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A year on the Throne

Life with Nuclear Throne, Vlambeer's ever-mutating roguelike.

Watching an Early Access game evolve over time is a strange, changeable, exhilarating experience. All the more so when the fixes and updates, buffs and embellishments seem to act as a kind of parallel to the often-tumultuous shifts of direction in your own life - a monster-strewn, post-apocalyptic mirror world.

Where were you when they added 'pure energy being' Horror to the roster as both an enemy and a secret character? Funny you should ask; I was dealing with a mouse infestation and living in a room not dissimilar in atmosphere to Nuclear Throne's sewer stage - but with unpacked boxes instead of toxic barrels. I remember this well, because at one point I found myself simultaneously splattering a rat in the game and barking at its smaller cousin on my bookshelf.

Then there's what's lost along the way. We've been treated to throwaway tems and features like an FPS mode and the Party Gun, which permitted players to litter the harsh desert terrain with coloured streamers in celebration of Nuclear Throne's first anniversary. Such moments, like my Nuclear Throne birthday cake, are effectively gone forever.

That birthday cake was made for me by A., also a keen Nuclear Throne player - and here's where the playing experience interweaves almost inextricably with the personal. A. and I have been seeing each other around the same time Nuclear Throne came out.

Nuclear Throne's mutants speak 'Trashtalk', a simple language invented by sound designer Joonas Turner.

It's hard to remember exactly when Nuclear Throne became our go-to couch co-op game, but it's certainly been that way for most of the time we've been going out. When A. spent a week in quarantine at Flu Camp, we played Risk of Rain, which she liked, and a very small amount of Borderlands 2, which she hated. I wasn't sure whether she'd take to Nuclear Throne. It's a murderously fast and brutal game - a rougelike that can extinguish all your hard-won progress in mere moments if you spawn surrounded by dog guardians, run out of ammo at a critical point, or suffer an exploding car to the face while trying to exit the level. The randomised elements keep you constantly on your toes, even when you've learned - through long, bloody experience - to accurately predict the movements of lone scorpions, tank patrols and roving packs of rats.

As it turned out, A. would go on to play even more Nuclear Throne than me. These days she's the more proficient player. She regularly finishes the main part of the game and loops (the game restarts and remixes itself indefinitely once you beat the Throne itself) in the short breaks she takes between assignments. I'm the weak link in our co-op games - hanging back under cover like Robert Vaughn in The Magnificent Seven while she clears a room of bandits, birds and snipers. More worryingly, Nuclear Throne has demonstrated a tendency to offer analogies for the conflicts in our relationship, not to mention the different ways we deal with problems. When we first started out, A. went straight for the character with the most defensive capabilities - gem-creature Crystal, who can turn herself invulnerable - while I honed in on Melting, a character with a mere two hit points. As well as feeling real affection for Melting, who's essentially a sad skeleton still clinging to the bubbly remains of his flesh, I reasoned that if I could learn to beat the game as him, I could triumph as any of the other characters. Head for the steep hill in the hope it can only get easier afterward; find strength through vulnerability.

My other key memory of those early days was A. calling me out for taking first pick of the weapons. There are limited chests in every level, and ammo drops fade fast, so I was running on 'grab-and-go' instincts honed in other shooters. If there was a crossbow lying around and an assassin on my case, I didn't wait to have a debate about it; I put a bolt through the bounder's single red eye. This resulted, as A. correctly observed, in her having to make do with my cast-offs as I traded up weapons every stage. To her mind, I was taking the best for myself, leaving her at a permanent disadvantage. Later, after she'd played solo for a while and gained confidence, the situation was reversed and we were able to reason it out, having each walked a mile in the other's mutated feet.

The cake was not a lie.

Dying - especially in the days when Nuclear Throne was slightly more glitchy, slightly more bewildering - was sometimes infuriating. The first few times I fought my way to the scrapyard, I died in a ghoulash of fire, bullets and laser sights without even getting a sense of what kind of enemies I was up against. A. wondered aloud whether I was really enjoying a game that inspired such rage in me. I wanted to explain: it's not the dying; it's the not knowing why I died. If I don't know how it happened, how can I prevent it happening again? This came out as "I'VE BEEN KILLED BY SOMETHING I DON'T UNDERSTAND" - disturbingly close to the line I took in some of our bust-ups. (Note: Nuclear Throne's death screen now lets you know exactly what killed you.)

Then there was the toxic launcher incident. "What happened?" asked A. "You killed me," I muttered grimly. Knowing my health was low but not noticing where I'd positioned myself, she'd inadvertently tacked a toxic grenade - one of the items whose effects can hurt players themselves - onto the cavern wall beside me. We argued about this and other incidences where defeat might have been preventable with a little more natural synergy. The biggest problem is that the screen doesn't split in co-op mode: the further apart you drift, the more your line of sight is reduced, making it easier for enemies to jump you. At any point, one of you can walk off the screen entirely, blind in the face of almost certain death. Wasteland suicide. That's one way to short-circuit a debate about fair apportionment of ammo.

I particularly remember the week Vlambeer parachuted flame shotguns into Nuclear Throne. They immediately supplanted sluggers and laser rifles as our favourite weapons, and to this day, A.'s combo of choice is the double flame shotty and the toxic bow. Finding one and not laying claim to it - but rather, holding the line with an inferior armament while shouting, "YOU TAKE IT! GO ON!"- soon became a little ritual of generosity between us. It was around that time we started talking seriously about moving in together.

After I kill you, I'll make your corpse explode.

Then, one day, I beat the Throne for the first time and looped. As was our habit at that point, A. was playing Crystal and I Plant. We had a good thing going: Plant could hide behind Crystal when she took on her invulnerable form, while in turn, Plant's snares prevented enemies getting too close and turned any narrow space into a choke point. On this particular run, A. died in the second zone of the Palace, right before the final boss. When I beat both phases of the boss on my own, A. put down her controller and said she was done, that there didn't seem any point in playing anymore.

My sense of achievement turned sour immediately. "What are you talking about? This isn't the end. We haven't done it together yet." I also pointed out that we weren't even playing the final iteration of the game. How could it be considered beaten when it might be decided next week that the combination of weapons and mutations I'd used to beat the Throne were too powerful and needed rebalancing? One of the tantalising notions embedded in Nuclear Throne's lore is that each run at the game represents how events play out in one of an almost infinite number of near-identical, equally doomed dimensions. If so, the one where Crystal dies and Plant ... well, lives only a little longer - that can't be the definitive story. There's got to be a better version out there.

A. did eventually return to it. She trashed the Throne on her own repeatedly, and plunged further into the second loop of the game than I ever had. After that, she finally stopped playing Crystal, and joined me in experimenting with other characters.

So where do we go from here? Vlambeer say the game is well over the half way point. I have a lot of catching up to do skill-wise, and neither A. or I have unlocked any Ultra Mutations yet. A new secret area has just been added, and we've got to work out how to find it. Then we have to survive it. "The struggle continues".