If Championship Edition took the Pac-Man formula and did the digital equivalent of grinding it up into a fine, snortable powder, then Housemarque’s flashy new twinstick score-em’-up Nex Machina does the same for Robotron 2084. Housemarque have transplanted the essence from arcade pioneer Eugene Jarvis’ greatest hits into a shiny new body — one full of extravagant particle effects and modern conventions — while still somehow retaining (and perhaps even improving upon) the tight controls and quarter-gobbling difficulty that Smash TV and Robotron fans know and love.
It’s notable just how much DNA Nex Machina borrows from Housemarque’s previous effort, Resogun. Nex Machina does to Robotron what Resogun did to Defender, modernizing an arcade-era classic and somehow sacrificing almost nothing of what made the older game so beloved. Curiously, Housemarque have opted to make Nex Machina look, play, and sound a whole lot like their last game (with the obvious exception of perspective and controls) — both center around rescuing the same little green humans for points, both take place across 5 stages (well, 5-6 in Nex Machina’s case, provided you play on a high enough difficulty) that gleefully explode into voxelly bits after the level boss is defeated. Even the robotic announcer lady from Resogun returns (and oddly enough, doesn’t seem to have recorded many new voice lines), emotionlessly declaring pertinent info as players save humans and acquire power-ups/multipliers.
Also like Resogun, there are a handful of modes players can choose from, though Arcade mode, where players begin on the first level and keep going until they run out of lives/credits or defeat the final boss, remains the best way to play. However, players who find themselves without the forty-five-plus minutes it takes to successfully complete an Arcade run can also play Single Level and Arena modes, which break the action into smaller chunks and throw in some modifiers not found in Arcade mode. It’s nice that these are included, and most will probably enjoy playing each of them once or twice; however, after a few runs I always found myself craving the more long-form, challenging gameplay of Arcade, if only because it’s where most of the competition is.
A local co-op option is also available, though I found this to be more frustrating than fun. Nex Machina is not an easy game, and throwing a second player into the mix serves to make it doubly so. With two characters running around on the same screen, the camera is often uncooperative as it struggles to adequately zoom out on larger stages, and the unfortunate choice to color the second player’s attacks a shade of pink that is nearly identical to the color of enemy projectiles makes some of the already hectic bullet hell scenarios virtually inscrutable.
Fortunately, multiplayer is but a small chunk of Nex Machina, and certainly not meant to be the star of the show. Single player is what Housemarque (and really the arcade shooter genre as a whole) is all about, and in this area Nex Machina shines. Not to sell the work that was put into the extraneous modes short, but for most players Arcade mode is the game, and I’m happy to say that it absolutely holds up its end of the bargain. Each stage has its own unique enemies and hazards, the controls are simple but very responsive, and there’s a lot going on beneath the surface for dedicated players to discover and exploit. Housemarque have fine-tuned the hell out of the game to make the competitive aspect as tight as any 80’s arcade game ever was; absolutely nothing is random, allowing those who choose to take the game seriously to memorize enemy/upgrade spawns, and the locations of secret humans, levels, and enemies in order to pull off the elusive perfect run. Of course, like all good secrets, some of these score-maximizing bits are tucked away pretty well, which is where Nex Machina’s excellent replay feature comes in, allowing players interested in maximizing their game to view any other player’s run, provided they play on the same platform (Nex Machina’s leaderboards are shared across PC and PS4). The information that can be gleaned from watching the world’s best players do their thing is invaluable to improving your own play, and serves as a great motivator to improve once you see just how terrible you are in comparison to people who actually know how to play the game.
The game’s proclivity toward competitive play shouldn’t scare off the more more casual set, though. On lower difficulties the game is still a blast to play through, and even those who aren’t interested in seeing all of the hidden content or grinding away daily to set a new personal best can still easily get a few hours out of the game (though perhaps may want to wait until the price has gone down some). Still, I cannot stress enough that the real pleasure of Nex Machina comes from repeated plays, so those without any interest in beating games more than once should probably look elsewhere; this is a circuit race, not a sprint.
My only serious complaint about arcade mode is difficulty. Easy difficulty makes the entire game a breeze, but while playing on any setting above that, sharp difficulty spikes at certain sections of the game consistently broke up my flow as I played, and caused me some amount of frustration. The third boss fight is one such example— despite taking place only halfway into the game, this fast moving mechanical menace presents a greater challenge to me than anything in the game aside from the final encounter. These speed bumps aren’t enough to ruin the game by any means, but do hurt the experience, as making it twenty minutes into a level on a single life only to lose my combo to a boss that feels significantly overpowered is not a good feeling. While I’m griping, I’ll also mention that a couple of the special weapons that can be picked up (the smart bomb and laser) don’t feel particularly useful compared to the others, though since you never have to use them (if you wait a few seconds, the special weapon pickups will cycle) this is a very minor point indeed.
Nex Machina steps into the shoes of the games that inspired it with zeal and flourish. Modernized yet structurally similar in all the ways that matter, it’s a hell of a shooter and another great entry into Housemarque’s now sizable portfolio of score-focused reimaginings of classic games. While the side modes are nothing special and the difficulty can feel a little unbalanced in spots, it’s well worth the purchase for players who miss the shooters of yesteryear, or just get kicks out of beating their friends’ high scores. While the main campaign may prove a little short to those uninterested in the repetition that the game is designed around, going into Nex Machina with the right expectations and a willingness to get your ass handed to you allows for one of the most rewarding gaming experiences of the year that will keep the truly dedicated playing for countless hours to come.