One of the top ten best-selling indie releases on the eShop to date is that of Enter the Gungeon, a super-tough twin-stick roguelike that’s great for local co-op sessions. However, those of you that regularly play on the PC may be aware that Gungeon was actually not the first notable game to execute the concept of a twin-stick roguelike; that honour belongs to Nuclear Throne, which has now made its way onto the Switch. Though lacking in its presentation, Nuclear Throne proves that it knows what ingredients are needed to make a compelling roguelike adventure; it’s a wildly fun game to play both alone and with a friend.
Nuclear Throne takes place in the distant post-apocalyptic future, a time where humans have long since died off and the world is overrun by insane mutants that vie for control of the coveted Nuclear Throne. You take control of one of twelve (unlockable) mutants, each with different strengths and weaknesses, in your bid for glory, shooting your way through the countless bandits, mutants, and derelicts that stand between you and your goal. Should you fail on your quest – and let’s be real, you’re going to fail way more often than not – you’ve got to start over from square one and work your way back up. It’s harrowing, difficult, and seemingly impossible, but Nuclear Throne is the kind of game that’s excessively difficult to put down once it has its hooks in you.
See, every run that you make for the throne is randomly generated; each ‘world’ still retains consistent theming and enemy types, but the arrangement of each level is entirely fresh every time you play it. This goes, too, for the weapons that you come across, which are randomly dropped via a couple of chests that appear at some point in each level, forcing you to become familiar and comfortable with a diverse lineup of firepower if you want a realistic shot at winning. Weapons aren’t everything, however, as every killed enemy drops ‘Rads’ that act as experience points; once you collect enough of these, your character will mutate and you can pick from a randomized selection of buffs before entering the next level.
What’s immediately striking about Nuclear Throne is how ‘arcade-y’ it feels in nearly every aspect, in the sense that this is the kind of game that will quickly put you in the ground if you make the barest mistake. Levels generally feel quite claustrophobic in nature, and given that many of the mutants don’t have viable escape options, it can be exceedingly easy to get cornered and subsequently torched. Or, in the rare cases where you find yourself in a wide-open area of a level, it’s all too common to be surrounded on all sides by a silly amount of enemies that waste no time in trying to end your run. Though it certainly has a high skill ceiling, Nuclear Throne is very much a luck-based affair at its core and the hard truth is that you can often find yourself in scenarios where it’s not about how you can win, but how you can best minimize your loss.
For example, ammo is excessively scarce, which basically forces you to continuously be dropping weapons in favour of new ones, even if the new weapons are a ‘downgrade’. You can only carry two weapons at a time, and you just might be content with the two that you’ve got on you, but if both of them are out of ammo, you have to drop one so you can finish clearing out the enemies and keep moving. Luckily, the weapon variety is deep – there’s everything from ordinary shotguns to guns that shoot spinning blades that can bounce off walls – and there are very few that don’t feel viable, but it’s inevitable that certain types will jive better with your particular playstyle.
Similarly, the mutations system pushes you to make tough decisions, as most of the four buffs offered to you after each level up are sure to make a notable difference in your survival. Do you take the mutation that gives you back some ammo after every kill, or do you go with the one that adds four points to your max health? What about the one that increases the drop rate of medkits? As with the rest of the game, there aren’t strictly any wrong answers here – which is why Nuclear Throne can be so rewarding to continuously replay – but nonetheless, the decisions you make both in the short term and long term directly correlate with whether or not you succeed.
You only have access to a couple of mutants at first, with later ones being unlocked after reaching certain milestones and finding secrets, and we found it admirable how the developers have made each one play so distinct from the next. One of the earlier mutants, Crystal, is fit for more defensive players, as it has an unusually large health pool and an ability that grants it temporarily invincibility. On the other hand, Melting is more geared towards the offensively-minded players, as it gets more rads from kills and can blow up enemy corpses, but at the cost of a paltry 2 HP health bar. Regardless of playstyle, there’s sure to be something here for everyone, and we appreciated how the different mutant kits can make subsequent runs feel entirely different, cutting back significantly on any grindiness.
Though online isn’t featured here – other than daily and weekly runs that offer the community one shot at a set challenge – local co-op is present and correct, adding an extra layer of complexity to an already difficult game. You and your partner don’t share guns or ammo, so there’s less for you both, but you have to ensure that you keep each other alive. If one of you goes down, the other one only has a few seconds to run over and revive; if the survivor doesn’t make it there in time, their health depletes rapidly until they join their fallen comrade in death. If the survivor does make it there in time, half their health is automatically drained to revive their partner. It’s gruelling, to say the least, but having the extra firepower offered by a friend certainly does help, especially in later levels. All the same, we’d recommend you play this one with a friend who’s similarly skilled in playing twitchy shooters, as you can’t really ‘carry’ someone to the end.
Unfortunately, adding a friend to the mix causes a notable issue with overall readability that hinders how much fun you can have. Nuclear Throne features a letterboxed view and the camera is already fairly zoomed in, so throwing another player into the fray can make for a chaotic and messy screen in which its difficult to track who’s who and what’s going on. It’s not deal-breaking, and disabled screen shake in the settings helps to mitigate this, but after seeing how well the co-op works in Enter the Gungeon, it can be hard to put up with the sub-par co-op offering found in Nuclear Throne. Your mileage may vary.
From a presentation perspective, Nuclear Throne manages to satisfy, if not impress, going for a goofy, pixelated wasteland vibe that’s nice to look at but not particularly memorable. All the pixel art and animations are fine and adequately convey the information they need to, but we were hard pressed to find any ‘wow’ moments here that show any meaningful ambition; it’s clear that the focus was placed more on gameplay than visuals, which is a fine, though disappointing, decision. Similarly, the next to non-existent soundtrack seldom adds much to your experience, although the random screams, squeals, and other mutant noises do help to instil the moment-to-moment action with some much-needed charm.
Nuclear Throne proves to be an enjoyable and devilishly challenging roguelike shooter that no fans of the genre will want to miss out on, even if it does tend to become more frustrating if you add in a second player. Though the visuals and music are rather disappointing, the core gameplay of Nuclear Throne more than makes up for any deficiencies through its variety and feedback loops; it’s the kind of game that’s so easy to jump into, you just can’t refuse having ‘one more go’. If you’re a fan of Enter the Gungeon, roguelikes, or difficult games in general, Nuclear Throne is going to be right up your alley; we’d give this one a high recommendation.