“Welcome, my son. Welcome to the machine.”
“The following is a guest post by The Sincere Scholar Mage.”
Pinball machines whir and buzz around us, their bumpers clacking and the lights on their boards flashing with bright neon colors. DDR blazes its pop music in the background, Galaga and Donkey Kong chirp to our lefts and rights. Dozens of people line up to play their favorite arcade games. Except this one. Sunlight pours in from the windows behind us, covering the screen in a glare as we try to block it out. Nothing really helps and within seconds my friend next to me is screaming “No, not my humans!” as his voice takes on a high pitched, squealing tenor. People turn to look in our direction and I play it cool, giving them a smile and nod as I turn back to the game. They just don’t understand. This is Robotron: 2084.
Developed by Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar in 1982, Robotron can be accurately called the grandfather of twin stick shooters. Set in the year 2084, robots have taken control of the world and killed off most of humanity. Players take control of a superhuman (kind of looks like a carrot in a lab coat) doing their best to save the last few humans and destroy the robot overlords.
Noble pursuit of human rights is not why my friend screams at the screen next to me though. Each human is worth points, and the more you collect, “saving” them by running into them, the more points you score. Chaining them together means big, big points. As two avid twin stick shooter players, we’ve made it our mission this week to take and keep the high score on the machine each day. With no offense to the people around us, the competition isn’t that tough or demanding. But the game sure is. Green and yellow enemies roam the levels trying to kill off humans before you can reach them and chasing you down as you try to shoot them. Some look like giant hulking behemoths, others like little flying police robots. Getting hit or touching any enemy a single time means death, and that’s exactly what happens when a little robocop catches my friend unaware. Game over. Gently, sort of, I push him out of the way and take my turn.
Yes, this is a Nex Machina review, but the mention of Jarvis and his earlier games serves a point, I swear. Back in the day when you paid for games with quarters Robotron was hugely successful, and for a man who also developed Defender you can understand how highly critics regard it when they say that it might be his most important contribution to the gaming industry. Guinness ranked it as the #11 arcade game in it’s list of technical, creative and impactful games. It features in media such as the popular book Ready Player One and the similarly popular Fallout 4 as an Easter egg players can find and enjoy. It was ported to multiple platforms and sold over 19,000 cabinets worldwide. Sequels were planned for cabinets and a movie adaptation was in the works but then… the North American Video Game Crash of 1983 happened. While spin offs and sequels did eventually get produced, they never really held the same feel and charm of the original.
Thirty five years later, at the end of June 2017, Robotron: 2084 finally got its proper sequel. Nex Machina, developed by Housemarque and with Jarvis himself consulting, does its best to channel the old school arcade feel of games long gone. Again the world is over run by robots and again the last few humans are in need of rescue. Playing as a motorcycle riding… robot person (maybe?) you set off into the world to kill the machines and rescue your humans. Like it’s spiritual inspiration, humans are again worth points and the more you save the more you score. Enemies again can kill you with one hit but this time you are armed with power ups, shields and secondary weapons to help you make your way through the world. To say this game is similar to Robotron is an understatement, but imitation is flattery and this game does it in all the right ways.
Each world has stages on it that you must clear in order to make it to the boss at the end. Special enemies appear at certain parts of some stages, and killing them offers you extra scores in level and a bonus at the end if you get all of them. Hidden just out of sight are secret levels and secret humans as well, the smart ones who chose to hide themselves instead of standing in the middle of a field. With humans roaming the center of each map, robots tracking them down to kill them, special enemies appearing and disappearing and constant waves of robots thrown at you in between, it’s difficult to find these special areas let alone remember where they are the next time you pass through. Memorization is key, but I’ve only been able to successfully find and remember a couple of them myself. Take into account that killing the last enemy on a level sends you immediately and seamlessly into the next one and it becomes clear the game expects you to actually plan your approach and what you want to do. Something easier said than done.
Secret humans and levels are completely optional though and do nothing but boost your score at the end, which leads us to the score hunting. Leader boards for both PC and PS4 are combined and little icons next to each entry shows what console they were playing on. PC? You get a little computer icon. Console? A controller icon. Since all aiming is done on a wheel around the player, combining leader boards like this works where other games have failed at it. Using keyboard and mouse gives you no advantage over a controller, and the game seems to have been almost explicitly designed with an analog stick in mind. It is basically an arcade game after all.
But the similarity to arcade cabinets of past can be a blessing and a curse. Sitting down on release day I was extremely excited for this game. Then I beat it in about two hours and had to sit back and rethink life for a moment. Seeing true arcade experiences on Steam is not something that is common place. The emphasis for Nex Machina is not the story or the plot but the game play itself. Sure I beat it in 2 hours, but did I find all the secrets? Am I high enough on the leader board? Ooh, what are these challenge levels for? Despite it’s short running time, score chasers will find plenty to do after they’ve beaten the game. Leader boards seem to be planned to run as seasons, presumably wiping clean after a certain amount of time has passed. Individual level leader boards exist separate from the campaign ones and challenges have their own too.
Beyond that there are higher difficulties with different modifiers. The easiest setting gives you unlimited continues and introduces you to the game at a snail’s pace of intensity (though you wouldn’t know by looking at it). Go up a level and suddenly you have only 99 continues, more enemies, more humans and everything that wants you dead moves a little bit faster. So on and so forth for the two other difficulties as well.
