The music sub-genre of video games has long struggled to be relevant and to be comparable to the likes of other gaming cash cows such as Call of Duty or Battlefield. The music genre was reinvented in 2005 with the birth of the Guitar Hero franchise, which blew everyone away. You could play beloved songs with your friends and show them how you could play “Through the Fire and the Flames” with the guitar behind your head with your feet hitting the notes and using your nose to strum the guitar. Through quite a few years of popularity, the Guitar Hero franchise started to grow stale and repetitive. The music genre is back to a place where revolutionary ideas can surface seemingly out of nowhere and gain their own name without being tied to giants in their respective genres. In comes Thumper, a rhythm/boss fighting game that absolutely explodes with unique and distinctive charm. Thumper is without a doubt one of the most interesting rhythm/music games that I have experienced to date, due largely in part to just how colorful and down-right unsettling it can be.
Thumper is unsettling in the same way that a horror movie is unsettling: it keeps you on the edge of your seat by making you feel like you are always one step away from losing control. Previous games such as Guitar Hero mitigated this feeling by adding a scale that tells you whether you are doing well or poorly on any given song. This helps the player to feel as though they can try again with no real repercussions. Thumper gives you two lives, and if you mess up any two times during each run you get sent back to the beginning of whatever section you are currently playing and get thrown right back into the fray. It reminds me of games like Super Hexagon with the constant juggling of obstacles and trying to anticipate what is ahead while being completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of things that can destroy you. It is important to note that Thumper has a great control scheme consisting of only three buttons; jumping, shielding, and turning. The simplified control scheme allows for a wonderful type of difficulty that doesn’t leave you frustrated at the game.
When you mess up and lose your rhythm in Thumper, you won’t be throwing your controller and blaming the “stupid game” because when you mess up you know that it’s all your fault, and nine times out of ten you know exactly how and where you messed up for the next run. I love this type of difficulty over something like the ever-lauded Dark Souls games; instead of getting killed by an enemy hitting you from 50 feet away with almost zero provocation in an area that is completely out of sight, you will feel and know precisely when you mess up and you can then correct the error. This creates a drive to finish that one part that you mess up every time without making you so angry that you don’t want to play anymore. Thumper’s specific style of difficulty really adds to the feeling of perpetual dread that accompanies the whole game. It keeps you forever on the edge of your seat by making sure you realize that you are always two mistakes away from exploding in a highly un-satisfying manner.
The musical element of Thumper is hit-or-miss. It really succeeds in the soundtrack and the musical aesthetic, but really lacks a stable and leveled volume for the music. Now, this may be because I live in an apartment and can’t really explore the volume range necessary for some games to really bloom musically, but from my experience with the game I ran into problems with actually hearing the beat of the music opposed to seeing the notes on the track. Essentially, I couldn’t hear the rhythm contained in the music to be able to hit the notes effectively. When the music is loud enough however, you are graced with a wonderfully dark industrial/electronic sound track that hearkens to the sound of Mad Max: Fury Road.
Lastly, the actual color scheme and aesthetic of the game is incredible. You play as a large chrome scarab riding a line in trippy geometric space. The track often transforms around you, creating looming tentacles, large pyramids off in the distance, and tight claustrophobic tunnels. While the 80’s chrome color scheme is wonderful to look at, it often makes it difficult to see some of the cues that form ahead of you because of the various explosions and blasts of color on screen at any given time. I played this game in 4k and it was still difficult to discern some of the turns and notes I had to hit until they were right on top of me. I will note that the game gives you ample audible cues as you play if you listen closely. And, when you aren’t being inundated by a barrage of notes and slides, you can actually gaze at some of the weird Tron hell-scape that unfolds around you forming all kinds of mind-bending and impossible shapes. I often found myself gazing at the environment for far too long, leading to an extremely quick demise.
All in all, this game is a wonderful and needed reinvention of the rhythm genre that has been in limbo for too long. The insane blasts of color and shapes really make the journey through the realm of Thumper a breathtaking and anxious experience. Thumper is a prime example of what can come through the cracks of indie development when the giants of the industry finally fall and competition for the top of the ladder starts all over again.
Picture Credit – DROOL Studio