When the Nintendo Switch launched in March 2017, I — like many others — devoured The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I was hooked, and it was only when Mario Kart 8 Deluxe launched a month later that I was wrenched away from the land of Hyrule. But while Mario Kart 8 remains as incredible as it was on the Wii U — more so, in fact — I bounced off it pretty quickly; a case of ‘been there, done that’, perhaps. I’d already completed the non-Deluxe version and felt like I was just going through the motions. Nevertheless, I played it more or less to completion; after all, I dropped £50 on the digital version, giving me a certain obligation to at least polish off the single-player component.
So with that done, I found myself in a bit of a rut; I’d rinsed Breath of the Wild and I now faced a daunting two or three months without anything to keep me occupied until the eventual release of Splatoon 2. Then a game popped up on the eShop in May 2017; a smaller, unassuming title that nevertheless gained much-deserved recognition and acclaim in the months leading up to its release. That game was Thumper.
Developed by ex-Harmonix members (only two of them, mind!), Thumper shouldn’t have appealed to me in the slightest. Although raised with a light background in music and a particular affinity for the electric guitar, I never quite got to grips with rhythm games. I think I held the rather shallow opinion that because I’d already owned a real guitar, why on earth would I play with a toy replica? Guitar Hero 3 was the only one I ever owned, and honestly, it’s the stylised depiction of Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses on the cover that drew me in. In the end, though, that game wound up being a simple gateway to lesser-known bands that I hadn’t really listened to before.
When I watched the trailer for Thumper, however, my eyes lit up. “Hold on, this is a horror game”, I thought. And boy, was I right. Although labelled as ‘rhythm violence’, that particular tag never quite gelled with me. The game isn’t “violent”, as such, unless you count the act of essentially fighting against the often confusing beat as violence. Not quite, in my opinion.
It’s definitely horror, however, through and through. The title’s core gameplay sees you hurtling down a track as a strange beetle-like character, and your goal is to grind against the walls and hit little squares that race toward you. In doing so, you’ll build up chains and increase your score, increasing your momentum that the game’s soundtrack matches with anxiety-inducing pace.
When I watched the trailer for Thumper, my eyes lit up. “Hold on, this is a horror game”, I thought. And boy, was I right.
All around you, the screen fills with psychedelic imagery, with tentacles swirling around and spikes wrapping themselves around the track. Not to mention the boss characters, most of which look like warped Lovecraftian creatures that creep up from a great distance, like 'Cthulhu' towering up from the ground. It's weird enough on its own, but when coupled with the sheer speed at which the game moves, it feels like a never-ending assault on the senses.
Indeed, as the pace of the game ramps up and the tracks become more cluttered with obstacles, it instils a deep sense of anxiety and dread in the player that few games can match, broken only by the brief moments of respite between the sectioned runs. It sounds odd, but what I’d liken it to most is the boat scene in the 1979 adaptation of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Both feature bizarre, uncomfortable imagery and an ever-increasing feeling of uncontrollable speed until you’re almost begging to be let off the ride. The only thing missing from Thumper is the fearful, taunting voice of Gene Wilder: "Not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing, are the fires of Hell a-glowing, is the grisly reaper mowing".
Although it’s the horror elements of the game that initially drew me in, it’s the deceptively deep gameplay that kept me hooked for the rest of 2017. It’s a game that’s easy to pick up yet insanely tricky to master. In the later levels, you’re required to ascend into the air, dive back down, hop over to adjacent tracks, and time your grinds to absolute perfection. Not only that, but you can add your own flair to your runs, too, chaining together perfect grinds and slams to increase your overall score tenfold. The late-game stages will grind you down to near exhaustion, but once you “get it”, then it’s one of the most satisfying games to play, period.
It’s always a joy to discover a lesser-known game and have it completely dominate your free time. It’s an unexpected delight that never gets old; it happened again with Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon in 2018, Untitled Goose Game in 2019, Good Job! in 2020, and Cyber Shadow in 2021. None of those games, however, clocked up as much play-time as Thumper.
I just couldn’t tear myself away from Thumper, dipping back in whenever I had a spare half hour or so, whether at home on the couch, sitting at my work desk during lunch, or lounging in a park with the sun beating down. I had to keep going back; I’m not sure whether it was the desire to improve my skills or simply the sheer thrill of speeding down what’s essentially a horror-themed roller coaster, but I just couldn’t get enough.
Still can’t, come to think of it.
Did you pick Thumper up at launch, or have you stumbled across it at some point since? Let us know your thoughts on the game five years on in the comments.