That familiar, yet furious thrum that sits at the heart of every Vlambeer game is most assuredly present and accounted for in Nuclear Throne; any of the many gameplay videos spread around the interwebs will show you that much. Yet while the frenetic pace is something of a hallmark for the maverick Dutch studio, so it is too that Nuclear Throne, much like its own cast of radioactive protagonists, evolves beyond expectation and demonstrates excellence far and beyond what its outwardly brash and chaotic visage might suggest.
In keeping with Vlambeer’s penchant for the clever engineering of simplicity before deeper sophistications manifest themselves, Nuclear Throne starts out in easy to grasp fashion – the player has to pick a radioactive monster before charging out into the scorched earth of a post-apocalyptic, procedurally generated landscape, laying waste to all in an effort to reach the titular Nuclear Throne. A roguelike, twin-stick shooter that recalls aesthetics from the arcade scene of the late 1980’s, Nuclear Throne is every bit a homage to the coin-guzzlers of yesteryear as much as it is a card-carrying member of the nu-indie scene.
From the start players have the choice of which mutant they wish to play as, with only two available from the off, the rest are unlocked through a neatly incentivised scheme of achieving progression-based milestones. Starting with a duo of default mutants named Fish and Crystal, it soon becomes apparent that there are some pretty meaningful differences between the various selections. In addition to a passive ability such as faster movement or higher health, each mutant is also able to trigger a unique special ability that further separates them from their grotesque brethren, while the amusingly named ‘Throne Butt’ skill effectively makes those triggered abilities even more potent than they were before.
The question over what the Nuclear Throne actually is, or why one would even want to get there, remains perennially opaque and yet, such things don’t matter because Vlambeer’s latest is far more concerned with distracting the player with ragged, moment to moment thrills to even care. Indeed, as with just about everything else about the game, the difficulty curve in Nuclear Throne is meticulously well-tuned, and such aforementioned thrills come thick and fast as early on with forgiving enemy types that are far less durable and shoot their volleys much slower, allowing new players ample time to get to grips with the game’s fundamentals without frustration.
One such masterfully handled fundamental is the perk system or rather, the mutation dynamic that Nuclear Throne embraces as its take on it. Here, players can scoop up shiny green rads during each level which can be collected from laying waste to your radioactive foes or by busting open green-hued caches. Once a sufficient amount of the glinting trinkets has been collected and our mutant is levelled up, one perk from a quartet may be chosen after the level has been finished.
The range of these mutations available are brilliantly varied and can really shift the dynamic of Nuclear Throne, encompassing everything from increased health and improved ammo drops, through to enemy debuffing effects such as slowing down their attacks or reducing their health. Naturally, these mutations can be progressively stacked throughout the game, allowing for some truly potent end-game mutants, however some mutations can also exacerbate or nullify the effect of others, thus permitting the sort of creative latitude for experimenting with mutation combinations that ends up being both substantial in scope and irresistibly compelling.
Aside from the game’s adherence to the roguelike template with elements such as procedurally generated levels, permadeath and perk accrual, Nuclear Throne’s take on the traditional top-down, twin-stick shooter is given the sort of eclectic treatment that one would expect from a new-rock developer such as Vlambeer.
A big part of what makes Nuclear Throne tick over so beautifully is how the various weapons are both presented and handled. Contemporary firearms such as pistols, shotguns and machine guns soon give way to the likes of more exotic post-apocalyptic fare including toxic grenade launchers, laser guns and sticky bomb cannons and in all cases, each weapon proves useful for a variety of situations. Pin-point accurate laser guns can be used to shoot down narrow corridors for example, while the massive area-of-effect damage produced by explosive armaments proves to indelibly effective in decimating crowds of enemies.
In addition to their bespoke effectiveness, each weapon acquits itself quite admirably in the audiovisual stakes too with satisfying heft and a screen-shaking thrum accompanying every barrage let loose from their barrels. In short, killing stuff in Nuclear Throne doesn’t just look good, it feels good too. Oh and it isn’t just the trigger-based weapons that get all the glory either; melee weapons meanwhile, turn out to have a surprising use beyond their usual bludgeoning/stabbing vocation, as these useful tools are able to deflect projectiles back at the enemy and can be quite effective in the hands of a player with great timing and poise.
