Greg Wohlwend says he likes hard games. I’m not surprised, not after stressing my way through some of the more difficult puzzles in his game Hundreds. Games don’t often make me grind my teeth, but most games aren’t like Hundreds. It made my teeth ache.
Hundreds is about the distance between objects. It’s about making circles grow as much as they can without impeding the progress of others. It’s about coexisting peacefully in a cramped, indifferent world that we have minimal control over. Mostly, though, Hundreds is about touching.
I touch grey circles to make them grow. As a circle expands a number at its center quickly ticks up. When the numbers in all of the circles on the screen add up to 100 the round is over and the next puzzle can begin. It’s as simple as pressing my finger against the screen and holding it down as that circumference increases and the number rises.
The circles turn red as they grow. (Later on certain circles are always red.) If the color red touches any other object on the screen, I lose and have to restart the round. The circles usually glide and bounce around the screen, bumping into each other and other impediments, increasing the odds of a widening red circle grazing a passerby and ending the round. I wind up tapping the screen repeatedly, touching a circle for a few seconds and then letting go so it turns back to grey before drifting into another circle.
Hundreds continually tosses out new complications throughout its 100 rounds. I have to think ahead and predict how the circles will bounce off such obstacles as bubbles that can be popped with a single touch, stationary circles with X’s on them that can’t grow, or hockey pucks I can slide around the screen. Saw blades careen erratically about, popping circles back to zero and undoing all my work with the slightest contact. Some circles leak, forcing me to dance back and forth between multiple circles at once, hoping to somehow keep them engorged enough to hit 100 while still avoiding contact with one another. In its best rounds Hundreds combines all these facets together into a single, brutally difficult puzzle, creating the Hundreds equivalent of Tetris at the highest levels.
Hundreds is intentionally minimal and mysterious, with a sparse color palette, an ambient score from the Kranky Records artist Loscil, a cryptic word puzzle metagame and a general lack of explanation. It’s rarely confusing, though, and despite its difficulty I always know immediately why I fail a round. That prevents the game from ever becoming too frustrating.
At its most complicated Hundreds requires the same mastery of space and foresight as a good shoot-‘em-up. Circles and saw blades hurtle across the screen, and there are short bursts of time during which to safely expand those circles. It’s like dodging a sea of bullets with a helicopter or spaceship in Under Defeat HD or Akai Katana or any of the old shooters I’d play on the Turbo Grafx 16 and NES—find the holes and exploit them as quickly as possible. Only in Hundreds I have no direct control over the circles, and can only react to their unpredictable patterns.
That volatility can make Hundreds extremely difficult, but it also takes a while to reach that point. In fact the challenges might ramp up a little too slowly. I didn’t really have a problem until I hit the 49th round, almost exactly halfway through the game. I didn’t consistently struggle until the last fifteen rounds. A number of earlier puzzles did require dozens of attempts, but those difficulty spikes were sporadic and usually accompanied the introduction of a new mechanic, like the saw blades or the circles that slowly lose their charge. The final puzzles are unforgiving, though, and after suffering through any one of them for a half-hour straight I’d realize my teeth and jaw were hurting.
After hitting the last ten puzzles, I unlocked the true Hundreds, the mode that elevates it from a great puzzle game to one of the timeless time drains of the modern age. Endless mode is a high score endurance challenge, presenting a series of randomly generated rounds that grow increasingly difficult. The point is to make it as far as possible, adding to my score total as the circles grow larger, with the puzzle fading immediately into the next round once the circles hit 100. The non-stop rush to play just one more time feels similar to an endless runner, a genre perfected by Hundreds co-designer Adam Saltsman in his game Canabalt. The goal in both is to see how far I can go, but Hundreds requires more thought than most endless runners, and that makes it more satisfying. It’s not just about how quickly I can react to something—it’s how quickly I can react to multiple somethings, while also predicting what could happen next. Endless mode is the purest distillation of Hundreds.
Hundreds is about touching—about my finger touching the screen, about the circles on the screen colliding into one another, and about my top row of teeth violently clashing with and scraping against the bottom. I don’t care if my teeth hurt, though—Hundreds is worth the grind.
Hundreds was designed and published by Semi Secret Software. It is available for iOS devices.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s videogame section. He reviews games for the Boston Herald and has contributed to Joystiq, Edge, Unwinnable, Bit Creature and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter.