Black Hole Hazard
Circumstellar Jet Gun Travel
Trevor | October 24, 2016
Black Hole Hazard is an excellent example of how much mileage you can get out of framing layers of complexity around simple core mechanics.
A long long time ago, I played an MS-DOS game called Helious. In it, the player controls a balloon that moves around by expending air. The further you travelled, the smaller your balloon got.
The trick, you see, was to navigate the maze before all air was expended and your player controlled balloon collapsed into nothingness. It also had a bonkers fictional opening about its development -- or lack thereof. Aliens are involved. It’s a wild ride.
(The full story is documented on the creepypasta wiki of all places, if you’re curious.)
Helious isn’t exactly one of my favorite games, but I often think of Helious these days because of its ingenuity. I always enjoyed how the game required me to think carefully about my trajectory and momentum, how you could lose control and bounce around the place if you got reckless, how movement had an intrinsic cost, and that cost was conveyed without the need of a UI. But mostly, I often think about how after two decades, I still haven’t played anything like it.
And then Black Hole Hazard showed up in our e-mail one day. For reasons we’ll jump into soon, I was initially hesitant to review it, but I eventually gave it a try. Instantly, I knew Superthumb, whether they intended to or not, had recaptured the spirit of what made Helious so memorable years later.
You can probably tell my feelings on Black Hole Hazard are mostly positive, but let’s get something out of the way first on this one -- why Black Hole Hazard didn’t make the best first impression. The trailer and manual ask...
What if you are alive alone in space with a jet pack and gun only?
While this statement gets the point across, I hesitate to call it the best form of the question. Story snippets within the game, which take place after each boss encounter, are similarly plagued with rough dialogue and strange word choice. Characters speak lines that aren’t incomprehensible, but sound perhaps a bit... off.
As someone who grew up during the days of Zero Wing, a game infamous for its barely comprehensible opening scene, I’m often forgiving when dialogue gets lost in translation. I can understand how someone browsing the steam store page, who doesn’t have my particular background in late 80’s - early 90’s game translations, might pass it over after watching this trailer. I would still urge this hypothetical steam browser not to judge the game based on this initial showing.
Black Hole Hazard is a clever mix of puzzle solving, blaster shooting, and space platforming, all designed around use of the mouse alone.
That’s right. See that keyboard in front of you? Throw it out.
In Black Hole Hazard, the left mouse fires an air gun that propels Dr. Albert in the opposite direction of your cursor. The right fires a laser gun.
And uh... that’s it. That’s all the controls.
It’s one of the sleekest, simplest design concepts I’ve seen since, well... Helious. You might think it’s not possible to create an entire game around such a simple concept and keep it compelling, but Black Hole Hazard manages to keep things moving along at a rapid pace by introducing new challenges with regularity, testing the limits of your control over this simple kit.
One of the first lessons I had to learn was moving Dr. Albert with short controlled bursts, instead of trying to speed my way every level. See, once Dr. Albert picks up momentum, he starts bouncing around like a pinball in a pinball machine -- and The Who’s Pinball Wizard Tommy is at the flippers.
The first few stages act as great training grounds for mastering the controls. You’re welcome to advance around obstacles at your own pace, with only a few easily dispatched enemies around. Later, the game starts to apply time pressure in the form of enemies that require multiple hits to eliminate, more than your starting gamut of ammo can handle.
You’ll be able to pick up battery packs for your gun throughout the game, which increase the amount of shots you can fire at once. These feel like a huge reward later on, because these same enemies with large health pools can later be dispatched with a single volley of shots, rendering the previous pressure they applied moot...
I appreciate how Black Hole Hazard never pressures the player with arbitrary time limits to complete a stage. I was worried about this when I saw the time clock in the corner of the screen, but it’s only there to clock your final time upon level completion.
Like any good game, the later worlds get more advanced and difficult, layering additional mechanics and threats. There’s a decent mix of both lengthy and short stages in each world, many of which have checkpoints after certain harder sections.
Most of the time.
In the early stages I felt these checkpoints were placed effectively, but from around world five on, the use of checkpoints becomes either questionable, or they simply don’t show up at all in extremely long stages. I found this both perplexing and frustrating, especially on stages where the first obstacle you’re asked to tackle involves lots of steps to circumvent. There are a number of stages where the initial set of challenges leads to an empty safe room, perfectly suited for a checkpoint, but there’s just twinkling stars where you’d expect to see one.
This lack of checkpoints becomes an even larger problem in later stages, when the tasks you’re asked to do become less challenging and more tedious. For example, here’s a stage from world seven.
There’s not much challenge here, navigating back and forth between these open spaces. Now imagine being asked to do this over and over again, every time you die. It’s time consuming in all the wrong ways, and there’s little be gained from being asked to bounce up and down this corridor again and again.
Even as I went into the final world of Black Hole Hazard, despite all these criticisms, I still had a genuinely positive impression. As the stages got lengthier and the checkpoints fewer and fewer however, my views on the game began to sour, my time with it much less enjoyable. In world 6 especially, the game became increasingly frustrating in the wrong ways.
There’s two stages in particular that I have to spotlight for unique problems. The first is stage 7-8. Here’s a short snippet combining just a fraction of the tasks you’re asked to execute -- with no checkpoints to be found.
The next -- and much more egregious example -- is stage 6-8. This one also has no checkpoint, despite this one area...
Where it seems like one should exist. I really, really wish one existed here, because the next obstacle has a tremendous flaw that I hope was not intended by design.
Here’s what’s expected of the player -- slide into the spike wall, maintain your momentum to stay in the center, and pass through the laser grid to reach the exit.
