The Nuclear Option

When I published my Spelunky review some time ago, a frequent and vocal reader accused me of essentially wasting his time. He said I wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t been said by others, and therefore the article was pointless- had no reason to exist. I saw some of what motivated him to say this- on the whole, Scanline tries to make sure we’re writing something not everyone has already covered. With how few articles we have the time and manpower to produce, redundancy isn’t in our interests or yours. But also, Scanline is a project of passion. We make negative money for running it- there are no ads or subscriptions, and the hosting fee is pretty small but it does exist. We write about things we care about, and don’t write about things we don’t. Sometimes that means we want to write about things that we don’t necessarily have stunning new insight into.

So, to that vocal reader who is annoyed by content that doesn’t trailblaze- I am gonna talk about Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne, and while I think I have things worth saying, I doubt I will dazzle you. I will not be offended if you tune out now, but I love this game, and I’ve gotta talk about it.

There’s a phenomenon players of Spelunky experience after they stop playing the game- I’ve heard it called the “Spelunky itch.” It’s a craving that didn’t exist before they challenged the caves of Olmec. What we want is a game that is focused on play, with little or no narrative getting in the way. We seek a single shot at a gauntlet of challenges, with no rote memorization of obstacles, and no powerups given to people who’ve put in more time. A game where neither grinding nor mindless memorization will aid you, and the only way to get further is to get better.

Spelunky!

Obviously, it’s a very specific formula, and not many games fit the bill. It essentially requires procedural generation to keep mixing up the levels, and plenty of games fall at this first hurdle. OlliOlli is a great gameplay focused skateboarding game with no perks for veterans… but the levels are the same every time, and it’s entirely possible to simply develop an ideal routine for each level without actually being forced to improve your skills.

Still others fall into the trap of thinking they need to reward the player with advantages for spending time with it. Rogue Legacy comes so damn close with its generations of warriors invading a randomized castle, and the ability to unlock new classes doesn’t even need to hinder that. If the classes were mere sidegrades- equal in power to the core classes, but with a different focus- that would still work wonderfully. Unfortunately, many of the class unlocks are blatant upgrades, with abilities that clearly outperform the originals. You also have the opportunity to upgrade gear and stats with treasure gathered by predecessors, further widening the gap between where you began the game and where you now stand. Crypt of Necrodancer’s upgrades between runs similarly keep it from reaching Full Spelunky- a shame, because in other places it gets so very close. All these games fall short.

That’s not to say they are bad games, or even that the features that make them different from Spelunky are mistakes. Rogue Legacy is ABOUT the progression- it’s about standing on the shoulders of your forebearers. Part of the great joy of that game is surmounting the previously insurmountable thanks to the advantages your ancestors died to grant you. OlliOlli, as well, would likely be a mess with random levels- it is necessary to know what’s coming so you can manage your speed and prepare your jumps. It does, however, keep them from properly scratching that itch. I was beginning to think that Spelunky was truly alone in its aims, and then I played Nuclear Throne.

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In many ways, the games are quite unalike. Spelunky offers sidescrolling puzzle platforming, whilst Nuclear Throne drops you into top down gunplay with no puzzles or careful traversal needed- though both feature the occasional trap. The soul of both, however, is the same- while you can get newer, better guns as you go along, and perks to enhance your power, these are limited to the current run- as soon as you die, it’s back to zero again. Only learning how enemies behave, what manner of level hazards exist, and what upgrades work best for you will see you progress further in the game. You learn that the assassins can feign death (!!!), that melee weapons can knock back bullets like tennis balls, that the screwdriver has another use you never imagined, and more. Thus you improve, and creep ever closer to the elusive Nuclear Throne. Perhaps you’ll even reach the legendary chair.

Sounds great, right? There’s only one problem- when I said that death brought you “back to zero again?” Well, that’s what I thought at first, but it’s not actually true. Even Nuclear Throne, which comes so close and does so much right, fumbles the ball and offers upgrades that carry over in a misguided attempt to give players a sense of progression. The unlockable characters are a forgivable offense- sure, it’s hard to argue that they aren’t better than the default characters, but at least they’re not direct upgrades. They have unique abilities, and thus don’t completely replace the original cast. They also are quite easy and quick to unlock, and it ceases to be an issue thereafter. The golden weapons, however, are less forgivable. If you die with a rare golden weapon (which are better than non-gold versions) in your loadout, you will start with it equipped on your next playthrough. The early game, where you scrounge for the tools, becomes lessened by the advantage, and it cheapens the cycle.

It’s such a sad distraction from the game’s ultimate goal, because it clearly is aiming for the lofty height Spelunky reached. Unlike Rogue Legacy or OlliOlli or titles like it, it isn’t missing the goal I seek in order to hit a different one. It’s simply failing to fully realize its own goals.

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It’s a struggle mirrored in competitive multiplayer, and it is at this point that we realize there’s nothing new about the so-called “Spelunky itch.” It’s the Sinistar itch, the Space Invaders itch, the Quake 3 itch. In a rush to add progression to every game- to make us feel like we’re always moving forward, always improving even when we fail- developers have forgotten the ways it can undermine the game. No arcade machine would think of starting a person who’d gotten a high score before off with a better starting score as a reward- being on the scoreboard was its own reward.

Yet so many games today do exactly this. How is a new player in Call of Duty: Black Ops supposed to keep up with a veteran? Not only does the experienced player have the knowledge- he knows the map layout, spawn points, how many shots it takes to kill, etc.- but he also has a concrete power advantage. As a reward for the time he’s invested, the game has actually given him more effective weaponry than the starting equipment. This isn’t fair to the new player- even if he’s managing to learn, he still can’t hope to keep up with the veteran’s more powerful loadout. It’s not great for the veteran, either, to whom an uninformed, inexperienced, and undergeared newbie is no challenge at all. It feels great to go on a fifteen kill streak, but that feeling sours when you realize it’s because those fifteen people literally didn’t understand what was happening. Combined with special rewards for getting multiple kills in one life, the design essentially rewards bullying.

I have no problem with games that reward player dedication with power. RPGs (eastern and western) are some of my favorite games, and levelling up is a core mechanic of those games. The moment the game becomes comparative or competitive, though, progression becomes a ruinous influence. In competition it only serves to make a fair fight unfair, and in comparative experiences like high score runs it adds an unnecessary barrier to entry. If there was an unlockable Spelunky character who got double the usual amount of treasure, there would be no point to trying for a high score until you’d unlocked them. Any normal run would be operating under a handicap, and high scores are supposed to be a pure measure of skill.

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At the same time, it’s easy to discourage people if failure nets them nothing. You can’t win em all, and if you get stuck in a rut of repeated failure it’s easy to feel like you’re not getting anywhere, and get discouraged. The answer to this problem is surprisingly simple- cosmetic progression. Games like Halo 3 and Dota 2 are perfect examples- as you play, you get access to new armor and other wearables that do nothing to your effectiveness, but look cool and keep you engaged. A rare item drop can cut the sting of a Dota defeat, and every Halo match, win or lose, is one step closer to that coveted Recon helmet. It really is possible to have it both ways- you can keep players encouraged and engaged with cosmetic progression without compromising that pure spirit of fair competition.

The beautiful thing about Nuclear Throne is that it’s still Early Access. Nearly every week a new build of the game hits- tweaking balance, adding weapons, changing algorithms. The game isn’t done, and it’s all still subject to change. Even if they don’t change the progression decisions that are bothering me, it will be (and already is) a fantastic game. However, if Vlambeer is willing to take it all the way, I really think it could be every bit the modern classic that Spelunky is.