the player to wait and do nothing between attempts at a challenging sequence.

There are several pickups to be found in the environment, the most frequent of which are color-coded keys that disable laser beams of the same color and allow you to pass into new sections of the environment. Often, keys are found along a linear progression, making it clear how to proceed from one area to the next. In most cases where levels offer branching paths, these paths meet up again at some point.

However, there are numerous open exploration levels as well, with many taking as long as 10-15 minutes to complete. These levels offer very little direction to the player, often allowing him to move down an obstacle-laden path and into a dead end, only to force him to attempt a return trip, or commit suicide and revert back to a recent checkpoint.

A potential risk the player faces is that he will run out of checkpoints before reaching the end of the level, so labyrinthine paths that lead to no reward are doubly damaging in that players may waste checkpoints in their attempt to reach them, only to find that they have to go back the way they came.

Occasionally, the player will encounter a pickup that shrinks the stick. These powerups are always followed by a set of narrow paths that can only be navigated with the shorter stick, sometimes ending with another pickup that returns the stick to its original length. Also present are powerups that reverse the rotation of the stick, slowly bringing it to a halt and then moving it in a counterclockwise spin. Collecting another of these powerups has the reverse effect, and there are a few challenging areas where players must alter their spin direction multiple times in order to pass through.

A few areas provide switches that alter the environment, such as causing a circular room to shift 90 degrees, or causing impossibly fast-moving obstacles to slow down. However, these switches are also occasionally glitchy, especially when using them after respawning. Sometimes they will refuse to work, potentially trapping you in a room and requiring that you start the level from scratch to resolve the issue. Sometimes fast-moving objects don’t return to full speed on respawn, so using a switch will cause them to stop instead of just slowing down. In one instance, we found that a set of fast-moving bouncing balls had no collision detection assigned to them, so the player could freely mosey through the area unaffected by the obstacles without ever needing to use the switch.

At the end of each level, the player is ranked based on the speed in which he completed the level. A par time appears in the upper left corner of the screen throughout the level, letting the player know the goal time and also providing some idea as to how long the level is going to last. There is also a par for the number of checkpoints and deaths in each level. A 5-star ranking is awarded to players who beat the level quickly without dying and without dropping any checkpoints. Players may return to previously completed levels at any time to attempt a better ranking.

The game offers two unlockable minigames that become available when you find the associated unlock icons hidden within two of the levels in the main game. The first of these games is called Hot Floors, and it places the rotating stick in a room where sections of the ground light up with brown squares, and you must move away before these squares turn solid and cause the stick to explode. As you might expect, these squares appear more and more quickly as time goes on, making them harder to dodge and sometimes only offering a small safe area to escape them. However, the stick speed does not increase during these challenges, so eventually you will reach a point where you will not be able to reach the next safe area because it is physically impossible for you to get to it in the allotted time. At best, it offers a short distraction from the main game, but is it is not worth replaying once you get a halfway decent time.

The second minigame is called Cannon Dodge. Here, the stick is placed in an enclosed area while cannons slowly fade into view, turn their aim toward you, and fire. Each cannon fires three projectiles before disappearing, but the number of cannons simultaneously in play increases as time goes on, making it ever more difficult to dodge the mixture of moving laser blasts and stationary turrets. At the end of each attempt, the player is ranked on how long they lasted and how many cannons disappeared.

Hyphen was developed by FarSpace Studios, a UK-based studio founded by Marc McCann and Robert Blackburn. This was the studio’s first commercial release.