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Wot I Think: Nuclear Throne

The Wasteland King

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.

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