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How much digital abuse can someone willingly take before they throw in the towel? How many times can one be virtually slapped in the face until they put down the controller for the day? It seems like games are getting more and more willing to test this threshold, from infamous names like Dark Souls to the smaller-scale frustrations provided by the roguelike genre. There’s something appealing about being pushed to the limits, to really challenge your ability. After all, to quote The Flaming Lips, “pain and pleasure both get you high.”
Heady philosophical crap aside, these kinds of games have to be entertaining, or else there’s no reason to even pick up that controller in the first place. That’s where something like Nuclear Throne comes in. Previously known as Wasteland Kings, Nuclear Throne might seem like yet another generic buzzword wet-dream – an early access top-down 2D pixel art randomly generated roguelike shooter – but the difference here is that Nuclear Throne is fun as hell.
Out of early access and into the irradiated wastes, the PC version of Nuclear Throne has finally been launched as a completed game in conjunction with a release on Sony systems. So saying it’s an “early access” game is a bit of a misnomer, but since it had been lingering in that limbo for over two years, it’s probably still how most people remember it. This final version definitely feels more complete, especially in terms of ammunition for stacking up against bigger roguelikes like Spelunky and Binding of Isaac. Since the last time I played, the game now has a daily challenge mode, as well as an improved local co-op mode.
In terms of gameplay, the best comparison I can draw is to Hotline Miami. Movement is mapped to WASD, you (obviously) shoot with left click, special move with right click, and switch between your two weapons with the mouse wheel. That’s it. Nuclear Throne is such a fast-paced experience that anything else would hinder the gameplay; everything is kept minimal and lean so your mind is on surviving and not on trying to figure out which damn button uses such-and-such item.
The game’s fast pacing comes across as one of its biggest strengths, and also where it manages to differentiate itself from other popular roguelikes. With Binding of Isaac for example, the average run can last anywhere from 35 minutes upwards depending on how fast or how good you are. For me, a typical go at Nuclear Throne lasts about up to 15 minutes max, and that’s a rarity. Everything happens so quick that it’s easy to sink ten or twenty attempts in as many minutes. And of course, that’s where things get difficult.
Nuclear Throne mostly gleans difficultly from a bullet hell philosophy, especially in later levels. At most points, there’s a lot happening on screen, and whatever that might be will be trying to murder you. Between how fast everything moves and how many projectiles are flying at you at any given time, things get intense quick. It’s not uncommon for a run to end in a literal blink of an eye, but the game gives you plenty of ways to (attempt to) prevent that from happening, like the various upgrades and the wonderful gallery of characters at your disposal.
Your characters, which are just as colorful as the game’s palette, have a wide variety of abilities at their disposal – for example, the basic character Fish, a kind of Creature From The Black Lagoon mutant, can roll out of the way of bullets, whereas Melting, a character you unlock by dying, has low HP but the ability to explode corpses. Unlocking the various characters provides a plethora of ways to play the game, as do the upgrades you get by collecting “rads” and leveling up. You get to choose from four random upgrades every time you level up, and they include everything from better accuracy to regenerating HP and ammo from kills.
Even if Nuclear Throne doesn’t have the extensive random customization of something like Binding of Isaac, it really doesn’t need it. The sheer entertainment value of the gameplay itself is enough to keep me going at it for extended periods of time, and I don’t feel like I’m under some obligation to “see” everything the game has to show me. Although there are some cool weapons in Nuclear Throne (like a toxic crossbow in later levels), there are no “insane” item combos you’re going to want to show off on your Twitch stream.
It’s the pure reliance on eye-blink adrenaline-pumping gameplay that, paradoxically, makes Nuclear Throne unique among other roguelikes. Sure the maps are randomly generated, but if you don’t have to search them to find a shopkeep or item room, why does it matter? The most you’ll be trying to traverse the environment is to find cover from the oncoming storm of laser beams. There’s no pretentions in Nuclear Throne, no unnecessary mechanics, or pointless inclusions to slow down a run time. And yes, there are secrets, but even those feel flawlessly integrated.
Overall, Nuclear Throne is a dark horse contender for one of the best roguelikes in recent memory. Everything about it, from the visual style to the quick n’ brutal pacing, feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre that’s become too bogged down by reliance on randomization for replay value, item collecting, speed runs, and other such nonsense. And I don’t want to say those are necessarily bad things, but Nuclear Throne is proof that sometimes all it takes is damn solid gameplay. Who’da thought?