Originall Written on July 6, 2017
Every now and then we get a game that is the result of two great developers working together. The newest example of this is Nex Machina, the result of a collaboration between Houemarque and Eugene Jarvis. Most fans of twin-stick shooters will immediately recognize these names, but for the uninitiated Housemarque is the studio behind modern twin-stick greats Super Stardust HD and Resogun while Jarvis was the lead on arcade classics Defender, Robotron: 2084, and Smash TV. For fans, this is a dream collaboration; one of the genres pioneers teaming up with the studio carrying that torch today. But that doesn’t mean the game was a surefire success. While Housemarque has some genuine hits under their belt, they have also released relative duds like Dead Nation and Alienation, and Jarvis hasn’t worked on a game of this style since the early 90s. There was plenty of reason to assume that neither side of this collaboration had a complete understanding of how to make a great, modern twin-stick shooter. Thankfully these fears have been put to rest. Nex Machina takes what made Jarvis’s old games great and infuses them with a level of modernity that captures the spirit of arcade games while altering them to make sense in a modern setting.
There is no sort of preamble when starting a game of Nex Machina, not even an explanation of the controls. But there doesn’t need to be one. Jumping into the first level, I knew exactly what to do. Nex Machina has no shame in being “one of those games”. There are mechanics that have to be learned such as how the dash works and what each of the secondary weapons you can pick up do, but Nex Machina is ultimately a very traditional twin-stick shooter. This familiarity doesn’t harm the game though, because it’s rare to get a twin-stick shooter both this good and this pure. A lot of modern shooters, including some of Housemarque’s own efforts, find the need to insert RPG mechanics or modern progression systems. Nex Machina strips all of this back to focus on the arcade gameplay that the genre was founded on. Fast and responsive, Nex Machina is a game that just feels good to play. When you start playing Nex Machina, it’s a quick adrenaline boost that puts you on the edge of your seat, frantically trying to not get killed. But after a short period of time, you start focusing entirely on your surroundings and just know what the player character is doing based on feel. That’s a phenomenon that is hard to describe but is an essential part of any good arcade game.
Nex Machina is also structured in a traditional way. There are six worlds, and each world is made up of a set number of areas. After clearing an area of enemies, you are transported to the next area. At the end of each world is a boss fight, the first few of which are pretty boring. Everything spawns in a set location at a set moment, and while some may bemoan this for making the game less replayable, I feel that it adds credence to the idea of mastering levels. There is also a lot of variety in both the enemies and the level design. There are plenty of moments where I roll through eight areas untouched only to die numerous times in the exact same location because I want to keep playing the game in a certain way and the game is telling me that I can’t. This sort of variety is frustrating in the moment, but it’s ultimately a good way to keep the difficulty up and not let players get to comfortable. And if there is one place where Nex Machina really improves upon its arcade counterparts, it’s the difficulty.
While these old arcade games are a lot of fun, there is no denying that they were made with the intention of sucking money out of people. Nex Machina is a game whose difficulty makes a lot more sense in a modern context than something like Smash TV. The easiest difficulty level gives you infinite credits and doesn’t feature the final boss. This difficulty can still provide some challenge, especially on the first playthrough, but it isn’t impossible and can be brute forced. Every consecutive difficulty level strays further and further from this, going from 99 credits on the second easiest to 5 on the hardest. And while 99 sounds like a generous number, I needed 92 of them my first time through. The main reason this is such a smart way to do things is that it communicates that the game is possible. The game is hard, and anybody jumping in will realize that pretty quickly, but the fact that there is a difficulty where you only have 5 credits shows that the developers expect the game to be possible while only dying five times. It shows that they didn’t just replicate the old quarter munching design and instead designed a game that’s meant to be beaten.
But Nex Machina is also a game that the developers expect to be played long after it is beaten. Nex Machina is built for people who want to chase high scores, and the game offers a lot of different ways to do so. Each level consists of humans to save, special enemies in the form of visitors, disruptors, and the hard to find beacons, secret areas, and secret humans. Playing to survive is one thing; playing for score is another entirely. These levels are meant to be mastered by people willing to put the time in to learning them, but even those who won’t commit that much will still see themselves starting to learn each level’s secrets. I have played the first level about a dozen times at this point, and I now know where most of the secret areas are and where all of the visitors spawn. But I haven’t even gotten close to the point where I can focus on things like my human multiplier. There is a lot of progress to be made on the road to level mastery, and that progress is satisfying. This stuff is also discovered very naturally, and the breadth of it is shown at the end of every level. But moving away from a personal level, I can’t wait to see what a high score run looks like in a few months or a year’s time when some people have dedicated hundreds of hours to figuring out the perfect run. I also can’t wait for the inevitable moment when somebody misses a high score because they mistimed the end of area dash that gives you bonus points.
And while a lot of these bonus objectives are fun to find and can create a frantic rush in pursuit of a high score, the most ingenious ones are the basic humans. Most areas in the game have a few humans strung about them that you save simply by walking over them. There are specific enemies that will target and kill the humans, but for the most part they are safe where they are. Yet as simple as this sounds, these humans have been more responsible for my own deaths in the game than anything else. The humans don’t need to be saved for any reason other than a higher score. But even when I’m not caring about score, I still want to save the humans. Maybe that says something about our natural instincts as people, or maybe I just like that it sounds like the lady says “All humans safed”. Regardless, something in me wanted to keep going after these slight score boosts despite how reckless it was. Whether an intentional design decision or a happy accident, saving these humans became the bane of my existence, and it made Nex Machina that much more intense.
The only place where Nex Machina fails to live up to its potential is in the aesthetic department. There is a sleek, futuristic feel to both the world and enemy designs that makes the whole thing look like a computer simulation, and Jarvis has clearly not lost his love for RoboCop considering there are enemies that just look like ED 209. But I can’t get over the fact that the first three worlds are just generic forest, ice, and fire motifs that you would expect to find in any other videogame. The soundtrack falls into a similar trap where it is very good and matches the game’s intensity well but also lacks any memorable tracks. This puts a lot of the aesthetic weight on the back of the voxel explosions; weight which they are admittedly quite capable of carrying. Both enemies and the environment look great when they are getting blown up, and this adds to the chaos while not distracting from the action.
I try not to be hyperbolic, but Nex Machina is pretty close to being the perfect twin-stick shooter. The action is intense enough and the levels are short enough to make it great for playing in quick bursts, but there are also plenty of both high score related and non-high score related reasons to play the game for a long time. It finds the perfect mix of being difficult enough to encourage high level play but not too difficult to make it reminiscent of quarter munching arcade machines. And it has a sense of style that while not entirely unique still conveys everything it needs to and encourages mass destruction. It’s a game that is hard to find fault in, and it’s the fully realized potential of a Housemarque/Jarvis collaboration.
Final Score: 5 Stars