Nuclear Throne is yet another entrant into the increasingly-crowded roguelike1 genre, this time with the twist that it’s been spliced together with a twin-stick shooter. I find the recent glut of roguelikes (or games with roguelike elements) a little tiresome, especially since playing a bad roguelike is one of the most painful gaming experiences you can possibly imagine, but I do enjoy the good ones. Nuclear Throne is one of the good ones.
Nuclear Throne has been made by established indie developers Vlambeer (who were responsible for the very-okay shooter Luftrausers, as well as other games that I haven’t played), and it just got released last month after a year in Early Access. It has the same basic not-entirely-intentional retro look as the rest of their output because it’s been made in Gamemaker; however so was the original Spelunky, and just like Spelunky its cheap n’ cheerful looks conceal a shockingly well-tuned and downright fun game. The Early Access period has done Nuclear Throne a world of good and it’s come out of it with core mechanics that are just as sharp and polished as anything else in the genre that I can think of.
I described it as a roguelike crossed with a twin-stick shooter, and if you have a gamepad (or if you buy it on console) you can play Nuclear Throne that way if it catches your fancy. It’s decent enough in this role; I don’t think a thumbstick is quite precise enough for the weapons involved, but it certainly doesn’t strike me as broken or deficient in any way. However I played it on PC with a mouse (controlling aiming) and keyboard (controlling movement with WSAD), and it’s in this mode that Nuclear Throne really shines. Where you point the mouse cursor is where your little mutant will shoot the bullets (or lasers, or crossbow bolts, or shells, or rockets) regardless of which direction he (or she, or it) happens to be moving in at the time, and the only inaccuracy involved is that built into the weapons themselves – plus your own kludgey hand-eye coordination, of course. To me this meant the game actually came off as an updated Cannon Fodder crossed with a roguelike, which is no bad thing since those are both things I really really like when they’re done well.
The roguelike elements of Nuclear Throne come to the fore in its metagame. Start a new run and you’ll be taken to a character select screen with the various characters/mutants you’ve unlocked sitting around a campfire. Each character has both a passive and an active special ability, the latter of which is invoked using the right mouse button, but to begin with you’ll have just three available: Fish, who gets more ammo from ammo pickups and whose active ability is a roll move that boosts his movement speed; Crystal, who has more health and can activate a shield that’ll make her immobile but which will reflect all bullets back at her attackers for a few seconds; and Eyes, who can see in the dark and has telekinetic powers that draw items (and enemies) towards him. After picking one of these characters you’re immediately chucked into the first Desert level with just a revolver for backup.
Nuclear Throne’s levels are basic top-down procedurally generated affairs. Aside from being broadly contiguous so that the player can explore them their layout doesn’t make much logical sense – but then it doesn’t have to; unlike most roguelikes there’s no static exit and the goal of each level is simply to kill all enemies present, at which point a dimensional portal will open up to zap you into the next level. Aside from the odd bit of scenery – such as a bleached set of bones, or an exploding barrel — the levels are otherwise empty apart from the various monsters populating them; the closest Nuclear Throne comes to an environmental hazard are the wrecked cars in the ice area that will explode if hit which too much fire. It’s very different from something like Spelunky in that there’s zero traps, shops or other random features that the roguelike genre has popularised.
Instead, Nuclear Throne prefers to focus almost entirely on the shooting action. This would be a serious problem if the shooting were bad; fortunately Vlambeer have some past experience as far as arcadey shooter experiences go and it’s actually very very good indeed. The game is split into four areas consisting of three levels each and which culiminate in a boss battle at the end of every area, and each area has a pleasing range of enemy types mixed in with each other that keeps you on your toes. The starting Desert area has three: a bog-standard bandit that fires only occasionally and is all but harmless, a scorpion that vomits a spread of bullets at you (get behind cover when it fires) and a large maggot with no ranged attack, but which will split open into 7-8 smaller maggots when it dies. It’s moderately taxing for new players but once you have a few runs under your belt the Desert is remarkably easy going, especially considering that revolver they give you isn’t that bad. Those first three levels in the Desert mostly exist so that you can make a few rolls on item pickups and skills and get yourself set up for the real Nuclear Throne, which starts on level 2-1 and never really stops again until you inevitably die.
Each enemy you kill drops a number of glowing green rad pellets in the vicinity of its corpse. These are the game’s XP, but the catch is that they’ll disappear after a fairly short period (about 7-8 seconds) and so you have to get to them quickly before they expire if you want to fill your XP tank in top left corner of the screen. The safest way to dispose of enemies is by shooting them when they’re offscreen — Nuclear Throne has some good sound design that’ll let you get a rough read on where they are — but that’ll make it harder to pick up the XP they drop; this basically forces you to get in a bit closer and dodge their bullets so that you can level up at a decent rate. Once your XP tank is full you gain a level, which means that when you exit the current level you get to choose a mutation for your character from one of four random options. The impressive thing here is that while your character development is effectively at the whim of the RNG there are no skills that are really out-and-out bad. All of the available mutations are interesting and give you a big advantage, whether it’s Bolt Marrow (homing crossbow bolts), Impact Wrists (corpses fly further when they die, bouncing into other enemies and causing damage) or Rhino Skin (+4 HP, which is effectively +50% health for most characters). I get annoyed whenever I see Shotgun Shoulders or Long Arms because I tend not to use shotguns or melee weapons so much, but that’s a matter of personal preference; melee weapons in particular are actually super useful since you can use them to bat back projectiles at enemies. It’s almost never a duff choice, and consequently I’m always excited to receive a new mutation power.
