Vlambeer's latest pocket of panicky delight is an intense arcade roguelike that rivals Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac.
Super Crate Box and Luftrausers developer Vlambeer has always excelled at short, sweet bursts of action. When the Dutch developer revealed the release date for its mobile hit Ridiculous Fishing, it chose not to do so via a proper trailer, but rather a seven-second Vine. This flashy, bite-sized nugget of media summed up the tiny studio's works well: zippy, bombastic, and comical. Immediately attention-grabbing and over before you know it, Vlambeer's mobile and handheld titles were the perfect way to while away those wayward minutes when waiting in transit. Yet these were tailor-made for the on-the-go crowd. Would this ethos carry across into a larger game, Vlambeer's most ambitious to date: the action-roguelike Nuclear Throne?
The answer is a resounding yes. With Nuclear Throne, Vlambeer has taken what it does best - petite pockets of panicky delight - and tethered it to the larger structure of Spelunky. It wouldn't be the first game to try that, of course. Derek Yu's platforming roguelike has seen a smorgasbord of imitators, even if the best brought their own unique spin to the formula. The Binding of Isaac opted for a top-down Zelda throwback, Galak-Z offered an anime space-combat twist, and Downwell narrowed the focus to a single vertical corridor. It's a crowded scene, yet Nuclear Throne manages to stand apart with its own frenetic flavour.
Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by cutesy mutants vying for power, Nuclear Throne's colourful palette and mechanics owe a lot to Dennaton Games' cult classic, Hotline Miami. Played from a top-down perspective, players control their avatar with the left stick and move the direction of their targeting reticule with the right (or mouse if you're playing on PC). This isn't a chaotic twin-stick shooter, however, nor is it a traditional bullet-hell affair (though it can be just that at times). Instead, players have to be deliberate with their shots. Ammo isn't scarce, but it is limited, so you'll frequently find yourself having to switch weapons as you come to the horrifying realisation that you're firing blanks into an oncoming swarm of mutants. Being methodical is important, as certain armaments take a painfully long time to reload, and there's splash damage from your attacks. One poorly timed grenade clipping the corner of a corridor could result in your almighty warriors' instant demise.
This can be truly heartbreaking when you're on a roll, as a game over sends you all the way back to the beginning, with none of your power-ups intact. And what power-ups they are! Some offer an extended HP meter, greater chances at acquiring health and ammo, or more powerful weapons (bouncy shotgun shells, homing bolts, lengthier melee attacks, etc), but others offer more unique attributes. Initially I always opted for Bloodlust, a perk that randomly rewards an extra hit point upon slaying a foe, but the more I experimented, the more difficult a choice deciding my upgrades became. Hammerhead lets you briefly burrow through walls, which sounds trivial until I realised the importance of retreating to an alcove in an open battlefield. Another upgrade lets you harm enemies by simply walking into them, while another makes corpses fly further, knocking about any nearby foes.
It's a varied system made more complex by Nuclear Throne's rogues' gallery of playable characters, each with their own abilities. So far, my favourite is Fish, who can perform an evasive roll, though there's a compelling argument to be made for the Crystal, who can turn into an immobile shield and starts with a longer life bar. One of the most interesting is Melting, a globby mutant who begins with a scant two hit points, but can explode the corpses of their enemies with the touch of a button. It's a tough character to play as, but never less than exhilarating as you remotely detonate the bodies of your adversaries when they're surrounded by comrades.
The weapons, too, are all unique and fantastic. Crossbows are slow to reload, but offer laser sights for more precise aiming and can penetrate multiple targets at once, shotguns offer wide bursts of weaker damage, and explosives are mighty deadly - as much for you as your enemy. Things only get more complex as you find high-powered weaponry like an Automatic Flame Shotgun or a crossbow that shoots toxic cloud-emitting darts.
What separates Nuclear Throne most from its genre competitors is its pacing. This is a swift game. Not only is the screen often filled with all manner of terrifying creatures that wish to make you very, very dead, but each round only lasts a matter of minutes. Spelunky might be my favourite game ever, but once you get good enough at it, each game can average upwards of 40 minutes. The Binding Of Isaac - probably the game most similar to Nuclear Throne - can take double that. Comparatively, Nuclear Throne's brisk 10-15 minute sessions are harder to resist. (Of course, this makes it so compelling that you'll likely end up playing for another couple of hours, but I digress.)
Nuclear Throne acquires another layer of havoc when played in two-player co-op. Here ammo is scarcer, split between parties, and explosive weapons can harm your partner. The real danger, however, comes from watching your compatriot's back. Should they fall in battle, you only have a few seconds to rescue them before your own HP rapidly starts draining. This added responsibility makes two-player Nuclear Throne an even greater challenge, but I've no doubt that experienced players with good communication skills can successfully tag-team it to the end. It's certainly a fun way to play.
Compared to Spelunky or The Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne may not have quite the same degree of depth (even if it isn't short of secrets), but moment for moment, it's every bit as engaging. It's a challenging game packed with a multitude of micro-decisions as you build your character's abilities and arsenal, only to die minutes later. Time moves differently in Nuclear Throne, and it may sound like an insult to say that an hour of Nuclear Throne feels like several hours in real-time - but that's not because it's boring, it's because a lot can happen in an hour. By that point, you've lived and died several times over, each time surviving some of the most turbulent firefights imaginable. With Nuclear Throne, Vlambeer has stepped up its scope and entered another crowded arena, with no shortage of competitors vying for a spot in your library next to Spelunky. But the studio's trademark spark of mayhem and whimsy make it a real contender for king-slayer.