Going to try including some video of the games I review now, and Nex Machina is a good place to start since screenshots don’t really do it justice. If nothing else I’ll eventually figure out how to upload in 1080p without Youtube mangling the encoding.
I really liked shoot ‘em ups back in the day. “The day” in this case being the period around 2002-2003, when I was just starting university and had no money and the plethora of free/abandonware shoot ‘em ups perfectly fit the requirements of a man on a non-existent budget. I got quite deep into games such as Raptor: Call Of The Shadows, screwball stuff like Every Extend, the great Tyrian 2000, and Best Shoot ‘Em Up Of All Time Cho Ren Sha 68k. (An Underdogs-sourced copy of Mr. Driller was another favourite of this period, if not quite fitting the description of “shoot ‘em up”.) That being the case, it’s possibly a little surprising that I haven’t really bothered with the genre in the fifteen years since. Partly this is my tastes changing over time — I’m less into being incredibly stressed for fun than I used to be — but mostly it’s because the most interesting games tended to be released on the Playstation. Yes, I know Steam has roughly one billion pixel shooters available, but there’s so many of those I basically view them as shovelware at this point1. If something was going to tempt me back into bullet hell again it would have to have some exceptional selling points behind it. As it turns out, Nex Machina has two.
Nex Machina is the first PC release2 from Finnish developers Housemarque, who have made a name for themselves making precisely the sort of new-generation shoot ‘em up that occasionally had me gazing at the PS4 with envious eyes. More importantly, because I am old and I did miss the PS3/early PS4 generation, Nex Machina heavily namedrops the involvement of Eugene Jarvis, the man behind classic shooters Robotron and Smash TV — these were arena shooters where you controlled a man/robot sprinting backwards away from hordes of enemies while blasting them in the face. And not coincidentally, Nex Machina is an arena shooter where you control a man/robot (it’s not really clear which one you are) sprinting backwards away from hordes of enemies while blasting them in the face. I don’t know how deeply Jarvis was actually involved in the development (at 62 he’s far from over the hill but a little old to be at the coalface) but it’s very definitely inspired by Robotron in particular; just as in Robotron you progress through a series of stages avoiding baddie robots while saving hapless humans from their clutches, all in the name of achieving as high a score as possible.
The very first thing that struck me about Nex Machina was how simple it was. It doesn’t even have a tutorial, and that’s something that’s entirely intentional; it’s very confident that you’ll have picked up everything you need to know about the controls and your tiny man’s abilities within sixty seconds of starting your first game. It uses classic twin-stick shooter controls: left stick controls movement, right stick controls firing the standard shoot ‘em up stream of projectiles, and beyond that there are a whole two extra buttons you can press. The left trigger makes the tiny man do a short-range dash; he’s invincible while he does this so it’s very useful for getting out of a jam, but the associated cooldown means it has to be used wisely. Meanwhile the right trigger fires one of six types of special weapon; these come out of powerup crates, have infinite ammo (although they’ve also all got some form of charge-up/cooldown), and last until you pick up a new one.
And that’s it. That’s all your tiny man can do, and yet out of that Housemarque have managed to build an insanely exhilarating shooter experience. Partly this is down to the visuals, which are sumptuous; plenty of neon, some helpful colour-coding (blue and green things are good and should be picked up, red and purple things are bad and should be avoided), and a tremendously satisfying enemy death effect where they disintegrate into a cloud of voxel blocks that then drop to the ground, similar to the derez deaths from Tron. If you slag a whole crowd of enemies with a laser burst or a power shot then all of their voxels will spray backwards en masse, and this is something that goes beyond just looking pretty: it makes your weapons feel powerful, and hence fun to use.
Mostly, though, Nex Machina’s quality comes from its structure and its level design. The full Arcade mode is composed of six worlds, each of which can be tackled individually in Single World mode – this is invaluable for practice. One of Nex Machina’s worlds will consist of 15 separate levels, plus three or four secret levels that you can activate by finding and blasting the access consoles in the regular levels. A level in Nex Machina is a very bitesize chunk of game indeed, consisting of not much more than a couple of screens’ worth of real estate. Some of them are set up like classic Robotron arenas while others have a more linear layout where you run from the start to the end. Enemies start spawning into a stage as soon as you do, and they’ll spawn in waves; finishing off the last enemy of a wave will cause the next one to spawn in, and once you’ve slaughtered every single wave you’ll automatically teleport to the next level. Because Nex Machina is so admirably well focused on cutting out wasted transition time in favour of blowing up as many enemies as possible an individual level will rarely take more than thirty seconds to clear, with the clearance times for a full 15-level world clocking in at around the seven minute mark. Despite being so short, clearing a world certainly feels like a very full and meaty experience thanks to so much action being packed into it, and doing a full Arcade mode run will probably have you needing a lie-down afterwards because it’s so intense.
Still, if Nex Machina were just about blowing up the baddie robots then I would be calling it a solid if unremarkable game; each world your progress through throws different types of enemies at you, ensuring there’s enough variety in the shooting part of the game to stop you from getting bored, but I wouldn’t call them particularly memorable in any way. Like most shoot ‘em ups, Nex Machina has you herding enemies into large, easily-disposable clumps, and the action is a little too fast and frenetic to do much moment-to-moment differentiation between distinct enemy types beyond prioritising the bigger ones as targets for your secondary weapon. Fortunately there’s rather more to the game than just shooting, with additional depth being provided, first and foremost, by the human-collecting mechanic.
