Most gamers will probably have heard of Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar’s 1982 classic Robotron 2084. It’s the game that’s often credited with creating the twin-stick shooter genre. Did you know though that Rex Battenberg’s Taito-published Space Dungeon was actually the first to use the control scheme in 1981? Possibly not, most people don’t. So why is the later game the one that everyone associates with the genre? The answer is quite simple: it was the first to do it perfectly. 35 years on, and Jarvis is back as creative consultant for Nex Machina, and it certainly shows.
The team at Housemarque are no stranger to the shooter genre, their last title was also a twin-stick and their big hitter Resogun was a side scrolling run-and-gun affair. This is a company which certainly takes the history of gaming pretty seriously, and with Nex Machina, they have created a game which perfectly evokes the feel of what came before it, with just a bit of modern spit and polish.
The game is as simple as you would expect from a twin-stick; you play a guy with a giant gun and you have to kill wave upon wave of aliens. There are a few little touches to add to the genre however, in the form of humans that you have to save from the aliens before they get killed and a “dash attack” which allows you to charge through enemies and projectiles along the way.
Like any good game of this style, action is fast and frantic, with tonnes of enemies on screen most of the time. You’ll be overwhelmed in seconds, and there’s no hand-holding, even on the easiest difficulty levels. I started the game up and took a sip of coffee, fully expecting the action to pause and to be presented with a “use the left stick to move” type message. What actually happened was my character exploded in a burst of pink lasers at the hands (well, limbs of some kind anyway) of the alien invaders. This happened three times before I realised that the game just starts without ceremony, exactly how games used to start. I didn’t even bemoan the loss of my precious lives, I was just pleased to see a game that assumes you know what the fuck you’re doing for a change. Tutorials are all well and good, but I’m getting a bit tired of games assuming that I’m going to jam the controller in my ear if they don’t warn me not to.
So, with no messing about, you’re instantly shooting anything that moves. Also, anything that doesn’t move, thanks to destructible environments and occasional power-ups scattered throughout the game. There’s so much going on that occasionally you might struggle to see exactly what’s going on. With bullet-hell style projectiles flying at you, swarms of enemies, bright lights everywhere, and a rather cool looking heat shimmer surrounding your weapon fire, the screen lights up in a cornucopia of colour throughout. It looks stunning, and it’s supremely satisfying to see, even if occasionally it means that your retinas can’t actually keep up and you end up dying because you blinked too slowly and missed something. That’s totally intentional though, this is not a game that’s meant to be easy, although the addition of some easier modes with infinite continues etc helps here, giving you an easier ride if you just want to relax and shoot some beasties without fear of hitting the dreaded “game over” screen.
The synthwave soundtrack that plays throughout is brilliant too. It sounds exactly like the kind of chiptune style which you would expect to hear on a retro game. It’s played with modern instrumentation, but it’s something you could imagine hearing coming from a SID chip or similar. It’s a perfect fit for the game and works really well. It’s available freely on music streaming services as well as right here on GameGrin if you want to hear how good it is.
The only thing that I could really say as a downside with Nex Machina is the fact that it is a bit repetitive and quite short. It’s designed as a high score chaser so you can feasibly complete the arcade mode in under an hour. Then, your next port of call is to up the difficulty level and play again to try and beat that score. Replayability is down to how much you like ever-increasing numbers.
Each of the five worlds, whilst pretty, well designed and distinct, are pretty much the same formula. Your task will always be to get in, shoot everything and get out again. That’s the way of the genre though and not the fault of the game. It’s likely you will already know if you’ll get tired of it or not. A story to follow along with or a few small cut scenes would have helped here, but it’s by no means a dealbreaker, I’m just aware that I’m supposed to be a critic and I can’t actually find much to criticise here. All in all, this is a brilliant game. Over their relatively short lifespan, Housemarque have clearly mastered the art of making games that feel like the classics and this is no exception.
Nex Machina (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
This is a love letter to classic twin-stick shooters. With input from one of the kings of the genre in Eugene Jarvis, there was almost no way this could fail. It’s a fast-paced, colourful, and bullet-rich affair that will have you coming back for more again and again.