It’s never an easy task to try and revitalize popular genres from the past. This is something that we see developers try to do at least once or twice a year and the results often vary. With Nex Machina, Housemarque is now trying to do the same by re-creating an arcade shooter of the past in the stylings of the present. In this journey, they’ve brought in famed developer Eugene Jarvis — Robotron: 2084 and Defender — to help find what it is that lies at the core of these old-school shooters. Somewhere along the way though, Housemarque ended up tapping into something much more special than a simple recreation of an old arcade shooter and instead has now redefined the genre moving forward.
In simplest terms, Nex Machina is the newest twin stick shooter from Housemarque, creators of many other notable games that utilize the twin-stick mechanic. While it’s the first game that the studio has released since last year’s Alienation, Nex Machina is instead more akin to 2013’s Resogun, which launched alongside the PS4. Seasoned gamers however will notice that Nex Machina is perhaps most similar of all to old-school arcade shooters like Robotron: 2084 and Smash TV — both games that Eugene Jarvis created.
When playing, you’ll shoot your way through a variety of levels — each featuring 15 unique stages that culminate in a boss fight — to try and rack up the highest score that you can get to dominate the leaderboards. It’s a simple concept, but one that leads to a lot of replayability.
Nex Machina’s controls lie at the heart of the game and are both fluid and simple. In addition to the twin-sticks used for moving and shooting, the game only utilizes two extra buttons — one for dashing and the other for using special weapons. These simple controls can be picked up by anyone but, as the old cliche goes, they’re difficult to master. Since the controls are so simple at a bare bones level, they leave a lot of room for experimentation and discovery to find which methods work best. Plus, you’ll constantly be picking up new special weapons — of which there are six — to see which ones work best given your current situation.
It’s honestly hard to convey in writing though just what makes Nex Machina feel so good when it comes to gameplay. I could gush about the fluidity of the combat or how great it feels to pull off a no-death run, but it really won’t click with you until you play it for yourself. Once you do play it though, you’ll understand what I mean. Nex Machina’s gameplay is some of the best I have seen in quite some time. In fact, I would go as far to say that it is easily the best that we have seen so far this year due to how finely tuned and crafted it is.
Thankfully, the gameplay is fantastic because the rest of your time spent playing Nex Machina may involve you yelling at your TV a lot. Nex Machina has an incredibly high difficulty curve even on the lower difficulties of the game. As of now, I still haven’t been able to beat the game’s final boss on the equivalent of “medium.” It’s that tough.
However, I never felt like the game was to blame when I died and it was instead always my fault. Never at any point while playing did I feel like the game was needing to cheat to defeat me; instead I just knew that I wasn’t good enough. This led me back to retry levels over and over in the constant pursuit to become better. While Nex Machina is hard, it’s also fair — which is exactly what you need in a game with a high level of difficulty.
While there are only a handful of levels in Nex Machina, each of them are incredibly replayable thanks to the secrets that lie within each. In addition to the humans that need saving in each level — a Housemarque trademark — there are a handful of secret paths, secret humans, and other collectibles for you to find. As of this writing, I have replayed the first level of the game on endless loops in order to find all of the secrets within it and I still think I’m missing a few. To find every secret in each level will take countless hours but will almost surely increase your high score once you do.
To me, that’s by far one of the best parts of Nex Machina. Not only will you be replaying levels in the quest to get better and improve your score, you’ll also constantly have your eyes peeled to uncover new secrets. While I loved Housemarque’s work on Resogun, that game honestly feels much more straightforward by comparison to Nex Machina. While I have only played Nex Machina for a few days at this point, I can see myself continuing to come back for weeks and months on end just to uncover everything.
In addition to the secrets within the levels, there’s also a wide variety of challenges and modes to play within the game. While arcade mode is Nex Machina’s bread and butter, there is a single level mode that allow you to play, well, single levels, in addition to an arena mode that allows you to play levels with certain modifiers turned on.
Some of these modifiers may be as simple as making enemies move faster while others might give you a time limit to complete the level within. Each level in arena mode also gives you a bronze, silver, or gold medal depending on the score you get. Coins are also awarded to you upon completing these levels which then allows you to purchase more challenges within arena mode or maybe some new outfits for your character.
Also worth noting is a list of “feats” that you will find in Nex Machina’s extras menu. These feats serve as in-game achievements/trophies and allow you to feel like you’re constantly working towards some sort of objective or goal while playing. While I wish you could unlock something like coins upon obtaining a feat, the inner trophy hunter in me appreciates the system purely because it’s there.
Another mentionable addition to Nex Machina is co-op mode which allows you to play through each of the game’s levels with a friend. Unfortunately, this mode is only available via local play and not through the Internet. Nex Machina moves with such speed though that it would almost certainly be impossible for you and a friend to play online without it interrupting your game in some way. I honestly credit Housemarque for even including a local-only gameplay mode in 2017 as I doubt that many other developers would be willing to do the same.
Nex Machina is one of the year’s most finely-crafted games but it doesn’t come without at least one notable complaint from me. Similar to Resogun, as you play Nex Machina, your character will begin to gain upgrades that improve things like weapon range, weapon spread, and the number of dashes that can be used. These abilities will stay with your character until death, at which point one of them will be removed. However, if you lose all of your lives and have to utilize a continue, your character will revert back to square one and will respawn with no abilities at all.
While this makes sense, there are times — specifically boss fights — when the game’s difficulty is so hard that you’re better off just restarting the entire level rather than trying to advance further with your underpowered character. It makes sense that there’s a punishment for losing all of your lives within the game, but feeling like you need to restart a level in order to complete it is never any fun and it really breaks up your flow.
The last thing I really want to praise with Nex Machina is the fantastic soundtrack by Ari Pulkkinen. The electronic beats and fast-paced music really get you into that groove that you often look for in these snappy shooters. For a point of reference, think of something along the lines of Hotline Miami where the music and the gameplay work in sync to get you into the zone. The same can be said here with Nex Machina and I honestly think that Pulkkinen’s work is some of my personal favorite this year.
Nex Machina is quick, challenging, and exactly what the arcade shooter genre needed. The team at Housemarque has clearly taken a lot of influence from shooters of the past while still knowing how to add their own special spice to the mix. With enough content to keep you busy for months and a high level of difficulty, Nex Machina is a game that you will return to time and time again. It isn’t just one of year’s best games, Nex Machina is an instant classic that deserves to sit right alongside Robotron: 2084 and Smash TV as some of the arcade shooter genre’s best.