Firing endless bullets while dodging enemy fire and gathering powerups a tried and true system for developer Housemarque with titles from Stardust to Resogun and Alienation.  Their latest game, Nex Machina, expands on the classic formula and adds a coat of modern polish.  It is pure fun and on my short list for game of the year.  It’s that good.

Nex Machina is beautiful, chaotic, and so damn fun.

  • TL;DR: A classic genre redefined for modern times.
  • Platforms: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
  • Developer: Housemarque
  • Time Played: 9:30
  • What I Played: Cleared arcade mode on normal a few times, a handful of arena runs, still trying to clear arcade mode on hard without a continue

Arcade shooters don’t really need a backstory and Nex Machina barely has one.  Robots have taken over and it’s your job to clear them out while saving the few remaining humans.  You already know the basics: move with the left stick, aim and shoot with the right stick.  Enemies spawn in waves intent on killing you.  Kills rack up points and extend your combo multiplier.  One hit costs you a life and if you lose all your lives you’ll have to burn a continue and reset your score.

The frantic speed of twin-stick shooters is ramped up in Nex Machina with a dash ability.  The short cooldown and available triple dash powerup give you excellent freedom in escaping from a corner or chasing after a runaway enemy.  Dashing renders you invulnerable meaning it’s encouraged to sprint right through a pack of enemies.  Other passive powerups like shields and extra lives are typically hidden in destructible pieces of the environment.  As far as active powerups go, you can have one of five equipped at a time.  I’ve recently fallen in love with the burn-everything-in-front-of-me laser but the couple of high score runs I’ve watched focus on the smartbomb which destroys any nearby enemies and bullets.

Everything in Nex Machina is fast.  Your dash and special shot abilities cool down in about two seconds.  You move quickly while enemies crawl, jump, jerk, and fly quickly.  Levels only take 15-30 seconds.  Worlds, sets of 14 levels plus a boss, only take about seven minutes.  Downtime between levels is about two seconds as is the respawn timer.  Speed is truly the name of the game.

Housemarque built Nex Machina with score attackers and leaderboard hunters in mind.  Your standard combo extends as long as you aren’t hit and a secondary human rescue combo slowly decays between rescues.  It’s important to space out your rescues of the helpless green humans to maximize your human combo and keep it going.  Levels are packed with hidden humans to rescue, secret levels to unlock, beacons to destroy, and more.  Bonuses for rescuing all humans, no deaths, and performing a well-timed level end dash all rack up your score.  Levels don’t end until the final enemy, highlighted in purple, is destroyed which gives you time to explore.  Each mode has its own leaderboard that shows your rank and percentile.

If pushing yourself up a ranking ladder isn’t your thing, you’ll get plenty of enjoyment out of Nex Machina simply by playing.  It has style and beauty around every corner.  Voxel graphics allow for hundreds, if not thousands, of shimmering particles to be on the screen at one time.  Each destroyed enemy sends beams of green energy towards you while you send an endless stream of bullets their way.  Red enemies, purple lasers, green humans, and my own blue bullets make for a very pretty light show.  All of this happens at a buttery smooth 60 FPS.

Your ears are also in for a treat.  I’m not quite sure what genre of music the soundtrack falls into but it gives me a cyberpunk vibe.  Each track has an infectious beat that makes it hard not to tap your toes.  I’ve been listening to it on repeat at work for the last two days and while writing this article.  Enforcer Prime is easily my favorite track.

In general, purple bullets are bad.  There’s a lot of bad here.

Nex Machina is a challenging game, no doubt about it.  I’ve cleared arcade mode on the easiest difficulty a few times but I’m still working on finishing the second difficulty without using a continue.  Each lost life means a decrease in your combo multiplier and a lost powerup.  Losing your precious triple dash along with a slight drop in focus can easily mean one death chaining into two or three quick ones.  Even with the constant threat (and reality) of death, Nex Machina never feels cheap.  No specific enemy feels overpowered and the HUD is fairly out of the way and unobtrusive.  One thing to remember is that enemies always spawn in the same patterns and at the same locations.  If an enemy keeps taking you down, take note and adjust your play.

There are plenty of ways to spend your time killing hordes of robots.  Arcade mode is a run through all six worlds in a row at any of four difficulties.  The last one includes revenge bullets from fallen enemies which I am not looking forward to.  Single World is a score attack in, you guessed it, any single world.  Arena is where challenges live.  Each challenge comes with bronze, silver, and gold scores that net you coins that can be used to alter your character’s armor and bullet colors.  Challenges are broken up into seasons rather than resetting daily or weekly.  The replay system for arena mode is a great way to learn where secrets are, find the best paths through a stage, and be generally amazed at the skill it takes to top the leaderboard.  If you want to challenge yourself further, you can go after feats like destroying X enemies at once with a smartbomb, completing stages without moving, clearing the highest difficulty without getting hit, and more.  There is also a co-op mode.  I haven’t tried it yet, but doubling the amount of player bullets on the screen must be a sight to behold.

Finishing off a boss is also quite a scene.

If I had to pick one word to describe Nex Machina, it would be fun.  Tearing through waves of robots is just fun.  Doing it in a beautiful setting with bits and pieces flying by at 60 FPS all to a fantastic soundtrack is even more so.  Four difficulties, seasonal challenges, and dozens of feats to achieve pack a ton of content into a seemingly simple game.  Housemarque has taken the arcade shooter and modernized it.  Nex Machina is a fantastic game that will stay in my rotation for a long time to come.

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