If score hunting isn’t your thing you might still find some enjoyment in the game. A little bit of customization to your character in the form of bullet color and helmet style exist and local co-op, while a bit of a mess, is always fun with a friend. Beyond that though, the game will start to fall flat for you. Nex Machina is a game best enjoyed in spurts, like a true arcade cabinet. As long as you go into it knowing that you should be fine, but anyone wanting a little bit more may be turned off by its unabashed love for the days long gone.
The 8-Bit Review
I’m not entirely sure what “cablepunk” means but that’s how the game describes itself on Steam. Regardless, the world is a bleak and dystopian place. Cables and pipes run just below the surface of the ground and it’s clear that this is no longer a human world. It’s also not a world for people who hate to party, because neon is everywhere. Enemies glow brightly, bullets and lasers fill the screen and, though I myself have no problem tuning it out, the screen can get messy. Friends who have also played the game complain about the way enemies explode into pixels, how the voxel world can be destroyed and throw shards into the air. Lasers often fill the screen in bright reds and blues and it quickly devolves into a chaotic, colorful mess. Often fun to look at, but more often confusing to play in.
Where the game does not falter though is its sound design and soundtrack. Thumping techno, satisfying sound effects for its guns, lasers, rocket launchers and bombs. If you’re a fan of this type of music the soundtrack alone will be able to carry your experience to at least a few hours of enjoyment. It is perhaps the best part of the experience, for better or worse.
As one would expect from an arcade inspired game, playing Nex Machina on anything without a joystick is…. painful. A true twin stick shooter to its core, players move with one joystick on a controller and swivel their aim on a wheel around the character with the other. It works, it’s fun, but then you try the keyboard and mouse controls. While spinning the aim on a wheel works great for a joystick, doing so on a mouse is an uphill battle. The only cursor for your aim is a small triangle near the bottom of your character’s feet and being able to keep track of that while also dodging, dashing and shooting enemies is a herculean feat I have not perfected. As a game pad-only game Nex Machina shines. For a port to the PC though, it suffers from poor keyboard and mouse implementation.
Multiplayer, local only, is where the game stumbles. Screens full of lasers, exploding enemies, geometry, bullets and neon is hard enough to see with a single player. Adding another buddy on the couch to the equation adds up to colorful nonsense. Fun in short spurts, but not something you’d look to binge or grind for hours on end. This is something that these types of games always struggle with though, so take the negative with a grain of salt. If you’re looking for a twin stick shooter to enjoy with a buddy for more than an hour or so at a time, you might want to look elsewhere.
This would vary from person to person if you want to actually get good at the game, but as a pick up and play distraction you can’t make a much better case than an arcade shooter. Move with one joystick, aim with the other. Another button dashes away from enemies, another uses your secondary weapon. A few minutes of experimentation teaches you everything you need to know about the basic controls, and the rest is up to you. As a pick up and put down option, you can do a lot worse, but not much better.
This is not the intimidating Dark Soulsy shooter of the genre, if that comparison isn’t completely played out yet (it is). There are several different difficulty levels in the game and each offers different challenges and wrinkles. Picking the easiest allows for the base game play experience: slower enemies, unlimited continues and a default player speed. Kicking it up a notch to the next two or three difficulties takes a much more drastic turn. Suddenly you have a limited number of Continues should you game over. Enemies become faster, you become slower. And that’s just in the story mode. Other modes include single level challenges that offer you 3 lives and no continues, change the way the core game works and offer new challenges that test your reflexes and skill. As with most games Nex Machina can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be. It all depends on what you’re looking to get out of it.
Levels are static and largely unchanging for the most part. Going higher in difficulty levels adds more enemies, but that’s mostly a band aid to make things feel new. Like all good arcade games though, the point is the leader boards. Online and cross-platform, the leader boards can track you in everything from single level to entire game. Who can beat the level the fastest? Who can score the most? Hidden humans, bonus levels and secret enemies you can kill for bonus points make returning to the game easy, fun and rewarding. And you don’t even need a bag of quarters.
Being very nearly the same game as Robotron knocks this down a few pegs but that’s about the worst I can say for Nex Machina. Not many games take the art style they have, not many games take the control scheme they have. Twin stick shooters are a dime a dozen to some but the differences lie in the presentation, in the minutiae of the scoring system. Standing out among the likes of Assault Android Cactus and Geometry Wars is not easy on a platform like Steam but Nex Machina does a valiant job and offers some things others simply can’t or haven’t.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Look, I’m a fan of twin stick shooters. When it comes to my favorite one on steam I am among the best in the world at it (okay so there’s only like 40 active players) and for a week I binged on Robotron and several other shooters. So when I say I like the game, you can kind of understand that my score is crazy biased. But Nex Machina is a truly good game if you know what you are getting into. The base difficulty level will take about an hour or two to complete start to finish but at it’s heart this is an arcade game. As long as you go into the experience understanding and expecting that, you should be pleasantly surprised.
Aggregated Score: 7.1
The Sincere Scholar Mage is an aspiring writer that is Majoring in Professional writing at Michigan State University. When he is not on Twitter, he spends his time playing and writing about video games at Support Role and getting emotionally attached to little digital people.
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to entertainment journalism. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a podcast and webzine with paid contributors! See our Patreon page for more info!