Some games only need a single good idea to work. For example: Superhot, a punishing first-person shooter in which time only moves when you move. It's a single, good idea. And it works. Each of Superhot's 20-odd levels recreates an archetypal action-movie setpiece: The office raid, the drug deal gone wrong, the hallway brawl, the server-room shootout. One minute you'll be in Oldboy, the next minute The Matrix. From there you'll hop to The Raid 2 and then John Wick and then Hard Boiled and then [insert action movie here].
An army of faceless enemies waits in ambush, or maybe they jog into the room in waves, or maybe they creep up behind you. Most of them are armed with some sort of gun or other weapon, and a single hit from any of them will kill you.
Your substantial advantage is that if you stop moving, time slows to a crawl. If you don't walk, don't dodge and don't fire your weapon, the action will be just about frozen. Bullets edge toward you centimetre by centimetre; katana-wielding foes move like snails. You have time to plan, prioritise and then act.
Superhot's minimalist aesthetic mercilessly focuses your attention. Enemies are red, weapons are black and everything else is white or grey. There's no music, just a dull rushing tone along with the cracks and shatters of time-slowed violence. You may spend several minutes charting a route through the tougher levels, but an actual real-time replay takes only seconds. Boom, boom, boom. New level, new level, new level. Keep moving forward. Boom, boom.
Sub-rules emerge, each one stacking on the others to give the battleground an ever-more complex structure. Shotguns hold two bullets. Handguns usually hold three or four. Assault rifles shoot in four-bullet bursts. Melee weapons have a cooldown, but unarmed attacks don't. You can throw an empty gun or other object into an enemy, and they will drop whatever they're holding. Time it right and you can snatch their dropped weapon out of the air and resume firing. You can stand between two gun-wielding enemies and trick them into shooting each other.
Superhot modulates Hotline Miami's unforgiving, practice-makes-perfect room clearing with Max Payne's bullet-time, ending up in some uncharted middle ground that favours careful strategy over twitch reflexes. Your character's vulnerability means you'll have to plan each move very carefully, and the pause-act-pause-act rhythm begins to feel turn-based: I enter from the left, punch the guy with the shotgun, grab his gun and take out the guy on his right, duck behind the corner to dodge the shots from the machine-gun guy across the room, fire my second shotgun blast into the dude at the window, and then… hmm… OK, then what?
Each level alternates between demanding careful choreography and demanding quick thinking and improvisation. Some kills will cause emphatic text to blast across your screen. "ASKING FOR TROUBLE," the game announces after you pop an enemy's gourd from across the bar. You harshly exhale, pause, continue your killing spree.
Any time you complete a level, the words "Super HOT Super HOT" play over and over as you're treated to a full-speed replay of your exploits. What felt in the moment like an undersea dance routine becomes, at full speed, an amazing display of action-movie badassery. (You can even upload full-speed versions of your best performances to a website called "Killstagram.")
You fly into the room, a flurry of fists and bullets, headshotting one guy before throwing your weapon into another guy's face.
The game says: Super HOT. Super HOT. Super HOT.
You dodge a point-blank shot and grab a sword from a nearby corpse, sidestepping one more bullet to slice through your enemy.
The game says: Super HOT. Super HOT. Super HOT.
You leap from a skylight and throw a baseball bat into a guy's face, grabbing his weapon and clearing out the rest of the room.
The game says: SHUTTING DOWN THE OPERATION.
Then it says: Super HOT. Super HOT. Super HOT.
Superhot wraps itself in an intriguing, wry meta-layer: it's a game within a game, sometimes within a game. The menu is a mystery unto itself. It presents an old-school DOS-like operating system complete with garbled glitchy text, locked directory trees, buried freeware and ancient chat programs. It often plays icy dom to the player's sub, constantly taunting and poking you, stripping your control and berating you for not doing as you've been instructed. All the while the computer's noisy fan and old floppy drive whirr in the background.
Eventually something more sinister emerges: the fourth wall is broken, then rebuilt, then broken again. If I hadn't played so many other games that pull similar tricks I'd have found it more subversive than I did, but it's still good for a chuckle or two.
I completed my first run through Superhot in only a couple of hours, but after finishing, the game unlocked a large number of challenge modes and started nudging me toward what I can only imagine are some well-hidden secrets and Easter eggs. One challenge mode is a time trial where the clock only ticks when I move. Another asks me to beat every level using only my fists. My favourite is called "Katana Only" and is described thusly:
Superhot can be very bossy, and has instructed me to tell people that it's "the most innovative shooter I've played in years." I wouldn't go that far, but it's certainly one of the purest and most enjoyable I've played in a while. It carries itself with such focused, ruthless poise that spilling any more words on it feels needless. This one's a winner.