In 2014, “Resogun” was nominated for an Action Game of the Year award at the DICE Summit is Las Vegas. According to Mikael Haveri, Housemarque’s Head of Self-Publishing, in the wee hours of the morning after the award ceremony members of his team spotted Eugene Jarvis, the lead designer behind “Defender.” Summoning up their courage, they told him the influence he’d exerted on the development of their craft (earlier that evening, Jarvis had received the Pioneer Award). In the days following the event, Jarvis, who had played and admired “Resogun,” agreed to collaborate with Housemarque on a new project that the studio internally referred to as “The Jarvis Project.” From that was born “Nex Machina,” a twitch shooter that stands as a pinnacle of a certain kind of arcade-inspired game design.
Apart from “Defender” (1981), the other games which Jarvis is primarily known for are overhead shooters “Robotron 2084” (1984) and “Smash TV” (1990). Both games, in their arcade versions, use a twin-stick setup, a form that dates back to “Gun Fight” (1975) but which Jarvis popularized with “Robotron.” With mesmerizing virtuosity, “Nex Machina” iterates on Jarvis’s famous twin-stick shooters.
In “Nex Machina” you play as a robot-killing soldier who must mow down waves of enemies before proceeding to the next section. The action is frenetic and supremely hypnotic. Much of the pleasure comes from being forced to quickly process tremendous amounts of visual information while remaining ever-so-slightly on the other side of being overwhelmed. “We like our explosions so we’re always balancing a visual aesthetic of chaos with actual readability to the player,” Haveri said. “That’s the dance that we like to take on.” “Nex Machina” uses Housemarque’s in-house graphics engine to create voxel-made environments that are among the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen in an arcade-style game.
When I asked Haveri to elaborate on Housemarque’s aesthetic commitment to voxel technology he said, “The voxels create a familiar but still very video-gamey world. It takes you to a different place. It’s like a storybook in that sense… like Lego building blocks, you can see a lot of depth.”
As with “Resogun,” “Nex Machina” brilliantly incorporates one of Jarvis’s most inspired design choices from “Defender” — multiple goals. Although you can blast your way through a level with utter abandon, you can also try to rescue oblivious humans (wandering around the playfield with their eyes trained on digital devices) from being harvested by the robots who have evolved and turned against their former masters. As it happens, there is an achievement for going through a stage on the experienced difficulty level or above without saving anyone – Nihilist. However, the game offers incentives for choosing otherwise by way of score multipliers. Of course rescuing humans often means throwing yourself even more in harm’s way so you are forced to regularly weigh the opportunity cost for undertaking humanitarian maneuvers.
By design, “Nex Machina” is a hard game, a fact made plain by its difficulty levels. Rookie or the default difficulty level offers unlimited continues and five stages. Experienced, the next difficulty level up, alots 99 continues. I played the game on experienced and yet, despite the seemingly generous number of continues, I was absolutely obliterated by the time I hit the fourth stage. That’s okay, because “Nex Machina” is a game that I plan to keep in rotation for the indefinite future.
This is some serious video game crack.
Note: I played “Nex Machina” on an i5-4690K computer with a second-generation Nvidia Titan X graphics card. At 3840×2160 resolution, the game ran with an average frame rate close to 52 frames-per-second.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.