Wot I Think: Nuclear Throne

After two years on Early Access, Nuclear Throne [official site] is now declared FINISHED, and released on Steam and Humble. Bullet heaven or bullet hell? Here’s wot I think:

Nuclear Throne is exhausting. After a few rounds, I feel like I need a nap.

On Steam’s Early Access for two years, Nuclear Throne is likely a game with which most of its audience is already familiar. With two years of evolution in response to players, the top-down twin-stick (or mouse/keyboard) action shooter rogue-lite is now stamped with a big red “RELEASED”. Here’s a thing – I’d never played it before.

So I come to the game completely fresh, and by crikey, I was terrible at it. And had a lot of fun finding out how bad. Or, alternatively, this is a really tough game! And a compellingly entertaining one.

You start with picking a character class, more unlocked as you reach deeper into its procedurally generated, thematically changing levels, and then attempt to shoot at all the very many things in each level until they’re all dead. Chests contain new weapons, two of which can be carried at once, or ammo or health, while deaded bads will drop similar. Clear a level and you’re teleported to the next, until eventually your very minimal health runs out and you start the entire game again.

For the longest time there’s nothing carried over from one play to the next, bar the skills you’ve personally gained as a human. New character classes are the only permanent change, and they all come with weaknesses to balance their unique strengths. Which makes it really surprising, and demonstrative of how well Nuclear Throne nails it, just how much better at the game I’ve gotten with repeated plays. This isn’t because of tweaks gained in previous turns – it’s because I’m actually better at the game. And gosh if that isn’t a lovely feeling.

It’s about learning the foibles of each character, adapting your tactics to take on board their particular skills (Crystal can turn into a reflective shield, the robot dude can eat guns and turn them into health or bullets, Plant moves quickly and can chuck a snare at enemies). But it’s also about learning the nuances of the various upgrades dished out between levels, once more adapting to whichever advantages you’ve chosen. Perhaps you can now run through walls, or be dangerous to touch, or in the case of Crystal, manage a rudimentary teleport. Or maybe you got luck and it offered you Rhino Skin with its extra four points of health, and now you’re a little safer.

But it’s also about adapting to circumstance as much as anything else. If the weapon chests are only offering you wrenches, and you’re extremely low on ammo, you might have to opt for melee for a while. That’s super-risky, but you have to stay alive. Or perhaps you’re replete with explosives, and enjoying picking you way down corridors, lobbing ahead, when suddenly you’re in a huge open space with fifty million enemies all firing at you at once and nothing but the equipment to blow yourself up. Ducking behind obstacles and taking pot-shots is an entirely legitimate way to play too – this has to be the first bullet hellish game where hiding is an option. But get skillful enough and there’s no reason not to race in between bullets, zapping or blasting or blamming or pulverising enemies as you dance.

Ammo conservation becomes strategic in the maelstrom. You realise that a giant pile of explosives is tempting to use to blitz a level, but when that terrifying giant dog-thing boss fight might spring up in the next, or the next, you’re going to want something heavy on hand. Except, shit, can there really be five of those fire-spewing black mole-sausage-worm things in a row? Crap, you need to use someexplosives…

The sound effects have been lauded since the game first appeared two years ago, and remain extraordinarily good. Hideous mulching squelches, wretched wet smacks, dull thuds of death and gore. And while the graphics are certainly crude, they’re fantastically alive, and incredibly memorable. The machinegun wielding crows will stick with me for a long time. Quite how well you’ll get on with the screen shake I cannot guess – it didn’t work for me, and I’ve turned it down below 50%. Others would consider this sacrilege.

I am experiencing a few bugs, however. I had one crash due to memory issues, and another because it was “Trying to draw non-existing sprite.” I can see why that would be a problem.

I’d also really like to see some sensible window size options. Currently it’s set to be a task-switch-blinking fullscreen, or a comically tiny window in which you can make out nothing. Fortunately this window can be stretched, but it’d be nice not to have to fiddle with this every launch, and have some standard resolution options.

Nuclear Throne has proven to be a champion of Early Access, demonstrating how regular updates, and careful use of player feedback (ie. knowing what to ignore), can be an effective route to a final release. This has been a two year open development that’s led to something really splendid.

