Review: Nuclear Throne

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I remember getting controller-throwing angry at games when I was a kid. Sometimes it was because they were too hard, sometimes they were unfair, and sometimes I was just being dumb about something. It’s been a long time since I last felt that kind of rage boil up within me, but Nuclear Throne sure does take me back. It has a vicious streak that runs deeper than even its peers on Steam, and yet that might just be one of the reasons I keep coming back to it.

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Nuclear Throne is the story of some plucky little mutants blasting their way across an apocalyptic hellscape to reach the throne of legend. There’s a whole lot of far less plucky mutants standing in their way, and plenty of guns and things that explode to help you get past them. As a frantic twin-stick shooter you’ll be dodging gunfire and explosions while blasting every foe you can find on the cramped, maze-like maps to open a portal to the next murderbox. It’s a long journey, fraught with traps and monsters, but loads of secrets to uncover as well. And you’re not going to see any of it for a very, very long time.

Nuclear Throne is hard. I’m sure you can name plenty of games that you think are hard or that took you awhile to master, but none of that matters because this one is just going to kick you in the dick over and over and over. Every new enemy you meet might very well tear your face off instantly and force you to claw your way back to it just to figure out how to beat it. You’re going to shoot the wrong thing and blow yourself up despite having full health and plenty of bonuses. Your weapons are going to run dry and your foes are going to laugh as they flay you to pieces.

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All of this is by design, because Nuclear Throne is a game that you learn and practice and eventually master to an incredible sense of gratification. Just getting the first few bosses down feels like an enormous accomplishment, in large part for all the things you need to remember to survive. For being such a modern twin-stick shooter this game takes a lot of inspiration from ancient roguelikes that had all sorts of weird, arcane rules to remember if you wanted to succeed. Here you have to know what explodes, what is weak to what, what all the enemy attack tells are, and so on. Forget a single point and you risk instant death.

Does that sound fun to you? It isn’t at first, but just like the best roguelikes it instills this dogged determination in you to overcome such adversity. There are a load of characters to unlock, each with drastically different playstyles to learn and master. Seriously, these mutants can eat guns, explode corpses, warp reality, and more. Collecting radioactives dropped from enemies can level you up and give access to powerful mutations but pickups in this game vanish fast, pressing you to play bold and dive deep and probably die again trying to grab some rads or ammo. You can carry two weapons plucked from an impressive lineup of machine guns, shotguns, explosives, beam weapons, and grander things. Finding an effective pair for any situation and balancing their ammo use is yet another challenge to keep track of, one complicated by the single weapon chest in each level you’ll usually have to work with. You need to make every shot count, and you won’t really have the luxury of avoiding weapons that don’t click, at least at first.

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If you’ve gotten this far into the review without running for the hills, Nuclear Throne is the game for you. It’s hard, it’s cruel, it’s relentless, and it comes at you at such a pace that you’ll have little chance to prepare or recover. But it’s ultimately fair, and the hours of study and practice it demands are rewarded with mastery and tantalizing secrets. I’ve had a hard time getting into Nuclear Throne because it’s honestly not quite the style of roguelike I enjoy. Starting out you’re going to be chipping away at the same enemies in the same levels in the same order for hours, lacking any real variation besides the weapons you find and the layouts of the maps. There isn’t really any exploration to speak of until you learn what you’re looking for, and even then it’s just a particular trigger hidden among the scenery. I’m going to keep at it though, because there’s a lot to see and do here behind a pretty towering difficulty curve, and I’m just starting to peek at the wonders that lie there.

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