As much as Nuclear Throne would appear to encourage players to favour a reckless approach to its twin-stick shooter beats, so too does the game also seek to promote a more tactical, patient perspective as well. Nowhere is this duality better reflected than in the procedural level design. You see, while procedural design by its very nature skews rather heavily toward the random, there are definite and constant instances of cover and rest-enabling conclaves scattered across every level. In this way, Nuclear Throne frequently feels much more like a twin-stick shooter operating in the present, rather than wallowing exclusively in the past, as it embraces cover shooter elements in a fashion that its genre stablemates typically would not.
Still though, for as much as Nuclear Throne’s triumphs lie in updating the classic twin-stick shooter formula with more palatable and contemporary elements, there is something to be said for how it also leverages more classic fare, too. Traditional hazards such as exploding barrels, slippery ice surfaces and movement stymieing spiderwebs all make an appearance in Nuclear Throne and rather than seeming out of place in this rambunctious take on the arcade shooter, they instead deftly compliment the meaningful strides made elsewhere in its impressive design.
In further nod to tradition, bosses also make their mark in Nuclear Throne with tremendous aplomb. An impressively daunting mix of massive cover-shattering wasteland gangsters through to homing missile, bullet-hell spouting deathbots, Vlambeer’s latest also brings a fresh take to these hostile titans by dumping them in a surprise location during the course of a level, rather than having them inhabit their own area. As one might guess, this makes the proceedings infinitely more chaotic as the player has to not just contend with the boss, but also with whatever else was kicking about in the level before the big bad showed up.
If we’re talking about surprises, then the menacing IDPD is worth a mention too. A squad of wasteland police which are hellbent on murdering your throne-seeking mutant, these uniformed thugs function like Nuclear Throne’s bosses in one way, in so far as they can just spontaneously warp into middle of whatever battle you are currently embroiled in, thereby effecting the same level of surprise as the game’s boss foes manage to do. Elsewhere, further surprise emerges in the form of the black holes that appear to close out each level since as soon as the final enemy has been felled, these things immediately suck your mutant in towards them regardless of whatever loot is left on the map.
What all of these elements add up to is an horrendously entertaining and engaging shooter that keeps you hammering the trigger, even when the post-death breakdown screen appears, just so you can get back into the thick of it that much quicker. It’s a game that is as easily accessible to play as much as it takes an age to master its myriad of idiosyncrasies.
As grandly broad as Nuclear Throne’s design is, its potency is only amplified when played co-operatively with a friend. Simply put, the game is great fun when played co-operatively but it’s worth noting that the game functions on a same screen basis and as such requires players to be very mindful of each other’s personal space since the screen will only scroll in one direction. If however, you and your friends have been galvanised by the same-screen shenanigans of Helldivers, then you will find little to be troublesome in Nuclear Throne’s frequently entertaining and hilarious local co-op sessions.
Aesthetically, Nuclear Throne is a bolshy, loud and colourful effort. Certainly, both the player characters and the monsters that they blast/smack to pieces look like they’ve escaped the imagination chambers of an eight-year old hopped up on more E numbers than the entirety of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Hooded wasteland gangsters, robotic wolves, giant rats and gun-toting eagles are all brilliantly realised enemies to fight against and help to cast our minds back to a simpler time where the ridiculous was often the most entertaining. From its cast of colourful mutants and wasteland adversaries, through to its use of 1980’s arcade font and vibrant pixellated explosions, there is a blissfully ragtag charm to the presentation of Nuclear Throne.
If Vlambeer’s latest stumbles in any way, such transgressions are minor but still take a little sheen off of what is otherwise arguably one of the greatest twin-stick shooters of recent memory. Undoubtedly the biggest of these is the baffling lack of online mulitplayer, whose omission seems all the more glaring considering the joy that its local equivalent reliably facilitates. Elsewhere, a slight lack of polish is also noticeable too, with occasionally clipped text and the odd connectivity error blighting the game’s otherwise hugely fun daily and weekly challenge modes.
Although we’ve borne witness to many an arcade retro shooter over the years, the sheer quality of Vlambeer’s craft with Nuclear Throne is such that it directly implies that the Dutch developer has a far more nuanced and practiced grasp of the genre than most. A tremendous game that can provide substantial thrills through its familiar yet effervescent charms, in a year with so many great games, it seems greedy, almost cheeky even that we should get one more must-have classic right at the close of it.