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Nuclear Throne was super popular when it released back in 2015. Never to the degree that, say, Overwatch or Dota 2 were popular, but enough that it consistently sat near the top of most streamed games. Completely reasonable, too, given the nature of the game and how spectator-friendly it is: easy to understand, easy to watch.
This top-down roguelike-like shooter, developed by Vlambeer, has the player progress through procedurally generated levels in search of the Nuclear Throne, which the player is tasked with destroying, but at the risk of permadeath. If you die, you have to start over. The player chooses to play as one of 12 characters, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, some of whom need to be unlocked through gameplay. Enemies drop physical XP on death, and when enough XP is collected, the player can purchase upgrades. Levels also contain chests, which drop weapons of varying sorts when touched.
The barren wastelands of post-apocalyptic Nuclear Throne are a perfect analog for its gameplay: shallow, barren, and meaningless. It’s an addictive game, but offers little beyond mindless, repetitive attempts at survival—although it certainly pulls that off well enough to be enjoyable if you’re into that sort of thing.
The most impressive aspects of Nuclear Throne are its tight gameplay loop, clean and simple controls, and satisfying user feedback. This is something that Vlambeer has mastered over the years, and you can tell that the developers paid careful attention to which gameplay elements were essential and which weren’t, pulling no punches when it came to cutting out the non-essentials. All the pieces fit together to create a streamlined game, complete with enough screenshakes, explosive animations, and old-bit sound effects to make you feel like you’re playing a title from the golden age of arcades.
I like the approach Nuclear Throne takes with regard to character upgrades, which are called mutations. When you level up, you’re given four upgrades to pick from, and they’re randomly selected from a larger pool of possible choices. It’s the perfect balance: enough options so that you’re never cornered into a crappy level up, but varied enough that no two runs are exactly the same. Throw in the option to play as different characters and the variety goes up even more, although I personally always played as the same two chumps.
I also appreciate the difficulty of Nuclear Throne. Even though we’ve seen a kind of rennaissance with Souls-like games that sell themselves on how hard they are to beat, the overall landscape of gaming has long moved away from punishingly difficult games. Player skill and dexterity play a huge role in Nuclear Throne, and it’s genuinely refreshing to play an action game where your success is based more on what you can do than which items you’ve acquired and how big your numbers are.
I’ll admit that I’ve yet to destroy the Nuclear Throne once after 30+ hours, although I’ve reached it a handful of times. Depending on how much you like it, you could easily sink 100+ hours into Nuclear Throne.
Nuclear Throne is like building a house of cards. One by one, each enemy killed is another card added to the pile, stacking higher and higher as you go. A few cards might slip here or there and cause your heart to skip, and occasionally the entire house crumbles—so you sigh and start again. You soldier on with another attempt, in the hopes that maybe this time you’ll be able to smile, step back, and say you successfully completed a house of cards. How many times are you going to try again until you wise up and realize that you’ve just spent several hours chasing after an empty goal? And for what? Is the satisfaction worth the effort?
Hmm, hard to say.
And whereas building a house of cards is entirely skill-based, Nuclear Throne has an element of luck built into it in the form of procedural generation. Truth is, there’s a limit to how skillful you can be in this game. Good movement, good aim, and good resource management are the three main skills, but beyond that, you’re at the mercy of RNG. If you don’t get good weapon drops, if you don’t get good mutation options, if the map is generated against your favor, if the monsters spawn in unfortunate clusters, if you start in a bad spot and physically can’t outmaneuver bullet patterns or monster behaviors… well, then you’re boned.
Nuclear Throne is a lot of things. It’s pulse-pounding, it’s charming, it’s satisfying at times, but most of all, it’s frustrating. Nuclear Throne does a lot of things well, but perhaps its greatest feat has been convincing gamers that it’s fun—because even as a fan of top-down shooters, “fun” is not a word I’d use to describe this game. If you strip away all the RNG, the eye candy, and the “juicy feedback” like screenshakes and pretty particles (look it up, “juiciness” is a term that Vlambeer coined), you’d be left with an empty shell of a game with shallow mechanics.
It takes a certain kind of madness to willfully put oneself through the torture of reaching the Nuclear Throne with all the bull that crosses your path along the way. The game incorporates a lot of one-hit-kill nonsense that only grows more common as you progress through the levels, presumably to make the later levels more difficult. And yes, it does make the game difficult, but not in a way that’s enjoyable. When you die in a game like Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls, you know what you did wrong and you can rectify it next time. You could say the same thing if you die in the early levels of Nuclear Throne, but in the latter half, half the time your deaths are caused by something beyond your control. Maybe I just need to “git gud.” Maybe… but I don’t think so.
And about the variety that I mentioned in the “The Good” section: despite all the different characters, weapons, mutations, and level designs you can encounter, Nuclear Throne is a great example of a game that peddles illusion of choice as real decisions. No matter who you choose, what weapon you use, what mutations you pick, the actual gameplay doesn’t change all that much. The only things that change are how many more hits you can survive and how much faster you can kill enemies. To say that Nuclear Throne has variety would be like saying vanilla ice cream has variety because you can eat it with a spoon, a fork, or a shovel, in a bowl, a mug, or a plate—but in the end, you’re still eating vanilla ice cream.
To be fair, most games are nothing more than “dopamine delivery vehicles” when stripped down in this way, but the key difference is that the best of games usually offer an experience that’s deeper and/or more meaningful than sheer persistent repetition toward a singular goal. If Nuclear Throne had a moving narrative, or emergent gameplay, or strategic decisions and choices that mattered, it’d be more than what it is. But as it stands, Nuclear Throne is a bag of potato chips: it tastes good because there’s so much juiced up feedback, but by the time you reach the bottom of the bag, you’re wallowing in regret as you realize you’ve just consumed a bunch of empty calories.
It feels weird to give a mediocre grade to a game that’s provided me with 30+ hours of entertainment, and I’m forced to ask myself: “Is playtime a valid factor to consider when reviewing a video game?” Should a game that offers 1,000 hours of play receive a better grade? Or conversely, should a game that’s only 5 hours long be penalized for it? In the past, I might’ve said yes.
Nuclear Throne only costs $12 as of this writing, and if you can get 100+ hours of entertainment out of it, that’s good value, isn’t it? Well, it depends. As I’ve grown older, my time has become more precious, and these days I’m far more conscious of the quality of each hour I spend. What value is there in 100 hours if those hours are spent on a mindless, repetitive, shallow treadmill?
There are better ways to spend your time—on other games that can provide more meaningful experiences perhaps.