Independently developed roguelikes are not entirely uncommon in today’s market, boasting a variety of charming, retrographic artstyes these titles come in many shapes and sizes. Ranging from 2 dimensional side-scrolling affairs like Rogue Legacy, to isometric dungeon crawlers like The Binding of Issac, these games all have key traits in common. Each of the offer procedural generated environments and loot, where the player faces has one life to face against a newly formed dungeon, each and every time they play the game. Nuclear throne is no different in this regard, but manages to differentiate itself with some truly spectacular, bullet-hell like twin-stick gameplay.
Selecting a character is the first thing you’ll do in Nuclear throne, and this action is actually more definining than you might think. Each character selected has a very particular special ability, and a uniquely influenced upgrade path. For instance Crystal can use his ability to deflect bullets, while Fish can use his to roll out of the way of enemy attacks. Fish isn’t invulnerable while doing so however, so depending upon which of these two characters you’re playing as, you’ll be required to sport a vastly different playstyle in order to use the character effectively.
There are a myriad of other characters too of course, many of which unlocked by progressing through the Nuclear Throne, and others with specific perquisites for unlocking. This mechanic is the games form of persistence, where, despite death, you can still come out of a run managing to unlock something meaningful and offering an incentive to explore many of the games additional areas.
Regardless of the character selected, gameplay is frantic and fast paced, gradually amping up as you progress through the games stages. Unlike games like The Binding of Issac however, Nuclear throne doesn’t start off easy. It’s very easy to die even within the first few moments if you’re not paying attention, and regardless of how well you feel a run is going, you can still be stripped from maximum health to nothing in only a matter of seconds.
The weapons you find within each stage are perhaps the variable that defines a playthrough more than any other factor. These range from simple revolvers to laser rifles and shotguns. These often come in exotic varieties too lik the double barrel flame shotgun which bombards the area in-front of you with fiery death, or the Tripe Barrel minigun which enables you to dispense lead across the entire screen.
Unlike other roguelikes, Nuclear Throne is a little more grounded with its upgrades than you might expect. While it’s easy to stumble upon almost-broken combinations of weapons and powerups in games like The Binding of Issac, it’s much harder, and much less common to do so within Nuclear Throne. Some players may resent this, as discovering these broken combinations of items is part of what many enjoy in Issac, but personally I preferred playing a game where I had more influence on the outcome of a run, than merely the weapons and powerups I stumbled upon.
Ammunition moderates how you can and use these weapons however, and limited resources prevent the game from becoming stagnant, or slow paced. Enemies drop ammunition and health, but those powerups disappear after a short period of time, thus forcing you out of a passive, defensive playstyle if you want your weapons to keep firing.
Depending on the mutations you select, as you partake in Nuclear Throne’s form of ‘level up’ system, these can modify how each weapon is used, or provide you with a number of beneficial perks. These range from things like homing bolts, which enable your crossbow bolts to lock on to enemy targets, to simple health boosts, like Rhino Skin which grants you four extra HP. Depending on the mutations you select and how these interact with your available weapons and character, one run will always feel distinct from the last.
The game also features a co-operative mode, where an additional local player can jump in to the experience. Unfortunately for whatever reason, they do not level up independently, so any upgrades selected apply to both players, which isn’t always ideal. Though, at the same time does induce some tactical discussions with regards to which powerups to get, as if one player needs health badly, do you choose the healing mutation, or simply leave them to die and select something more useful for the other, healthy player? It shifts your priorities and while this mode is most certainly tacked on, it’s more robust than the extremely limited co-operative play in Binding of Issac.
All of this is encapsulated into a pleasant retrographic, pixel-art style, where everything is very clear, and functional. Enemies are easy to discern from the environment, and each environment is uniquely characterized with a distinct colour pallet and environmental features. Sometimes the games framerate will dip, especially as many bosses demise culminates in a very large, performance destroying explosion. Fortunately these dips very rarely occur during gameplay, although they hit the Playstation Vita version of the game harder than others.
Ultimately, if you’re fan of roguelikes or twin stick shooters then you owe it to yourself to give this game some of your attention. Despite some minor performance issues, Nuclear Throne’s fast paced, bullet hell-like gameplay had me hooked from the moment it first booted up, and the diverse number of weapon picksup, upgrades, characters, hidden areas and post-game content will keep you coming back for more, long after your first successful run.