Vlambeer, the small team behind the 2014 aerial shoot-em-up Luftrausers, has struck gold twice with their latest offering, Nuclear Throne. To the untrained eye, this atom bomb baby could easily be mistaken for a pixelated maelstrom of apocalyptic chaos. However, Nuclear Throne glows bright with irradiated magnificence, mutating the regular roguelike format to provide mastery of gameplay design unlike almost anything else within the genre. Within moments of taking your first, tentative, mutant footsteps into the game, you will be instantly hooked and unable to escape the exhilarating cycle of enjoyment that Nuclear Throne offers.
Upon starting the game you are presented with a choice of characters, each with their own individual mutations and abilities. These range from extra ammo and the ability to roll with fish, to being able to eat your own weapons as a robot to regain vital life and bullets. Once you’ve chosen an apocalyptic pal you are plopped into the first level and left to vaporise, squash, incinerate and make green-fleshed Swiss cheese out of all the other mutants. This being a roguelike, every game is different, providing a new level, enemy, and weapon layout unique to you. The levels (of which there are fifteen) continue until you reach the titular, coveted Nuclear Throne.
The premise alone warrants a look, but Nuclear Throne plays a blinder with its spectacular gameplay. It takes the form of a twin-stick shooter, with the only other actions being to shoot your gun and use your special ability. This simplicity absolutely works in the game’s favour, allowing you to instantly pick up and play without being weighed down by a control scheme more complicated than nuclear physics. Starting out with a simple revolver, you have to clear each level of enemies before proceeding on to the next.
The enemy design, like the gameplay, is outstanding, and potentially even dethrones the king of wondrously weird enemy types, The Binding of Isaac. Beginning in the opening levels set in an irradiated desert, you are confronted by gruesome burrower mother slugs nesting with stomach-clenching little ones, Jedi-robed mutants, and giant scorpions shooting dazzlingly dangerous lasers. By the time you finally claw your way to the throne room, you would have encountered everything from SMG-toting flying ravens, floating crystals of insta-death, ravenous robotic wolves, and even more besides. All of these await their demise by means of an arsenal of weapons which would make even the most red-blooded Republican dewy-eyed in wonder.
With such a dizzying array of death-dealing machinery, it is easy to see why the world of Nuclear Throne has become a wasteland dominated by murderous mutants. You get regular stuff such as assault rifles, crossbows, shotguns, and sledgehammers, but soon these make way for some truly amazing weapons. If you get tired of your machine gun why not try one with three barrels, or maybe perhaps a fully automatic crossbow, a nuclear missile launcher or even a screwdriver. It’s mind-blowing how much variety Vlambeer provides. Every level comes stocked with at least one weapon chest, with even more drooping from defeated foes. You can only carry two at a time so you’ll be chopping and changing your arsenal every time you stumble upon a shiny new toy.
The game features a levelling system, which resets upon dying and firing up a new run. Once the necessary amount of XP has been gathered, upon ending the level, you are presented with four random perks, from which you can choose one to buff your character. These range from the rock-hard Rhino Skin offering +4 HP, to the ability to regain health by killing enemies. It’s a fantastic addition to the formula, and furthers the individuality of every playthrough. You’ll never get the same amalgamation of perks, and soon a whole deeply satisfying meta-game will unravel as you calculate the ideal perk-to-weapon-to mutant skull combination needed to steal the throne.
All of these atomic elements fuse together to form an explosively outstanding experience. With Nuclear Throne, Vlambeer has quite possibly made one of the all-time great rogue-likes. What appears to be simply a small, 8-bit pixelated indie titles is in fact an unfathomable deep game, with almost limitless substance. There is so much here; the phenomenal gameplay and inexhaustible random-generation of level layout, weapon drops and enemy choices will keep you coming back again and again.