Thinking back to the arcade classics of the past, your Galagas, Space Invaders etc, it’s easy to imagine how the future of gaming might have looked to those playing. Developer Housemarque have seemingly made it their mantra to create the natural evolution of these games, focusing on pure gameplay above all else. And while other titles released this year may be more pretty, more ambitious, none have come close to the sheer bliss I felt when locked into Nex Machina’s challenging and frenetic gameplay.
Nex Machina is a collaboration between Resogun developer Housemarque and Robotron/ Smash TV creator Eugene Jarvis. The game is based around a loose plot of robotic AI rebellion and is derivative at best. There’s little narrative on offer here, a feature which ordinarily I’d let Housemarque off with, if they hadn’t focused on it so much in the marketing of the game.
Of course, Nex Machina, like any other Housemarque game, is all about one thing and one thing only, gameplay. I’m happy o report that Nex Machina is every bit as tight and brilliant as PS4’s best launch title (in my opinion) Resogun. The gameplay is fairly similar in that you must blast through waves of enemies, saving humans, racking up high scores and fighting bosses. There are no RPG systems like last year’s Alienation and the game benefits as a result. There’s an endearing level of simplicity to the proceedings. To upgrade weapons, shoot more enemies. To get new weapons, shoot highlighted boxes. By keeping the core mechanics simple, Housemarque have been able to extract every bit of goodness out of them, leading to a highly refined and frame-perfect arcade shooter.
There are five levels to play through, each adding a new mechanic to the action. Lasers which must be dashed through to avoid and enemies which get progressively more dangerous as they take damage help keep each level feeling distinct and fresh. The stages all culminate in an epic boss battle which truly emphasise the bullet hell gauntlet which players must face. The game does a really great job of presenting seemingly impossible situations and making them just hard enough for the player to conquer. Completing each stage lends a great feeling of accomplishment, and the brief moments of calm emphasise just how crazy the game can be in its hardest moments.
Nex Machina is definitely a hard game but does offer some allowances for players who just want to play through the stages. Easy mode allows unlimited continues and reduces enemy aggression to a manageable level. At harder difficulties, the game is a brutal beast where split second decisions can make or break a successful run. Failure results in the resetting of your score which while annoying, is better than having to replay sections over and over again.
Visually, Nex Machina does a great job of offering a dynamic and quick experience. Stage transitions are slick and on occasion offer new perspectives on the world and its robotic hosts. The game darts around at a steady frame rate throughout and in its crazier moments can look absolutely breathtaking due to its complex particle effects.
Nex Machina is designed with competition in mind. The co-op gameplay is a real joy to play through and online leaderboard success is always enticingly attainable. The soundtrack is a real highlight too. Composed by Ari Pulkkinen, it sets a futuristic scene which is grounded lovingly in the arcade classics of the 80s.
Online leaderboards feature an interesting mechanic allowing players to essentially replay someone’s run, learning tips and tricks along the way. I suspect that this feature will help encourage a competitive community around the game which while being simple at its core, is incredibly difficult to master.
Nex Machina is yet another gem to add to Housemarque’s ever-growing collection of mechanically perfect arcade experiences. By offering a simpler and purer love letter to the cult classics of old, Nex Machina manages to distil what makes these games truly great. A lack of a narrative is a little disappointing, but in terms of pure gameplay, Nex Machina has set a new bar for games released this year.