All levels will have between one and six hapless humans wandering around heedless of the robotic mayhem unfolding around them. Running over one teleports them to safety and scores you a small amount of points. It also increases your Human Combo meter by one. The next human you save scores you the same basic amount of points, but this time multiplied by your Human Combo meter. Again, it also increases your Human Combo meter by one. Chaining together human pickups in this way can grow the points you score by doing so into a very large number indeed, but there’s a catch: with each human you save a timer is started, and once the timer reaches zero you Human Combo meter will be reset and you’ll be back to scoring peanuts for them until you can build it up again. Saving a human resets this timer to full, which means that if you want to be scoring a lot of points the theoretical maximum amount of time you have to clear a level – which, as a reminder, doesn’t finish until all enemies have been killed — is number of humans present multiplied by the timer length, which is around 6-7 seconds. That might sound overly generous given that I’ve quoted 30 seconds as the typical level duration, and it’s true that in a perfect world you’d be able to space out your human pickups to give you all the time you needed to both save them all without breaking the timer and kill all of the robots. In practice, though, the amount of time you’ll have is considerably shorter as you’re pressured by the level geometry and the constant hordes of pursuing enemies into saving humans earlier than would be ideal. There’s also special enemies that’ll beeline for humans and start… I don’t know, feeding them into a robot grinder? Regardless, if they’re left alone with a human for too long they’ll kill them, and losing a human will almost certainly deprive you of the headroom required to sustain your Human Combo into the next level before it resets.
Playing Nex Machina therefore becomes a matter of juggling a number of these almost abstract factors rather than focusing on killing specific enemies: you have to run through the level on a path that lets you save all the humans, quickly enough that none of them get killed, slowly enough that you have enough time to clear the level by eliminating all of the enemies before your combo meter resets, all the while trying your damndest not to let the enemies hit you. And believe me, it is far harder to do in practice than I have just made it sound, especially when you mix in dodging environmental hazards (lasers, mostly), killing bonus enemies before they can make their escape, and uncovering secret levels and hidden humans to further boost your score. The latter two are imaginatively hidden, often concealed behind destructible walls or even an innocuous floating cloud of voxel chunks that coalesces into a walkable path across a chasm only when you get close to it; some of these you’ll discover on your own when a power shot goes straight through a crowd of baddies and strikes a piece of destructible scenery behind it, but if you want to learn a level in detail then Nex Machina also offers online leaderboards with the ability to view replays of other people’s best runs. As far as I’m concerned this is a feature that should be genre standard, but enough games omit it that I’m pleased Nex Machina hasn’t.
Flaws? Well, as a modern Robotron Nex Machina doesn’t really have any since it’s an almost perfect update of the concept. I will say that I wasn’t convinced by the mouse & keyboard controls, even if other people say it’s not that bad; I assume that if you’re interested in this sort of game you’ll have a controller of some kind to play it with. I will also say that the lava-themed world caused some frustration at first as the red enemies and purple projectiles blended into the reddish backgrounds a little too well, but I got over it after a while. I will also also say that the final boss of the game represents an absolutely huge difficulty spike, to the point where I’ve yet to beat it in three attempts. That’ll probably come with a bit of practice, and that’s the thing that’ll probably put people off of this game: I don’t think it’s something you would play long-term other than to try for a high score, and to do that requires a fair chunk of practice to learn the levels, secret placements etc. The replay system helps, but while the leaderboards are shared between PS4 and PC players you can only view replays of the people playing on the same platform as you – and guess where most of Nex Machina’s best players reside! (Hint: it’s not on the PC.) There was a little while after release where I was the best PC player on Crystal Mountain Experienced, which didn’t really feel right when all I did was blunder through the level trying not to die. I’m sure there’s good backend reasons for it, and it’s hardly the fault of Housemarque that 80% of Nex Machina players are on the PS4, but it does make that learning process a little harder than it really should be.
I’m not sure how long I’ll play Nex Machina for in the long-term. After 10 hours I’m still very much enjoying it, with the music, visuals and level design all blending together into a glorious synesthesia of destructive joy. I can feel myself starting to flag a little; end boss aside I pretty much have Experienced mastered now, but the Veteran difficulty is a significant step up that will require a larger time investment to get good enough that I consistently succeed at it. If I end up bouncing off it, though, I feel that’ll be more a symptom of it being Steam Sale season — and my consequently having spent rather more than I really should have on other games that I really should get my money’s worth out of — rather than any failing on Nex Machina’s part. It’s a game that’s been made with the very well-defined mission statement of “Do Robotron, but modern”, and it executes on it almost perfectly.
- Which is probably unfair to a lot of them, but there’s so much junk on Steam now that as a player I have to do this sort of ruthless triage to protect my time. ↩
- Well, they also did Outlast back in 2009 but that’s a platformer and so doesn’t count by the extremely specific criteria by which I am making this statement. ↩