The concept of the roguelike has, shall we say, saturated the market for the last couple of years now. Starting around 2011, developers big and small clamored to incorporate the major pillars of the genre into their games, varying in both extent and effect. For many, that clamoring amounted to some form of procedural generation, but a few developers found themselves struck by the concept itself: the stress of a continuous, independent “run”, the obtuse flow of information, the seemingly never-ending well of secrets.
When Nuclear Throne first hit Steam’s Early Access program in 2013, one could’ve easily dismissed it as little more than an attempt by Vlambeer to capitalize on industry demand. Over the course of the next couple years, though, it became increasingly clear that the developers weren’t simply interested in co-opting roguelike “buzzwords.” Instead, Vlambeer built upon those concepts to create something both very familiar and decidedly unique.
A solid foundation is all well and good, but it rarely matters to the folks above ground. More often than not, they’re interested in what they can see and interact with: in this case, the gameplay. Were Nuclear Throne’s action not intense, stressful, and rewarding, those roguelike underpinnings would be for naught. Thankfully, the game feels exactly how a twin-stick shooter/roguelike should, melding the genres seamlessly. The controls are both simple (not counting the joysticks, it utilizes a total of five buttons) and tight, so while you might be up against overwhelming odds at times, each death feels like a direct consequence of your inadequacy.
Similarly, the objective is quite clear. Each randomly generated level serves as one step on the path to the enigmatic “Nuclear Throne” and contains a collection of folks who aren’t too keen on letting would-be royalty anywhere near it. Naturally, you just happen to have your heart set on the whole “King of the Wasteland” thing, meaning that twin-stick hijinx must inevitably ensue. Along the way, you’ll collect a number of weapons, mutations, and other such collectibles to assist you in your journey. The game offers enough substantial variety that, while you aren’t necessarily tripping over brand new items every run, you never quite get the feeling that you’ve seen it all. Even during the most innocuous of runs, you’ll find yourself checking the next container, hoping that it holds a surprise.
The roster of characters injects a good dose of both mystery and variability as well, with each character offering stark changes in playstyle. You’ll start with just Fish and Crystal, who both center around damage avoidance and changing the way the game interacts with you. Soon enough, though, the “heroes” at your disposal will dramatically change the way you interact with levels and the enemies within them.
The path to the throne is, to a large extent, linear, so it’s easy to track the progression of your real-life skills as each run brings you closer and closer to your goal. That said, there are plenty of unlockables to fawn over in the meantime. Nuclear Throne is by no means a vanguard of this carrot-on-a-stick combination of real-life and in-game achievements, but it accomplishes it effortlessly. Instead of constantly hanging the next unlockable over your head, it merely hints at the fact that those unlockables could exist and be obtained. The lack of hand-holding may not be for everyone, but I can’t imagine accepting any other format for a game that purports itself to be influenced by roguelikes.
Sadly, on the co-op front, Nuclear Throne finds itself stumbling into the well-worn pitfalls of the genre. A two player local co-op mode is the offering here and, while fun, it can be frustratingly chaotic and occasionally undermines the most important aspect of the game: player agency. In the single player experience, combat is fast and furious, but also graspable. It may take some time, but you gradually get better and better at being able to quickly take in your surroundings and react accordingly. That’s not to say you’ll always act correctly, but you at least feel like the game is consistently presenting its challenges to you in an honest fashion. In co-op, the screen becomes cluttered exponentially quicker, making it far more difficult to internalize and react the way you could otherwise. As a result, deaths can feel less consequential and more random, which dramatically lessens the desire to jump right back in (another crucial component to the genre). It’s also worth mentioning that the game requires both players to be alive to make any sort of progress, as a dead and unrevived partner slowly and inevitably causes their living compatriot to bleed out. It’s understandable from a balance perspective, but it can lead to frustrating situations where the living player has no option but to resign themselves to failure.
These annoyances can be overcome, thankfully, but the caveat is that both players must accept what could be considered an “impure” experience, or at least one that doesn’t seem to quite match the developer’s intended vision. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that mindset, of course. As you might’ve seen on the site’s recent Thursday night streams, myself and Taylor Killian have still had a blast bashing our heads against the game for an hour each week. The two of us have never walked away from a session with a sour taste in our mouths, but it could be a tough pill to swallow for players who wish for a more traditional roguelike experience.
If you’ve read any of my prior reviews, you’ve probably gathered that I’m a total sucker for what are typically considered the tertiary components of a game: music, art, sound design, etc. In this arena, Nuclear Throne excels. The pixel-art and aural components match nicely with the game’s themes, both aesthetically and mechanically. They’re both quite simple on a surface level, but contain numerous evocative details that subconsciously pull you into the experience. Each sound effect and action feels “chunky”, weighty, and, importantly, feeds into that feeling of control by providing you with distinct cues as to what’s happening around you. The standout for me is the soundtrack composed by Luftrausers alum, Jukio Kallio, who combines an energetic chiptune vibe with the dourness of a Sergio Leone soundtrack to make you feel like, by god, you’ve got a Nuclear Throne to ascend, and ain’t nobody gonna keep you from doing just that.
If you’re looking for a satisfying co-op roguelike experience, you could do much, much worse than Nuclear Throne. Despite its shortcomings in the transition from single player to co-op, it’s still a blast to shoot, swing, and roll your way through the nuclear wasteland with a buddy at your side. By the end of each session, you’ll both feel bruised, hapless, and in some tiny ways, triumphant. If that’s not the closest you can get to life on a long-irradiated planet, I don’t know what is.