I think it was around the fifteenth time I had died, surrounded by enemies on all sides and hilariously failing to dodge a barrage of bullets, when I realized there was no secret that made Nuclear Throne easier. This is a brutal game that tests you. It puts you into overwhelming situations, forcing you to improve to survive. Death is painful and frequent, but it teaches you valuable lessons for your next run. And when you reach a new milestone, the feeling of accomplishment is that much more satisfying.
The point of the game isn't to learn the story or explore the characters, but to see how far you can get.
In Nuclear Throne (formerly known as Wasteland Kings), players fight hoards of enemies using an array of guns and melee weapons in order to move through procedurally generated 8-bit levels. Don’t get too attached to your character or weapons, because everything is lost upon death. Similar to early roguelikes, the game has no save function. Nothing carries over between playthroughs, except for the players’ skill and knowledge.
Developed by indie studio Vlambeer, creators of Ridiculous Fishing: A Tale of Redemption and Luftrausers, Nuclear Throne features retro graphics and old-school gameplay.
To start, players choose one of the eight currently available characters. Each character has a distinct passive and active ability. For example, the guitar-playing Fish finds more ammo and can perform an action roll. My favorite character was Robot who tends to find better guns and has the ability to eat a gun to get more ammo or to restore health. Since characters can only hold two weapons at a time, eating a gun that would have otherwise been left behind is useful.
Weapons range from the standard pistols and shotguns to the more inventive Toxic Bow and Sticky Grenade Launcher. The Disc Gun, which is also a weapon in Vlambeer's Super Crate Box, pierces enemies, bounces off walls, and can even hurt the player if not used cautiously.
There is exactly one ammo and weapon chest in each level and all of the weapon drops are random. Players can pick up a minigun early on or be forced to run through multiple levels with only a pistol and shovel, depending on their luck.
By killing enemies, players can also level up, allowing them to choose from a random selection of upgrades. Similar to the weapons, some upgrades are better than others. I found the upgrades that slowed down enemy bullets and granted health for kills were very useful. One upgrade, called Impact Wrists, turns dead bodies to bouncing projectiles that damage enemies. Players can clear a room filled with bad guys by killing just one and watching his corpse ricochet off walls, taking out his allies and turning each of their bodies into deadly projectiles as well.
Despite the randomness in the game, Nuclear Throne keeps things relatively balanced so that players can’t breeze through levels because they found the best guns and upgrades. The first level grunts can take out more than a third of the player’s health with one shot. So failing to dodge bullets, effectively use abilities and retreat when necessary will get anyone killed, regardless of their impressive arsenal.
Since death occurs often, the game moves fast, with run times that last anywhere from two minutes to twenty minutes. Expert players can go even further, but I only made it to the beginning of the fourth world before being absolutely wrecked. The game’s loading is nearly instantaneous to encourage players to attempt one more run.
Nuclear Throne has some rough spots, however. On several occasions, I spawned into a level surrounded by nearly a dozen enemies. Early on, it’s possible to escape the situation. But towards the later worlds, when enemies’ numerous bullets hurt more, it’s impossible to navigate out of the mess in one piece. I can accept a death that is my fault, but having a long run end because of bad spawning is frustrating.
I would also like to see a collectible system similar to that of The Binding of Isaac, which offered trophies to mark accomplishments and to encourage additional runs. For now, the game only keeps track of basic stats like kills, deaths, and total playtime.
Nuclear Throne is available for PC right now on Steam Early Access and on the game’s website. Vlambeer has been updating the game on a regular basis and communicating with fans through their twice-weekly live streams. The studio also plans to release the game on PlayStation 4 and Vita at some point in the future.