Coin-operated arcade titles were all the rage back when the games that Housemarque are inspired by were ever-present. While their PS4 launch title Resogun took cues from the 1981 arcade classic Defender, and Super Stardust was a smash hit with its updated take on Robotron: 2084, their newest game Nex Machina is one of their best yet. Which isn’t saying much due to their overwhelming success with the previously mentioned titles. But with Eugene Jarvis on board (who worked on both Defender and Robotron: 2084), the snake has eaten its own tail as Nex Machina takes its cues from Smash TV (another Jarvis joint) and works in familiar elements from Resogun to create an arcade experience more than worth having in 2017.
Any good arcade title is gameplay first and the story is secondary, if present at all, really. Nex Machina barely has any story, to begin with barring its enemy designs and the game’s mechanics using far more subtle forms of storytelling that this game has very little interest in explaining. This lack of attachment to your avatar is key to the game’s design though as you maneuver through swarms of enemies in each area of a stage, dodging bullets, lasers, and bodies until all threats have been neutralized and you can proceed to the next area. This is where the Smash TV formula comes into play, with very little deviance except for the small Resogun touches like humans to save in each area. This includes secret humans, as well as hidden areas, beacons and other objectives to complete that are not detrimental to complete but do offer a better score in the end.
If you don’t like score attack games, this is not for you, but honestly, neither are any of Housemarque’s titles or most of Jarvis’s works. The idea of these two coming together and creating an updated take on a classic title like Smash TV was titillating just in theory, but seeing how it all works together is even more engrossing. Few do visual design better than Housemarque when it comes to arcade-like titles, and Nex Machina is no exception. Enemies explode and the use of pink as a visual cue helps set apart enemy fire from enemy design. Unfortunately, there are some cues like lasers that cannot be dodged through that feel like mutations on the pink lasers but lack enough distinction to recognize them immediately. These issues only really pop up in the later worlds, which doesn’t take long to get to depending on your skill level, but it also doesn’t appear too frequently when there.
The sound is also a pretty important part of Nex Machina as you will hear it a lot as you replay stages over and over in Arcade mode, or decide to venture into Arena mode for a tougher challenge. It has a cyberpunk vibe to it which meshes well with the aesthetic. Everything feels like an updated take on the 80’s versions of the future but with a cleaner sheen to it. While the visuals are different enough, the game doesn’t feel like its pushing the envelope in its environment design, creating something that feels like it is getting increasingly more mechanical as the game progresses. I mean, you do start off in a jungle and then see the world change as you move forward which is one of the more overt ways the game’s environments tell a story.
As is the case with Housemarque’s previous efforts, there are a handful of weapon upgrades to pick up and even weapons as well. Each time you start the game you have a dash attack that gives you invulnerability from enemy fire but also has a cooldown on it so you can’t keep dashing around. It’s an intelligent replacement to the Smartbomb which is in the game but serves a smaller role as one of the secondary weapons you can pick up along with a Laser, Rocket Launcher, and other offensive attacks. You’ll need these more when it comes to the bosses of each world than the enemies that precede them. Firing off your basic attack will do damage and once you’ve recognized attack patterns the bosses won’t pose much of a threat, but on harder difficulties, you’ll still want that extra help to finish enemies off faster. They have significantly less impact than they would in a game from Housemarque, but I think that ties more into the way the game is structured with stages and not a persistent battle in one area for an entire world.
With several worlds to explore and plenty of replay value purely due to the game’s gameplay being so much fun, I’m hard pressed to find a reason why you wouldn’t want to delve into the world of Nex Machina. It’s made with love for fans of arcade games and bullet hell shooters, though this leans less on the latter until its boss fights. I wish the boss fights had a little more variety to them, but instead, they add a lot more bullets for you to dodge than a strategy to implement. But that’s one of a few faults in a game that will leave you hooked for hours. Housemarque delivers another pulse-pounding arcade shooter, and it’s hard not to smile the whole time you’re playing.
A Playstation 4 review copy of Nex Machina was provided by Housemarque for the purpose of this review.