Why Nuclear Throne is still the best roguelike around

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In an instant, it all comes back. The immediate sense of danger. The strategy, the weapons, remembering to grab a grenade launcher for the 2-1 bonus round and remembering to avoid opening the gates in 3-2 and 5-2 to keep them safe for the eventual loop. I make it to the Throne at record pace, busting the generators to break into the secret second phase… and then I beef it. Melted. A promising run killed in an instant, doomed by one slip up. 

I need you all to understand, I used to be hot shit at Nuclear Throne. Back in uni I was obsessed, making sure to get a daily run in every morning before heading to class, ill-advised subwoofer blasting the sounds of Joonas Turner’s fat bassy gunshots into my neighbours’ ceilings (probably). Even if I never topped the leaderboards, I was a regular sight in the top 25, frequently clawing my way into the top 10. 

Because while Nuclear Throne was never the deepest or most strategic roguelike, it’s raw, loud and incredibly satisfying, a buffet of crunchy pixelated murder where even the most successful runs can easily be crammed into a lunch break.

Throne butt 

Nuclear Throne is a 2015 twin-stick shooter by Vlambeer, the (now- defunct) crafty Dutch rascals behind equally screen-shaking games like Luftrausers and Ridiculous Fishing. It is, generously speaking, a roguelike—maps are procedurally generated on the fly, weapons are scattered across levels, levelling up grants you a choice of upgrade ‘mutations’ to plug into your body, and death is both quick and permanent. 

But unlike a Binding of Isaac, Slay the Spire, or even Enter the Gungeon (its closest relation, mechanically speaking), Nuclear Throne isn’t really a game about strategising builds or long-term planning. It’s a roguelike played on the edge of your seat, selecting from a scant list of upgrades in a blind panic in the hopes that you’re either carrying, or might find, the weapons that make it all click. 

It works, because the simple act of blasting stuff in Nuclear Throne is joyous. Vlambeer wrote the book on game feel, and when even your piddly little starting revolver kicks up bass and punches the screen, you know you’re in for a good time. The world is built up of tiles, and some weapons (explosives, particularly spicy energy weapons) will blow out chunks of these walls, while some bosses might even charge through ’em in a murderous rage.

(Image credit: Vlambeer)

Gene pool 

Rather than synergising into weird and wonderful combos, ‘mutations’ tend to benefit stuff you’re already doing. Better health and ammo drops, shotgun shells that bounce further, crossbow bolts with aim assist, halos to grant you a second chance, each framed as another gross little mutation bursting out of your messed up little guy. 

Nuclear Throne’s characters are a wonderfully screwed up band of freaks, mutant fish and living crystals, and rebel bandits who turn their flesh into smaller, friendly bandits. They each have their own quirks, usually in abilities, but often in how the world responds to their presence. 

YV is a floating triangle from Venus, and you’re guaranteed to crash his pad on reaching level 10 to pick from a literal pile of guns, while simple ol’ Fish will always get a guitar on reaching Throne 2. Rogue is on the run from her former extradimensional cop buds, and will be accosted by them from the offset—a small price to pay for being able to summon in devastating airstrikes at will. 

Unlocking these characters at all is also refreshingly old school in its strangeness. There are no levelling thresholds or unlocks—and while early characters are unlocked just for reaching certain stages or beating the game, you need to get creative to find others. Horror will only show up if you avoid those tantalising rad canisters scattered about each stage. 

And that’s really the thing about Nuclear Throne. It’s a deceptively simple game on the surface—shoot gun, mutate, don’t die, kill god’s chair, easy as. But the more you poke and prod, scraping away at those wonderfully destructible walls, the more secrets you find. Hidden stages, hidden bosses, final endings and a world rooted in a more melancholic tragedy than you’d ever have suspected.

(Image credit: Vlambeer)

Fläshyn 

Yes, Nuclear Throne is a game about being a funky little guy blasting bandits and monsters in a wasteland. But there is a truly astounding level of effort put into making this cartoon universe feel coherent and considered. There’s a whole language called Trashtalk for your mutant’s guttural screaming—a selection of sounds representing actions, places, and objects. 

For example, did you know that at the start of your run your character will often shout “Fläshyn!”, constructed of FL (do) Ä (me/we) SH (this) YN (now), loosely translating to “Let’s do this!”. Rhaäve’sho can be interpreted as “our lives are hard”, while the Nuclear Throne itself is a sharp, choked Fläisum. 

It’s a level of care that grounds this goofy world of mutants and monsters enough that, when it wants to, Nuclear Throne can pull off moments of real melancholy. You’ll often load into a map playing a more sombre piano variation of the level theme, maps feeling eerie when the dust has settled. 

The run-up to the Throne itself is a masterclass in scene-setting, a just-too-long walk up a long corridor while pulled strings ring ominously. Once the fight starts, the music is a desperate howl with frontier strumming, one final effort that begs to ask whether your fight was worth the pain. 

Across the board, Jukio Kallio’s soundtrack hits this perfect note of post-apocalyptic western, heavy riffs settling alongside twangy guitars. The game’s credits song is an all-time great, a breath of relief sung in campfire melody.

(Image credit: Vlambeer)

Modular chair 

Nuclear Throne, on release, was a perfectly formed thing. But that form took years to take shape, and its development was catalogued in entirety through Twitch. Vlambeer would work on the game in front of a live audience, who would then get to mess with the latest version of the game in Early Access. 

In that way, Nuclear Throne has always belonged to the community. And in the seven years since release, the community has run wild with the game, a small but fascinating modding scene growing up around it. 

The biggest of these is Nuclear Throne Together, which on the surface expands the game’s multiplayer from couch co-op to full online lobbies of up to four players. But Nuclear Throne Together’s secret is that it also cracks the game wide open, acting as a foundation for Nuclear Throne’s wildest mods. 

There are mods that add guns, mods that change guns, mods that procedurally generate guns on the fly. Mods that let you play as the Soldier from Enter the Gungeon, mods that replace every enemy with frogs, mods that slam environments into each other in a dimensional nightmare. 

(Image credit: Vlambeer)

Beyond NTT, there’s even a massive Community Remix mod that adds three new characters, fifty new weapons, and enough new mutations, crowns and otherwise to turn Nuclear Throne into something madly and wonderfully new—but never unrecognisable.

Nuclear Throne is pure, simple, chaos. Mods might turn the game on its side, deep fry it, and cram a thousand tons of explosive into it, but they never pull the game away from the raw thrill of slamming ‘play’ and dropping into a desert full of bandits armed with only a revolver and heavy guitar riffs. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for today’s daily. Let’s see if we can’t actually make it back into the top 10 this time, eh?

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