Housemarque have gone from strength to strength in the last decade or so, redefining what an ‘arcade’ game is now that arcades no longer exist – at least not as we once knew them. From the classically designed Super Stardust HD to Resogun and now Nex Machina, it feels like a trilogy of sorts has come to an end.
They have of course made loads of great games between those titles, and I’m sure this won’t be the last arcade shoot ‘em up we’ll see from the studio as they continue to evolve these concepts, but for now Nex Machina feels like a satisfying conclusion to a brilliant development saga.
Nex Machina takes the arcade staples of games like Smash TV and thrusts them into the modern era with enough bells and whistles to make your head spin. Upon booting up any given stage, you’ll be greeted with a simple enough premise – twin stick shoot your way through a stage of ever-encroaching enemies.
Upon completing the ‘room’ you’ll fly to the next, but each room is an arena of its own with hazards and traps and unique enemies to dispatch. Whilst you’re darting around, grabbing pickups to upgrade your arsenal and dealing out death you can run into helpless humans to pick up and save. Anyone who played Resogun should be familiar with the concept – these vulnerable little guys are your tickets to the top of the leaderboards and are secretly the most important part of the game, despite being ‘optional’.
But to do all of these things is akin to spinning plates. You’ve got to make sure you save humans before they’re gobbled by enemies, but grab them too quickly and your multiplier won’t last ‘til the next stage – effectively dashing your hopes of a high score. Kill all the enemies too fast and you’ll be whisked to the next area, potentially leaving behind any humans you haven’t grabbed yet. You’ve got to balance your killing and delay your saves in such a fashion that you grab the last human and kill the last enemy in tandem, tactically spreading out your pickups to always keep your multiplier pumping.
The game is challenging enough, with devious deviations in enemies always keeping you on your toes and new foes and follies constantly being introduced throughout the game’s five-act campaign. But to deal with the dangers of these alien planets whilst also dancing with the game’s score system is a beautiful give and take that gave me a constant adrenaline rush. Deaths (your avatar dies to one hit, unless you have certain pickups) can feel a little overpunishing at times, and a Game Over really does mean your game is over if you’re here for the leaderboards, despite the option to continue being present. But that’s the nature of arcade games – they demand perfection, and so does Housemarque’s latest. For score-chasers such as myself, who have grown up bashing their heads against walls for hours in the hopes of one moment of glory, will love every second of it. Casual players who are here for the spectacle and the sheer fun of blowing up baddies – the players who don’t die a little inside when they leave a stage without collecting all the humans – might find the game is tailored in strange ways they don’t appreciate at all times. Both crowds are gonna get a kick out of the title, but it’s the masochists who’ll be here long after credits roll on their first successful playthrough.
Do yourself a favour. Go check out the OST of Nex Machina. From the fantastic, lyrical, 80s synth-genius of ‘Let Me Save You’ to its myriad tracks that pump up endlessly to climaxes that never quite peak, Nex Machina’s soundtrack knows exactly how to get you psyched. It truly is a perfect score to the events unfolding on screen, and I can’t remember being quite so smitten with a game’s music for quite some time now. Each track will be punctuated by endless explosions, rattles of gunfire and jarringly calm narration telling you, in the midst of any given battle, ‘Human Saved’, and its that juxtaposition that helps you stay sane in an eddy of insanity.
It’s a blast, matched only by the game’s energetic art-style. It’s a 3D evolution of titles we grew up playing, blown up on big screens in amazing ways. Everything explodes into little voxels upon death, lasers, bullets and pickups shine brightly to be easily picked out amidst the mayhem and everything moves at a breathless pace that you’ll somehow grow accustomed to. During my first run my senses were genuinely overwhelmed – there’s so much happening that you think you’ll never quite catch up – but after plugging into Nex Machina’s rhythm it became second nature, and no death was ever at the hands of confusing visuals – just my own shameful incompetence. It really is an audiovisual tour de force, and I can’t recommend enough you see it in action yourself.
“Nex Machina” is Housemarque’s best title to date, and it did things for me that gaming hasn’t done in years and years. It feels like a true evolution of the games I used to pour money into as a kid in pulsing arcades – a title from another timeline where ‘gaming’ evolved in a completely different way to the beat of the blockbuster in our world’s own medium. It’s pure and instant and mean and you’ll either love it or like it, so go ahead and find out which camp you’ll fall into. Either way you’ll have an absolute blast.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have humans to save.