Once again honoring the classic arcade style of games, developer Housemarque releases Nex Machina – a brand new twin stick shooter developed in cooperation with genre legend Eugene Jarvis.
Jarvis worked on arcade classics like Defender, Robotron and Smash T.V. back in the eighties and early nineties, so he’s earned his place in the shooter genre – and the latter two are great examples of early twin/dual-stick games. I remember playing Smash TV on an Atari ST with a single joystick first, but that was always a compromise and it wasn’t until twin-stick gamepads had become the norm that the genre properly resurfaced.
In Nex Machina, you’re looking at a “judgment day” type of scenario where machines have become smarter and more powerful than humans, finally realizing that they no longer need their flesh and blood masters. Robots start turning on humans, and it’s up to you to save the day. Of course, as with all arcade games, the story is virtually non-existent once you start playing. The arcade campaign is over in about an hour as well (if you play on easy), but the fun doesn’t stop there.
The game allows you to either try your luck at a harder difficulty level, or push for higher scores at your current one by changing up the objectives or forcing you to use alternate strategies. If you leave fellow humans out on the playing field for a bit longer before saving them, the risk you take gets rewarded. You’ll also find some hidden bonuses, humans and upgrades if you spend more time looking for them – and there are alternate paths to completing most of the levels as well. When you consider that there are over 100 levels to play, that’s a lot of replayability.
Once you hit your ceiling, score-wise, you also have the option to watch playthroughs by other players to see what else you might push for. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, because although they can help you along it also means that viewing then ruins a bit of the excitement that comes from your own discovery of some of these subtle gameplay twists.
Besides the arcade mode, you can also play levels in other ways – for example under the pressure of a clock that runs down or in a high-speed mode. Next to these standard variations, extra challenges can also be unlocking using in-game currency – and the game throws objectives at you that seem to be tailor-made for the skill level you’re currently at. This is an extremely well designed game in this sense, because it’s amazing how long Nex Machina stays fun even though the arcade campaign is actually quite short. In a way, the entire game is like the tutorial that’s ironically missing.
Tackling the game in local cooperative mode adds another dimension to the mix, as team tactics where you cover each other can really pay off and you quickly learn that cooperation is essential if you are to survive the hordes of robots that the game throws at you. It does so with a colorful top-down aesthetic that’s more like Stardust than it is like Resogun – and it’s an art style that uses voxel technology for a unique visual flavor.
Rock solid and refined gameplay, combined with game design that stretches replay value to its maximum, make Nex Machina a great example of a modern arcade game. It’s well worth adding to your collection, especially since it’s been way too long since we had a twin stick shooter of this quality. Let’s hope Geometry Wars makes a comeback as well!