Monday, October 24, 2016

Thumper - Thoughts

There are a handful of games that are about journeying into the depths of Hell—Doom, Dante's Inferno, and Diablo immediately spring to mind—but no product more perfectly encapsulates the dread of such an endeavor than Thumper. I know it might come across as grandstanding (after all, how does a rhythm game with no discernible setting accomplish this?) but I implore you to listen: surviving Thumper is surviving Hell. In an Inferno-esque style, nine vicious stages await you as you descend into the maw of madness, obstacles and beats coming at you faster and faster until you're unsure if the human mind is capable of processing such an onslaught of information. Your vision will blur, your palms will sweat, and your fingers will tense up as you smash against walls and fly into spikes; you will die, and die, and die again, until your weakness has been purged... or you simply break. No game released this year has put up more of a fight than Thumper, and no game I've played this year has been more satisfying to finally conquer.

Part of Thumper's allure is in how deceptively simple it is: the only required inputs are a single button and the cardinal directions of a joystick. As your iron-clad beetle vehicle whizzes down the track, you'll press the button to hit a pad, or press the button plus direction to grind against a wall. There's also flying, multiple lanes, and stomp chaining that gets introduced later on, but Thumper eases you into these abilities one by one, teaching you a new trick for each of its first five levels. Perhaps the best way I can describe the game is that's it kinda like Stepmania meets Super Hexagon with an F-Zero exterior, requiring rhythmic precision at a blistering fast speed.

And Thumper is fast—very very fast. You'll need each of its sixty frames per second to read objects in the distance before they hie to your position, a mere two crashes needed to burst your beetle into bits. While the game showcases a lot of spiffy effects and visuals (some of the bosses in particular are real nifty), Thumper demands you parse the signal from the noise in order to survive, which can be a grueling task at first. Hairpin turns, claustrophobic tunnels, and a dizzying amount of particle effects and lights are all meant to obscure your vision, but hopefully you'll grow used to the bewildering amount of action onscreen, eyes squarely focused on the oncoming track.

And what rhythm game is complete without some excellent music? To say Thumper's soundtrack is catchy or melodic would be... well, a lie; primal drums accompanied by ambient hums are what urge you onwards, all other instrumental fat shorn away. Each oncoming obstacle adds percussion to the soundscape, with your inputs either repeating or complementing the audible attack. While it might seem like the dearth of other instruments would cause the game to get boring after a while, the clever twist that Thumper pulls is that each of its nine levels is a corresponding time signature: Level 1 is 1/4, Level 2 is 2/4, Level 3 is 3/4 and so on. Just when you feel you've mastered one stage's tricks, the next one hastily makes a fool out of you until you can grasp its completely different timing. To best survive, I recommend putting on headphones, cranking the volume, and zoning out until you become one with the beetle, naturally intuiting what every move will add to the battlefield of noise.

Rarely will you ever feel comfortable playing the game though, which is where the Hell analogy comes back in. In something like Doom the player is empowered as they march on, whereas Thumper immerses itself in cruelty and despair as you delve ever deeper. The world itself is alarmingly alien: cold colors reflect off of the iridescent metal track, strange and brutal geometric shapes forming from afar to distract or obliterate you. The gameplay matches the visual austerity as stages simply get faster and longer, always teetering the cusp of being too demanding. I thought Level 5 had shown me my limits, but I continued to bore downwards, improving my reactions and sharpening my reflexes. It's silly to say, but I'm pretty sure I experienced all five stages of grief whilst playing the game, emerging out the other end as a changed man... er, at least a man that can do perfect turns while flying.

Thumper is not an easy game—it will demand a lot from you. You'll have to endure (literally) odd time signatures, deal with sharp changes in rhythm, and retry sections a dozen times over if you want to earn anything more than a C Rank.  But Thumper is also a game about self-improvement, not submitting to the forces of evil, and the indomitable power of the human spirit. What first seems dark, belligerent, and frightening slowly grows on you until the fire and brimstone no longer burn; where once you were a prisoner, you now make the very road your slave. Beyond Thumper's pain is pleasure, and I can't recommend it enough—it's the best impulse purchase I've made in a long while.

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