Full disclosure: I have not finished Nuclear Throne. The thrilling highlight of my Nuclear Throne career to date is dying more or less immediately after seeing the progress bar slowly tick over the halfway mark. Partially, this is because I am terrible at video games – despite playing them my entire life, I have what Futurama‘s Robot Devil would refer to as ‘stupid fingers’ – but also just because it’s an insanely hard game.
If you’re unfamiliar, Vlambeer‘s 2015 title Nuclear Throne is sort of a cross between Diablo and a bullet hell game. You fight your way through a series of randomly generated levels picking up randomly generated loot and choosing randomly generated mutations as you level up, all the while being shot at by a million different evil bastards with guns. There are no lives, no save points – when you die you have to start all over again.
Unlike, say, Dark Souls or Bloodborne, you can’t grind your way to success, you can’t perfect levels or boss fights. Every time, the layout is different, the enemies are different, and one stray bullet can send you hurtling back to level 1 to begin again with your shitty little pistol.
If this was any other game, this arrangement would have made me throw my controller clear through my TV as many times as I had it replaced for exactly that reason, but with Nuclear Throne, it somehow just works. Normally, fighting by the skin of my teeth to get through the first few levels and accrue the perfect combination of weapons and mutations only to be killed by a rat I didn’t see would induce apoplectic range in me, but with Nuclear Throne it only elicits a short laugh at the whims of fate.
The game forces you to adopt a somewhat Buddhist approach to playing: everything is impermanent, attachment is suffering. Finally managed to get a shotgun and the mutations that make shotgun shells fly further and flying dead bodies lethal? Don’t get too attached to the idea, it could be gone at any second. Got the perfect combination of weapons and two whole level ups from just the first stage? Doesn’t matter, you could still die at any second.
Unlike most games, Nuclear Throne‘s early levels aren’t just something you push through until you become an all-powerful optimisation of all the best gear and character customisations, most of the game is the low levels. You are perpetually making the best of whatever random stuff you get to try and survive this hell of bandits and explosions. It sounds trite, but the game really is about the journey, not the destination. If the fun of the game was solely in getting to the throne, you would pretty much never have fun. Enjoyment comes from the attempt.
The fun in the game doesn’t come from being all powerful and doling out huge waves of damage, it comes from never, ever being able to relax. You are constantly moving and shooting and equipping and screaming as you try and dodge intricate lattices of bullets. Blowing things up and being blown up is such a satisfying sensory experience that when the game completely kicks your ass, you can only feel begrudging respect for it. For me, the only time the game became frustrated is when I added goals to it. Playing for the sake of it is a joyous, wonderful experience, but actually trying to do things is when it becomes a nightmare.
Once I set my sights on trying to access some of the secret levels, that’s when the frustration I would have expected with this sort of game began to seep in. Getting killed while you’re just shooting stuff isn’t a big deal – you just respawn to start shooting stuff again, but you’re back in the desert – getting killed while you were thiiis close to unlocking a golden weapon for your dude? Frustrating as shit.
Enjoying the game basically asks you do to do the exact opposite of what everything in life wants you to do: it asks you to stop being goal-oriented. You don’t focus on achieving things, you don’t focus on the game giving you accolades for doing well. Nuclear Throne asks you to be zen as hell and just enjoy the moment, and it’s cool as hell.