I really like Michael Brough’s 868-HACK. It’s a roguelike with a large emphasis on utilising your resources and making smart moves within the confines of a 6×6 grid, and its risk-reward scoring system made each go on it thrilling. It was so compelling that I had to delete it, only now I’ve started playing it again, the allure of a recent PC port having been too tempting to pass up.
Ahem. Anyway, its developer, Michael Brough, also cooked up a little game called Helix. And, just like 868-HACK, there’s an awful lot to love and appreciate about a game that’s evidently been crafted with a lot of love and hard thought.
Helix proudly wears Brough’s signature low-tech, glitchy art style, and that’s about it as far as any similarities with 868-HACK go. Instead it serves up the simple pleasures of the high-score arcade action game, only this time with a delightfully experimental twist: its controls are pretty unconventional as far as touchscreen games go.
Most touch-controlled games, particularly 2D shooters, ask you to touch and drag an object move it around. Not only is that slightly boring in practice—it works, sure, but there’s arguably less fun to be had in such a conformable setup—but it quickly becomes tiring, and your hand ends up obscuring a chunk of the action at some point. In Helix, you elegantly slide your thumb around anywhere on the display, and it just works, validating a control scheme which took years to perfect.
The order of the day is to swoop your ship around the surrounding enemies, keeping within the boundaries of a single screen and avoiding your weird-yet-wonderful foes. Any collision with an enemy sends you to the game over screen, so you’re always playing a dodging game. Meanwhile, flying around the entire circumference of an enemy—or two, or more—eliminates them, freeing up more room around you and adding to your score. Of course, while this is all going on, new enemies are constantly emerging from the corners of the playing field.
Circling around as many enemies as physically possible always feels great, a bit like bordering off a massive chunk of the playing field in Qix. This is in part helped by the bespoke controls, where every distinct movement of your thumb flings your ship around convincingly. You really do ‘feel’ the lack of gravity surrounding your ship.
Despite only requiring small motions with your thumb, your ship is capable of flying across the entire field. The video above is a must watch. More sweeping thumb motions lend more momentum to your ship’s flight, while minute, accurate ones keep your ship’s movements to a minimum, lending it enough precision to expertly weave in, out and around enemies once the action becomes claustrophobic.
Thankfully, the enemy types come in sorts of flavours, forcing you to think on the fly more often than you might find comfortable. Once the field is littered with enemies, almost like in a shmup’s more heated moments, those elegant thumb motions you were just making might have to abruptly stop and change.
You see, not all enemies are destroyed by making those clockwise circular motions, and discovering new enemies is part of the ongoing fun. You’ll rarely be prepared for what’s coming next. You might need to go anticlockwise around the yellow curly ones, or twice around this spotted egg—which then hatches three more enemies.
Or you may face an enemy which refuses to give you feedback on how far around it you’ve been, instead trying to draw rings around you. That’s frightening if you’ve amassed a high score, and it had me start playing the game in reverse, trying to outrun the thing and ‘undo’ its circle. Then there’s the non-enemies: Large meteors stay on the screen for just a few moments, but if you run several circles around them before they leave, you might see something special…
This all lends Helix a sense of unpredictability and energy which the best score-based titles thrive upon. While the game kicks off by sending a few easy enemies your way, it rarely feels stale after the first few seconds.
Unlike other high score games, it won’t demand you sit through a predictable and lengthy non-challenge until you reach that moment where the real game begins. Rather, there’s an always tempting risk-reward mechanic by way of its enemy designs, and the allure of trying to eliminate several enemies in a single swoop will make you do stupid risky things. Two extra difficulty modes successfully ramp up the insanity, too, and there are bags of hidden secrets waiting to be uncovered if you approach the field in different ways.
So Helix is a real win as far as experimental games are concerned. It’s rare to see innovation in touchscreen controls now that touch input has reached maturity. The real surprise, however, is in how Brough’s controls have made an already well-designed game that much more fun to play. I wouldn’t have the game control in any other way, or with any other input device.