Vlambeer is a Dutch game developer, and their stylish little Shoot-em-up, Nuclear Throne, is on my list today. Better known for their works published through Devolver Digital, I am curious to see what their independently published projects look like. While this title needs a little time to grow on you, it still has a certain charm and will definitely appeal to lovers of SNES and NES shooter titles like Smash TV and Contra. Be warned though, this game is hard as fuck.
When you start up Nuclear Throne, you’ll be greeted by a badass theme that sounds like a fusion of western-style acoustics with post-apocalyptic metal influences. It stopped me more than once at the above screen, and almost seems too awesome for this game, but it blends with the style perfectly and given what the game goes for, it is definitely perfect. It’ll fill your ears and get you pumped up as you choose a character in the select screen, which portrays them all sitting around a campfire while one plays the guitar.
Each of the characters has its own benefit and special move, which is activated by right-clicking, but be careful since some characters have cons. I will list them in order. Fish is a fishman who gets more ammo than the others and can dodge roll. Dodge roll is really useful in situations where you need ammo and have to traverse a field of fire to get to it. Crystal is a sentient crystal that has extra HP and can morph into a giant crystal for increased defense. Later, crystal can get a teleport ability with this. Eyes is a blue alien-looking creature that can see in the dark and pulls pick-ups toward him with telekinesis. Melting is.. uh.. a sort of amorphous creature. He has shit HP, but gains XP faster than the others. After death he can also use explosive revenge, but I found that thoroughly fucking useless since there are no extra lives. Plant is a plant that moves faster and can grow snares to slow enemies. Y.V. is a one-eyed triangle reminiscent of illuminati symbolism that gets a higher rate of fire and can use an ability called Pop pop. I tried using it, but I couldn’t figure out what it does. Steroids is a muscle-bound character who starts loaded in each new level is less accurate, but can dual wield similar weapons. Robot is a robot and he gets better tech drops and eats guns. Eating guns is one of my favorite abilities by far. Chicken is a samurai-chicken that starts with a katana, is hard to kill and makes everything go into slow motion upon right-click. Once chicken gets to 0 HP, his head flies off and his body can keep shooting until it dies, too. Gruesome, but kind of funny. I also managed to unlock rebel, who has extra defense and can call allies into battle in exchange for HP. There is one other character I was unable to unlock.
After selecting a character, you are thrown right into a chaotic arena full of enemies. At the start you get a simple revolver to suit your slaughter-oriented needs, but that will be quickly replaced by a vast array of weapons from a screwdriver all the way up to a flame shotgun and more. Grabbing a melee weapon in a “shoot-em-up” might seem like bringing a screwdriver to a gun fight, but that is only because it’s exactly what you’re doing. In Nuclear Throne, however, it isn’t such a bad idea, really. I mean, you don’t have to reload melee weapons, so if you are working with a character that has comparably lower ammo, it might not be bad to have up your sleeve. Your inventory, however, will only accommodate two weapons, so choose wisely. Luckily, some weapons draw from different ammo types, but given all the ammo drops look the same, there is no telling what you pick-up. Since there is no weapons inventory screen or anything more complex than weapon 1 and weapon 2, there is no way to tell how much of each type of ammo you have. It can be a bit frustrating, but it doesn’t fucking care. The weapon mechanics in this game are intentionally bare-boned so you don’t have anything to distract you from the HORDES of fucking enemies that want to wallow in your blood and render your corpse a charred shell.
Tearing through hordes of enemies is fun, but, as I said, you will want to mix it up. New weapons do just that, and they come in a healthy variety, packaged in chests throughout the game. Walk over a chest and it pops open, press ‘E’ to equip a weapon. Experimentation will help you survive in this, but watch your ammo. Aside from just chests, there are also EXP canisters. Originally I thought they were giving me ammo, but they leave a bunch of green shell-looking objects. Everyone drops these, but noticing they did nothing for my ammo supply I wondered what the fuck they were for. Eventually, I leveled up after collecting the green bits, so that solved that fucking mystery quicker than a bunch of stoners with a microbus and a mutated, talking great dane.
Between levels of play you will level you character by choosing a new benefit. Sometimes these give you more ammo, help you heal, make you faster etc. The best ones, however, enhance your special ability. Personally, I like guns for breakfast, so I choose Robot fairly often. Taking the appropriate skill will allow you to gain more nutrition from guns, healing you more and, I think, providing more ammo. Each of the skills follow, too, but figuring out the related image is, at times, a matter of artistic interpretation. The spinning black and purple vortex you see isn’t the door to Narnia, by the way. Once all your enemies lie beaten and broken, a sucking hole pops up and whisks you off to the next level. This can be frustrating, so I advise exploring the level as much as possible before killing everybody since this can prevent you from finding all the pickups in the level. Missing XP canisters can seriously debilitate you for future levels, and dodging bullets becomes half the focus of the game.
This game is hard as hell and I couldn’t find a variable difficulty level. Your choice of character will dictate the level of the challenge, but the massive number of unrelenting enemies make this game truly challenging. Factor in the drop-off of everything you might accidentally miss after killing the last enemy, and you can see how I only made it up to level 6 after hours of play. A lot of restarts, yes, but the game makes it easy to restart with the same character, so this is not one you are meant to beat in one sitting. After drilling away at it, you will find combinations that work for your style of play and get you further and further. The most aggravating element of this game is the fact that there is no fucking save! Initially I was mad and wondering why the fuck you would damn your player to infinite restarts, but then I remembered that Dungeons of Dredmor originally had you play through the entire game before you could reload from a death. Granted, you could at least save after you exit, but when you died your saves were all deleted. Nuclear Throne doesn’t even possess that decency, and feels like a really well put-together flash game, which makes it a little more disappointing that it appears on Steam. It is fun, though. Overall, a good game, just a little too aggravating and definitely a title made for those who got through any of the original Contra games solo and without cheats. It also has a unique charm that cannot be denied. Its graphics are fun and don’t lend themselves to over analysis. They harken back to the old age of 8-bit gaming where it was difficult to even tell what you were seeing at times, but it doesn’t detract from gameplay. Gameplay is smooth and fast-paced, if missing any form of gaming respite. Since it is early-access, I can definitely say that this is a game worth buying at its 12.99$ asking price, even if just to see where they end up going with it.