Game Pile: Nuclear Throne

With Sam and Max Hit The Road tucked away, I have to take a quick detour to describe a very different game, a game that is, nonetheless, very important to talking about the point-and-click adventure game, and more importantly, which provides useful context for its sequel episodes. But don’t worry, because the game we’re talking about here is Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne, which is super great and I love it to bits because it’s super great, so this won’t take long.

Okay, Describe How It Plays

This is always the easy one, right? Nuclear Throne is a top-down game with a real sense of activity. You press the button, you move in that direction until you stop pressing that button. Your gun is a purely responsive thing too – you press the button, you pull the trigger, it shoots the gun. You want to shoot more, you press the button more. You want to shoot in a direction, you point the gun in that direction with your mouse or joystick. It’s a very responsive game, and after a bunch of turn-based games and playing older games that tried to do arcade sequences with engines that were not going to pull it off, Nuclear Throne plays like a dream.

It’s not a nice dream, though, because Nuclear throne is a truly merciless roguelike. Set in a post-post-post apocalyptic setting where the humans are gone and life that remains is mostly Extremely Weird and Extremely Extremely dangerous.

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This propogates to the gameplay, too! Because Nuclear Throne is hard as nails and it’s not shy about it. The game has a loading hint saying simply it isn’t fair, and it’s not lying. The game spawns big arenas of random monsters to fight and some levels can be a linear spaghetti-like thread of cover-bouncing back-and-forth shooting, with bank shots and clever positioning, where your weapon choices are all artful and brilliant and some times you get an open field and everything you pull has the same ammo type and hey you’re just screwed.

One of my personal measurements for the quality of a game with frustration-based mechanics is just how it handles a good, sharp alt-f4 quit, and how long it can take to slink back to the game after you’re done being mad at the same for being too hard. In this regard, one of my hallmark games is Hotline Miami, which gets out of your hair fast, but does take a few screens to get going before it comes back. Nuclear Throne is gone in an instant but it also loads in a flash too.

Uh But Have You Finished It?

That said, this difficulty does do its job of keeping the game fresh – sort of. I’ve played the opening sections of this game a few dozen times now and sometimes a run doesn’t even get past the second level. That’s fine, it’s how it’s meant to go. I haven’t finished it – I don’t know if I ever will finish it before I’m done with this singular experience, if there’s going to be a point where I’m done trying at the difficulty curve that feels a bit more like trying to wall-run like a teenager in a mall parking lot.

The issue of play skill has come up with reviewers recently, and while I’m firmly in the it doesn’t matter camp, for all I know, The Nuclear Throne completely bottles it at the last minute. It might have a total wet fart of a conclusion, the final denoument of the narrative may be awful and maybe after twenty-five hours of progress through the game it’ll stop being fun. I don’t know. I can’t tell you what that’s about.

I can tell you how I feel about it, how I feel about the experience. I can tell you how the game responds. I can tell you about the themes and ideas and concepts I see in the game and I can share that with you.

If you want a strategy guide, a or an absolute summary statement of all the content in the game as a final product, sorry. I can’t give you that. I can’t tell you what it’s like to finish The Nuclear Throne.

Sorry.

Now with that tawdry excursion into Gamers Are Breathlessly Concerned About, back to talking about things in this game that are actually interesting:

The Sympathy For Monsters

There isn’t a lot of sympathy in Nuclear Throne for the player’s plight of trying to get to the throne. Players are interruptions in this progression, strange deviations from the norm, people who aren’t already attuned to and okay with the world. They are, in this context, the world’s people.

The people of the world of Nuclear Throne are monsters. Not in their own context – they’re just people, and none of them have any reason to regard one another as weird at all. They’re not even monsters to us – not properly, they don’t inhabit that narrative space. But they are movie monsters. They look like and inhabit the space of apocalyptic movies – Triffids and sea monsters and death robots and horror monsters evolved from the ashes of our civilisation. They are the schlock monsters, the B-movies, the citizens of camp, the princesses and princes and princex of pulp, and the game is quietly and sincerely sympathetic to them.

They are presented as cool little monsters, as funny, as weird in their own ways. The image the story starts with is of a campfire, of all these characters taking a moment with one another. There’s a gentle calmness to it, a cool warmth. Now there’s no reason it should be this way: the character select screen could look like all sorts of other things, if they wanted it to. Instead, Vlambeer chose to frame this story with this moment of the monsters sitting around, enjoying a quiet evening before they set out on their big, troublesome journey.

For a reckless game about shooting and dodging and bullet helling and at least one monster that pukes rats on people, this is an important frame. It means there’s always a sign of some moment – rare as it is – of these characters having time to stop and thinking, time to be safe, time to be calm. It’s humanising, and it’s healing, and in the context of these rounded up monsters, oddball beasts in a land of violence, it reminds me of how many times these monsters were stand-ins in movies for the marginalised and the left behind.

The monsters of Nuclear Throne are most interesting to me because they have, as expressed in such a tiny amount of space, personality. They have identities and style – even when shown as squat, jubbly little sprites and icons on mutation icons. Yet even within those small spaces you learn who is calm and quiet, who is aggressive, who is bloodthirsty and rageful. This isn’t something I think Vlambeer set out to do. I don’t think they said ‘we want to make our monster representation really humanising and comforting.’ I think they designed these monsters to look in a way they liked, and what they know, what they care about showed through.

That’s the thing that Nuclear Throne has at its core: The things it’s doing, the things it’s about, are all things that the people involved clearly love and care about. I’m not doing to do some advanced textual reading about what they think of old schlock movies or post-apocalyptica beyond they clearly like those movies. Let that be the lesson of Nuclear Throne even if I never finish it, even if I never can finish it: What you love shows in what you do, and knowing that is powerful.

Verdict

You can get Nuclear Throne on Steam, GOG, and Humble.

Verdict

Get it if:

  • You want a rewarding frantic click-and-shooter
  • You like procedural map generation and fast decision making

Avoid it if:

  • You need to feel, the second you pick up a game, that you will finish it, even if just as a creative fiction for yourself
  • You’re not into losing a lot

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