What does the phrase “rhythm violence” mean to you? Could be a lot of things… could be beating people up to the beat, could be clobbering clods with a musical instrument, could be composing a song whose notes cause agony. In Thumper, “rhythm violence” refers to the intensity of the action set to absolutely crushing beats, a brutal combination of high-speed maneuvers and pounding music. It’s a rare title that outstrips the expectations set by such a high-minded presentation, and it manages to pack in just enough challenge and content to make the battle worth it.
I’m just going to pull from the game’s own description here: “You are a space beetle. Brave the hellish void and confront a maniacal giant head from the future.” That’s it, that’s all the plot you get. Thumper has you controlling said space beetle down a nigh-endless track twisting in the nether. The track itself seems to be alive, pulsating with fractal appendages and blistering with spikes. Blasting through the many obstacles along the way will get you to the boss of each level, an evolving skull that seeks to expunge you from the trail. Keeping up with the beat will help you beat him and the mini-bosses you encounter along the way, but each of the nine levels is going to make it harder and harder to hang with the rhythm.
The controls are quite simple, but the moves you’re expected to pull off with them can become flabbergasting by the finale. You have one button and one stick, and the button triggers panels on the track when pressed and gives you the power to bust through barriers when held. You’ll also need to hold it when you drift along walls, along with the direction you’re drifting in. You can launch off of panels into the air, and slam back down to clear certain obstacles. All of these mechanics are introduced gradually over the levels, including some more complex ones I didn’t mention, so the ramp-up of concepts is at least quite manageable. Your beetle is also armored enough to take a hit and keep going, and there are ways to get that free hit back during levels.
Your only real objective is to survive the level, which is usually broken down to twenty or so checkpointed segments. It’s not too tricky to dodge or drift through everything, at least at first, but you’re going to want to be hitting all the panels and blowing through all the rings and spikes for points, just to prove your worth in this mad race. There’s a combo system based on not missing obstacles and chaining jumps and slams together, and once you work out the basics you can add significant flourish to your runs for big points. The score aspect is an important part of the replay value here, since the nine levels are essentially static.
That’s not much of a knock against the game, considering the content of the levels. On every leg of your journey you’ll have the pulse-pounding soundtrack in your ear, and the spectacle of your space beetle tearing along at impossible speed. The game often feels like Burnout with permanent boost, a barely-controllable rocket of destruction. But you have to control it, and careful reactions are crucial for helping you grind along deadly walls and smash through glowing spikes. Between the undulating background, the intense flashes and explosions of navigating, and the thunderous music that’s partly produced by your actions, you’re sure to find yourself utterly focused on your brutal task until your brain fatigues too much to keep up with it.
Thumper is not an easy game, pushing you to the limits of your reflexes by the madcap final level. But conquering its challenges is so, so sweet, accompanied by bursts of sound and color and the accolades of the beat rolling on. It’s an easy game to pick up, but depending on your skill level it could take anywhere from five hours to a dozen to work your way through. And there’s even a hard mode that ups the intensity to inconceivable levels and gives you a single life to survive each marathon level with. This is an absolute no-brainer for fans of rhythm games, and lovers of intense action and even some horror fans will find a lot to appreciate in its presentation.