Only here’s the problem -- over time, the laser and the spike walls becomes desynced. What is supposed to be a window of safety for the player to pass through, over the course of the level, turns into the perfect death trap. Because the screen doesn’t show the laser above the player, this leads to a situation where you’re locking yourself into assured death, and won’t know it until it’s too late.
There’s a small area where the player can see this trap, pictured above, but there’s no guarantee the timing will be identical once you enter the warp. Whether or not you make it to the exit, once confined to the spike walls, is a gamble. A coin flip. Take into account losing this gamble means you’ll be doing the whole stage over, and you might understand why I’ve picked on world 6-8 specifically.
Honestly, I became so frustrated with this one section of Black Hole Hazard I almost didn’t finish the game. I’m glad I pressed on, because the later puzzles never have this grievous of a flaw.
Aside from this brutal example, I found the difficulty and variation ramped up well from stage to stage. There were a few times where I felt certain worlds had perhaps more stages than were necessary, causing the game to drag on longer than need be, but with the exception of stage 6-8, things stayed varied and challenging enough to maintain my interest.
Perhaps my favorite world is one that involves changing the direction of gravity.
Here Dr. Albert is constantly falling, but the direction he falls depends on the last arrow you happened to bump. This mechanic persists throughout the entire world, and it forces you to think about how to solve problems in an entirely different light -- and even puts Dr. Albert’s more pinball-like qualities to use.
For example, here’s a place where the air jet can’t generate enough force to work against the gravitational pull.
But, if I turn the air jet around and bounce Dr. Albert off the ground...
It’s a clever twist on what the player’s been conditioned to expect about their world so far, and made for a nice way to change things up as I approached the game’s conclusion.
Also of special note is the boss encounters at the end of each stage. Each encounter tests your abilities with some sort of imposing, larger-than-life interstellar threat.
There’s outrunning a black hole...
Or outrunning a human construct made of beams of light...
At first, I thought perhaps every boss fight would follow this formula, but Black Hole Hazard starts to shake things up here, too.
One boss fight involves dodging scrolling lasers...
And another involves a fight against a clone of yourself, with a far more advanced beam gun than your own.
I enjoyed this particular fight, as the previous boss encounters rarely test your ability to shoot and move at the same time. This fight is designed in such way that you’ve always got to be coasting to avoid shots, using the blocks littered around the arena as cover. It’s very Ender’s Game.
I also find the music to match the space themed aesthetics in a positive way. There’s lots of synthetic noises, almost reminiscent of chill techno music, and there’s enough bars and variation in each song to keep them from becoming monotonous. I’m not about to run out and buy a Black Hole Hazard sound track, but I appreciate how it matches the world and feel. (If you end up enjoying the music more than myself, it’s available for purchase on the store page for $2.99.)
Black Hole Hazard does commit the common indie game sin of restarting the music track upon death. It’s less irritating than in other indie games, since your average time alive is long enough you won’t hear the same opening notes eight times in rapid succession.
As for the story, I’ve already addressed the problems I have with how it’s presented. Translation quirks aside, each chapter ends with Dr. Albert having a conversation with an AI named Moyin. The unlockable logs reveal more information regarding AI’s, the large hadron collider, and of course, theories about travel through black holes. It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it was intriguing enough to keep me wondering what was going on.
For a five dollar budget title, I’m kind of impressed with how expressive Dr. Albert’s face is. He often looks panicked and scared, which is a pretty fair reaction when lost in the void of space.
As for how everything concludes, it’s worth mentioning there’s two different endings. If you want to see the good ending, keep an eye out for all the log files in each stage.
One note about the log files -- I appreciate there’s illuminated lettering in each stage to let you know when you’ve picked up the file in that particular stage, and I also appreciate you aren’t forced to pick it up a second time if you die. What would’ve been nice, though, is a way to quickly tell which worlds you missed a log file in. Right now, the best solution I could figure is to enter a world to see if the words LOG were lit up. If not, I’d exit out of the stage and try another.
It works, but I feel like there must be an easier way to show the player that information easier once they're outside a stage, like an icon floating next to the stage number itself, or displayed on a pause screen.
In the end, one of the things I’m most impressed with when it comes to Black Hole Hazard is how much content is packed into five dollars. After completing normal mode, a hard mode unlocks. I initially expected this to be something simple -- more enemies, less shots, something simple adjust.
Hard mode is much more involved -- every stage has a similar layout to its normal mode equivalent, but the stage is now filled to the brink with new obstacles. This’ll put your ability to maneuver Dr. Albert to the test, and it’s a much more engaging and creative way to design a “hard mode” than the lazy number alterations I usually see in budget titles.
In addition to that, there’s also a survival mode, where enemies are tossed at you in waves a la Geometry Wars. There’s also power ups to pick up here, which give you give access to new gun types, like lasers and double shots. I didn’t spend much time in Survival Mode, but it made for a fun diversion from the core game.
I’ve played a large number of budget titles on Steam that don’t offer even half content and features in Black Hole Hazard. A single playthrough took me around six hours, and if you’re so inclined, there’s far more hours to be had in survival and hard mode.
Like most indie games, Black Hole Hazard has its quirks -- some charming, some frustrating -- but the core experience is a fun and challenging interstellar trek, with a straightforward control scheme and a reasonable price tag. The tagline question, “what if you are alive alone in space with a jet pack and gun only,” may cause a skeptical eyebrow to raise on your forehead, but if anything you’ve seen here looks intriguing, I’d suggest finding out the answer to that question yourself.
Black Hole Hazard is now available on Steam for $4.99.