The pin­na­cle of ar­cade-in­spired twitch shoot­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - DIVERSIONS - CHRISTO­PHER BYRD style@wash­post.com

Ire­ceived my PlayS­ta­tion 4 as a Christ­mas gift in 2013.

For at least a year, un­til “Blood­borne” came out, my go-to game was “Re­so­gun,” a sidescrolling, space­ship shooter that was avail­able for free to PlayS­ta­tion Plus sub­scribers. De­vel­oped by House­mar­que, Fin­land’s old­est video-game stu­dio, “Re­so­gun” was a love let­ter to my fa­vorite game as a lit­tle kid, “De­fender” (another Christ­mas gift) for the Atari 2600. Vis­ually, it was one of the most im­pres­sive first-wave PS4 ti­tles in large part be­cause of its use of vox­els — cube-shaped graph­i­cal units. Ex­plo­sions re­sulted in the scat­ter­ing of in­nu­mer­able vol­umerich par­ti­cles that upped the ante for video-game py­rotech­nics.

In 2014, “Re­so­gun” was nom­i­nated for an Ac­tion Game of the Year award at the DICE Sum­mit in 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 ar­cadein­spired game de­sign.

Apart from “De­fender” (1981), the other games for which Jarvis is pri­mar­ily known 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 ev­erso-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 vox­el­made 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 videogamey 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 Machi- na” 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, the de­fault dif­fi­culty level, of­fers un­lim­ited con­tin­ues and five stages. Ex­pe­ri­enced, the next dif­fi­culty level up, al­lots 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 videogame crack.

HOUSE­MAR­QUE

In “Nex Machina” you play as a robotkilling sol­dier who must mow down waves of en­e­mies be­fore pro­ceed­ing to the next sec­tion. You can also try to res­cue hu­mans from be­ing har­vested by ro­bots — or not. Your choice.

NEX MACHINA House­mar­que PC, PlayS­ta­tion 4

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