If you’re the sort who shies away from bullet hell twin-stick shooters, or finds the permadeath of roguelikes to be too punishing, I think Nuclear Throne might be the game to try. It might well ease you into those troubling waters. I tend toward those instincts too, but this is so immediately accessible, so ridiculously replayable, and so satisfying to get better at, that it transcends. And if those sorts of games are your thing and you’ve not already delved in during development, then flipping crikey, get this immediately. And blimey, I’m tired.

Nuclear Throne is available now.

25 Comments

  1. Anthile says:

    Nuclear Throne is divine and it’s arguably the best game I’ve played this year.
    It is tremendously difficult, however. In playing about 30 hours of it I only managed to loop twice. It’s punishing and the RNG can screw you over really bad but at the same time the skill ceiling is high and so the more you play the further you get with awful weapons. One day you end up clearing cursed crystal caves with a screwdriver and a disc gun and you realize how far you’ve come.
    If you shoot discs into the abyss, they come right back at you.
    It is a game that hates you and wants you dead and laughs at you when you perish but wringing another level out of a run is a feeling like no other.

  2. Turkey says:

    Following Nuclear Throne through early access has been a joy. There was a period where I booted it up every week just to see what the new changes were.

    I remember there was a couple of weeks were you’d start off every run with access to a terrible gun called the party gun. I thought it was a permanent change, but in the next update it was just gone.

  3. Stirbelwurm says:

    Someone gifted me this game … about a year ago? I believe it was someone from RPS, but damn, I can’t remember who it was.

    Anyway: thanks! It was an awesome gift, I had a lot of fun with it, although I never even saw the Nuclear Throne. Maybe if I try for another 15 hours.

  4. clara21 says:

    kolk

  5. Tacroy says:

    I bought it in early access two years ago, and now it doesn’t work – I get some error about the number of parameters being wrong :(

    Deleting and reinstalling didn’t help, and neither did hunting down my save folder. It makes me sad.

    • trashmyego says:

      Did you try doing a dump of temp files along with a registry repair?

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      Bluerps says:

      Try it after the next update. Vlambeer are hard at work with fixing bugs right now.

    • Nereus says:

      What you want to do is add some parameters, that will fix it right up.

  6. Shadow says:

    Fortunately this window can be stretched, but it’d be nice not to have to fiddle with this every launch, and have some standard resolution options.

    Had these same thoughts. Fullscreen is way too big on any monitor, whereas the default windowed size has a 1:1 pixel ratio and is therefore absolutely microscopic. Some resolution multipliers (x2, x3, x4, etc.) would be nice, or at least have the game remember previous manual stretchings.

  7. Oozo says:

    “Trying to draw non-existing sprite.” I can see why that would be a problem.

    Is that the most Game Maker-y error message ever, or what? Also, fantastic game. I stopped playing it once my 11 year-old nephew had a look at my Steam profile, was shocked to see the number of games in there, and then even more so once he saw the number of hours I had put into Nuclear Throne. Little did he knew that they were mostly spent in short “oh, I have a little down time… why not play a quick round of this game”-sessions that regularly turned into… not so short sessions.

    But at least I can now somewhat semi-regularly make it to the Throne itself, even though I haven’t beaten it yet. That has to count for something, doesn’t it? …doesn’t it?

  8. SilentWinter says:

    I played this game for one year straight (put 300+ hours in it) and loved it, unfortuntaly right now I decided to stop playing it because it was too damn frustrating, I realized that I’m just not skilled enough to advance more in the game and fully enjoy it. I hope they’ll tone it down a bit or maybe find a way to mitigate the RNG impact.

  9. Crafter says:

    is there any word on its availability on GOG ?

    • Crafter says:

      and just as I type that, it finally has a GOG page. moving along.

  10. somnolentsurfer says:

    I played the Wasteland Kings build that came in the Humble Game Maker bundle a couple of months back and I’d been tempted to pick the full game up ever since. Maybe now’s the time.

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      amusingthebrood says:

      Wow, thank you for letting me know I have that as well. I’ll give it a go now.

  11. BigPrimeNumbers says:

    Sweet. Had my eye on this for a while. Will definitely play when it makes its way to xone.