The other half of Nuclear Throne’s character builds are the weapons. You can carry two weapons at a time, switching between them using the middle mouse button (unless you’re Steroids, whose special power is that he can fire both at once), and each weapon uses one of five different types of ammo, making it advisable to pick weapons that don’t both use the same type lest you find yourself running dry on bullets at an inconvenient moment. What’s particularly striking here is the sheer quantity and variety of weapons available; my conservative guess would be well over a hundred distinct weapons, and they can either come out of the red chests you will find on every level or – more rarely – they’ll be dropped by enemies. There’s some logic in place that means you get less powerful weapons at the start of the game (unless you’re Robot, whose passive ability means he gets better drops from the get-go) and gradually pick up better ones the further in you go; don’t expect to be finding a Minigun in a chest on level one. A solid progression for me would be to find an Assault Rifle somewhere in the Desert (accurate, fires a three round burst fairly rapidly) with a Grenade Launcher for backup, and then to transition to some flavour of Crossbow as soon as possible (crossbows are 100% accurate and do a lot of damage, but take a long time to reload). Even within the Crossbow weapon type there’s a lot of variety – Toxic Crossbows which release a poison cloud on impact, Super Crossbows that use two bolts per shot but which do double the damage, Disc Launchers that fire a bouncing projectile, Splinter Launchers that turn it into a shotgun, and – my favourite – the Auto Crossbow, which will kill anything you point it at very very quickly just so long as you don’t mind not having any ammo left afterwards.
Experimenting with weapons is where a lot of the fun lies in Nuclear Throne. I’ve played close to a hundred runs over twelve hours with the game and I’m still finding new ones; just today I picked up a Lightning Shotgun for the first time, which I pressed into service as my backup weapon due to running low on other ammo types and which proved to be very capable of melting the tough enemies found in the final zone of the game. Then there’s the enjoyable puzzle of figuring out a build that’ll make the most of the character you’ve picked; you want to pick mutations that complement both their special abilities and the weapons you’ve picked up. In the short term this provides more than enough variety and replayability to keep you making those runs while you work on the long-term goal of surviving all 16-odd levels to reach the Nuclear Throne. As with all roguelikes actually achieving that goal is only the tip of the iceberg; once you have attained the Throne there’s still more characters to unlock and the looping mechanic to invoke, where you proceed through the game all over again through a remixed set of levels with harder enemy types. That’s for the properly hardcore types, though, and for now I’m perfectly content to just figure out how to make the best of a certain character. Just like with the mutations there’s a broad range of 12-13 characters who all have abilities that are really good for a certain style of play, and there’s no such thing as a bad character in Nuclear Throne. Nearly everything about its metagame is positive and fun, and that’s what’s kept me hooked for this long.
The final thing Nuclear Throne has going for it is its length. There is an achievement for completing the game with a certain character in less than eight minutes, but even if you’re playing careful and taking your time a full run from the start of the Desert all the way to the Throne will take well under twenty minutes. Looping extends that, obviously, but unless you’re very good at the game most runs will end long before you get a chance to loop. This stops you from getting too attached to a given character or too annoyed when you die unexpectedly, and that’s good because if I had one criticism to make of Nuclear Throne it’s that you tend to die unexpectedly rather more often than I would like. This is something Spelunky in particular does very well, in that you almost never die in that game wondering what the hell just happened; by contrast Nuclear Throne is a little too blase about having the level RNG dump you straight into an unwinnable scenario and there’s too many deaths where things happened too fast for me to process and I went from a full 12HP to a dead character in less than a second. It’s not been enough to put me off the game, but it does make it feel like it has a few more rough edges compared to current genre champion Spelunky or even more recent offerings such as Crypt of the Necrodancer. It was probably inevitable given Nuclear Throne’s focus on action gameplay, but it’s still a little disappointing to have the odd unpleasant death marring what is otherwise a incredibly well-crafted experience.
Still, Nuclear Throne is a great game that’s more than worthy of the rave reviews it got in December. The off-kilter yet excellent soundtrack (reminiscent of Diablo’s acoustic guitar, or the later bits of Tubular Bells) is the icing on the cake, and it’s successfully displaced the waning Hearthstone as the thing I boot up when I want twenty minutes of disposable fun. I doubt it’ll have all that much longevity – I don’t really see myself putting in the 60 hours I did into Spelunky or Dungeons of Dredmor – but I’ve more than had my money’s worth so far, so that’s not a huge problem for me.
- Which is a broad-brush term used to describe games with at least two of the following: quasi-RPG mechanics; procedurally generated, pseudo-random levels; and permadeath. ↩