In an instant, everything came back. Immediate sense of danger. Strategy, weapons, remember to grab the grenade launcher in the 2-1 bonus round, and remember to avoid opening the gates in the 3-2 and 5-2 to keep them safe in the final loop. I ascended the throne in record speed, destroying the generator to enter the secret second stage…then I reinforced it. melted. A promising run was killed in an instant, doomed to fail with a single mistake.
I need you all to understand that I was once the hot dog of the Nuclear Throne. Back in college, I was obsessed, making sure to run every morning before going to class, and the ill-advised subwoofer blasting Joonas Turner’s fat subwoofer into my neighbor’s ceiling (probably). Even though I’ve never been at the top of the charts, I’m a regular in the top 25 and regularly in the top 10.
Because while Nuclear Throne was never the deepest or most strategic roguelike, it was raw, loud and incredibly satisfying, a crunchy, pixelated murder buffet of even the most successful Running can also easily be crammed into your lunch break.
Nuclear Throne is a twin-stick shooter from 2015 by Vlambeer, the (now defunct) wily Dutch gangster behind equally screen-shattering games like Luftrausers and Ridiculous Fishing. It’s a roguelike game, generously – maps are dynamically generated, weapons are scattered throughout the levels, upgrades give you the option to upgrade “mutations” to insert into your body, and death is both quick and permanent.
But unlike The Binding of Isaac, Slay the Spire, and even Into the Dungeon (mechanically, the closest thing to it), Nuclear Throne isn’t really a game about strategy building or long-term planning. It’s a roguelike played on the edge of your seat, choosing from a small list of upgrades in blind panic, hoping you’re carrying or possibly finding the weapon that makes everything click.
It works because the simple act of blasting things up in Nuclear Throne is joy. Vlambeer has written a book about how gaming feels, and with even your puny starter revolver thumping bass and hitting the screen, you know you’ve had a great time. The world is made up of tiles, and some weapons (dynamite, especially spicy energy weapons) will blow up these walls, and some bosses may even charge through them murderously.
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Rather than synergize into weird and wonderful combinations, “mutations” tend to benefit what you’re already doing. Better health and ammo drops, shotgun rounds that bounce farther, crossbow bolts with aim assist, auras that give you a second chance, each framed as another serious little mutation from your mess of The little guy burst out.
The characters of Nuclear Throne are a bunch of screwed-up freaks, mutated fish and living crystals, and rebellious bandits who turn their flesh into smaller, friendlier bandits. Each of them has their own quirks, usually in terms of abilities, but usually in terms of how the world responds to their presence.
YV is a floating triangle from Venus, you’re guaranteed to crash his pads when you reach level 10 to pick from a bunch of real guns, and simple ol’Fish always gets a guitar when you reach throne 2 . Rogue is running from her former interdimensional cop sprout, and will be accosted by them from offsetting — a small price to pay for being able to summon devastating airstrikes at will.
It’s also refreshing to fully unlock these characters. No level-up thresholds or unlocks – while unlocking early characters is just to reach certain stages or beat the game, you’ll need to get creative to find other characters. The horror only comes when you avoid those tantalizing radiation canisters scattered throughout each stage.
That’s what the Nuclear Throne is really about. It’s a seemingly simple game on the surface – shoot, mutate, undead, kill God’s chair, simple. But the more you poke, poke, and scrape those wonderfully destructible walls, the more secrets you uncover. Hidden stages, hidden bosses, finale and a world rooted in a more melancholy tragedy than you might imagine.
Yes, Nuclear Throne is a game about a funky little guy who blows up bandits and monsters in the wasteland. But a truly astounding effort goes into making this cartoon world feel coherent and thoughtful. For mutant guttural screams, there’s a whole language called Trashtalk – a choice of sounds that represent actions, places, and objects.
For example, did you know that when starting a run, your character will often shout “Fläshyn!”, consisting of FL (do) Ä (me/we) SH (this) YN (now), which roughly translates to “Let’s do this! “. Rhaäve’sho can be interpreted as “our life is hard,” and the nuclear throne itself is a sharp, suffocating Fläisum.
That level of caring is enough to lay the groundwork for a silly world full of mutants and monsters that, when needed, Nuclear Throne can shrug off a moment of genuine gloom. You’ll often load into the map playing a more somber piano variant of the level’s theme, and when the dust settles, the map feels weird.
Preparations in front of the throne are themselves a masterclass in setting the scene, walking too long down a long corridor while pulling a rope ominously ringing. Once the fight begins, the music is a howl of despair, accompanied by the strumming of the cutting edge, a last-ditch effort, begging to ask if your fight is worth the pain.
Across the board, Jukio Kallio’s score perfectly captures the post-apocalyptic western, where heavy riffs meet flickering guitars. The game’s credits song is an all-time great, with a soothing tune to the melody of the campfire.
Nuclear Throne, at launch, was a perfect thing. But that form took years to form, and its development is fully catalogued through Twitch. Vlambeer would make the game in front of a live audience, who would then mess with the latest version of the game in Early Access.
In this way, the Nuclear Throne has always belonged to the community. In the seven years since its release, the community has been playing the game like crazy, with a small but fascinating modding scene growing around it.
The largest of these is Nuclear Throne Together, which ostensibly expands the game’s multiplayer from couch co-op to full online lobbies for up to four players. But the secret to Nuclear Throne Together is that it also opens up the game and becomes the basis for Nuclear Throne’s wildest mods.
There are mods for adding guns, mods for changing guns, and mods for procedurally generating guns. Mods that let you play as a soldier in Enter the Gungeon, a mod that replaces each enemy with a frog, a mod that bumps environments against each other in a dimensional nightmare.
In addition to NTT, there’s even a massive community remix mod that adds three new characters, fifty new weapons, and enough new mutations, crowns, and more to turn the Nuclear Throne into a crazy and wonderful new thing — but never unrecognizable.
The Nuclear Throne is pure, simple, and chaotic. Mods may change the game, fry it, and stuff 1000 tons of dynamite in it, but they’ll never take the game away from the raw thrill of violently “playing” and then falling into a desert revolver full of bandits and a heavy guitar riff play. Now, forgive me, I’m going to be late today. Let’s see if we really can’t get back into the top ten this time around, eh?