  12. Noavailablenames says:

    I have about 100 hours in and I’ve looped around 60 times. Never in all that time have I felt compelled to quit because something felt broken, but I had to own up to me own mistakes over and over. I feel like this game has stimulated me to grow as a person and also contributed to my burgeoning carpal tunnel.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I love this game. It’s what I play when I don’t have that much time, or when I want something that is uncomplicated.

    So far, I’ve managed to reach the Nuclear Throne maybe a dozen times, and I even defeated the boss once. I won’t stop playing for a long time, I think.

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    DantronLesotho says:

    Now that it’s finished, I hope to be able to make actual progress in it. Every time I worked to get somewhere in it, they did an update and it got wiped out. I’m really curious to see the final product, and I’m not surprised it got a good review. Vlambeer doesn’t make a bad game.

  15. The_Sleeve says:

    I bought this game very early on in Early Access and have found it to be the perfect “coffee break” game, meaning you can sit down and have a lot of fun playing it for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. I don’t actually play games when I’m at work – the term “coffee break” is actually used in the roguelike community to refer to any game that can be completed in less than an hour. Since I don’t have much free time in my life, Nuclear Throne sits right beside Spelunky as one of my favorites because I can sit down, have a blast, and get killed within 20 minutes or so. Great stuff. Highly recommended!

  16. Premium User Badge

    Ericusson says:

    Somebody posted on the steam forums a text which summed up the game perfectly. Will find it again.

    The first thing to say about it is : buy it. The amount of time you will spend into it totally justifies the investment.

    Then again, the immense majority of the people will not get to explore the full extant of the game because of its design and difficulty. It will be a good but frustrating experience people will come to. Never seeing the post throne idiot looping system and thus not being able to play with most of the weapons and mutations etc.

    I just find that bad design and balancing.
    Also, I find it disappointing that it took two years just for what the game offers. Isaac on the other end managed to offer a full range of experience and progression through unlocks, all the way for novices to advanced players.
    Here, what you see on your first play is pretty much what you get despite golden weapons and characters unlocks.

    But whatever will be your opinion about it, it is well worth the price for the amount of time and fun you will have with it.

    Maybe do not buy it if you are the kind of person to hit your keyboard and desk very hard when frustrated though. Cause frustration is what the game produces the most in the end.

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      Ericusson says:

      Also giving up on mod support is highly disappointing !

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      Ericusson says:

      link to steamcommunity.com

      This thread about looping and its design or maybe lack off was highly interesting And as a debate about the game difficulty little bit.

      Tushie Cushier made this most well written post about the situation :

      “I just think its entirely stupid for a player to be stomped before they can even ultra mutate or get to experience what the ultra is like. There’s high tier weapons, some cool abilities, and such behind looping that players won’t get to experience because of the sheer warzone that is the desert.

      You can say that the game up to the thrones is the ‘true’ experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s ultra’s, weapons, and even new bosses in loops. Why wouldn’t the average player want to see every characters ultra? Why wouldn’t they want to experience finding their first Super Plasma Cannon as fish? Things like this make up the charm of NT.

      its part of the excitement of loops in the first place, you finally reach your strongest point and get to see all the ultra cool and weird weapons the game has to offer. I don’t know why the devs wouldn’t want players to experience that with pure bullet hell and vans.”

  17. Viral Frog says:

    I’ve been eyeing this game since I first saw it on Early Access (basically right as it released on EA) but I decided to wait until full release. I just got an early Christmas card with some money yesterday, so I decided I’d treat myself to NT. I bought and installed the game at 6:45 PM. The next time I looked at the clock it was 9:30 PM. I died. Over and over again. And not once did I think it was because of some artificially imposed difficulty. It’s actually a legitimately challenging game. I can’t believe I waited so long to pick this game up, but it made it that much better when I finally got around to it.

  18. tailzdru says:

    I got this game on early access quite early on. I’ve managed to clock up around 400+ hours on it. Which is an absurd amount of time.

    My biggest gripe is I don’t feel the end game is ready for release looping as become absurd. While doable the initial levels after the loop can be near impossible to complete.

    Vvlambeer promised to address looping and hard mode before release I’m hoping they continue to release updates.

    100% Recommend this game.