Thumper is the kind of game that exudes hypnotic energy so strongly that it persuades you to pontificate on its behalf.

Thumper has me looking up synonyms for violence. Thumper will wake a critic out of his work-life cocoon to write a review in hopes of pulling others into its kaleidoscopic rhythm hell. It’s a game that will make you wax pseudo-poetically for 800 words. Hard not to when the game looks like this:

thumper2

Who Makes It

You may know Thumper as the lovingly dubbed “space beetle game.” For the unfamiliar, it’s a “rhythm violence” game from developer Drool. The dev is made up of ex-Harmonix  (Guitar Hero, Rock Band, etc.) programmer Marc Flury and Brian Gibson, a musician from “noise rock” band Lightning Bolt. Creative backgrounds that may explain this connection (left column, Thumper, right, Journey album covers):
thumperandjourney_dw

What You Do

The game is much more than a pretty “star gate” screensaver or progressive rock reference. This is a game-game that escalates quickly into difficult territory, requiring much from your mind and thumb.

The gameplay consists of simple inputs, a single button and directional control. There are no complicated sequences to learn or ever increasing buttons to press. You’re tasked with surviving from point A to B using thumps, drifts, and flutters in exponentially deadlier contexts.

Often you’ll watch a mistake violently rip off your beetle’s chrome armor, exposing frail translucent wings and signaling your last chance to progress forward. The psychological stress of your “last life”, of having to watch your metallic insect shatter into the abyss, can be as claustrophobic as the game itself.

In ancient Egypt, the scarab signified rebirth and regeneration. This metaphor is apt as you’ll die and be reborn regularly. A few levels in and you’ll find that the minimalist control scheme is the only way this could ramp fairly for the player (See figure b. below).

thumpergif

How It’s Designed

At first glance, the game is deceptively simple. Thumper’s slick look and single track environment betray its rich gameplay. Entrenched in the sharp turns, light pads, and lasers are surprisingly nuanced mechanics.

Depth arises from Thumper’s readability. In time you learn the game’s tells, its color coding, hidden multipliers, and sections of track you can blast through using advanced maneuvers.

The significance of game literacy, learning Thumper’s mechanical language, triggers Thumper’s least discussed design triumph: difficulty scaling. Honoring it’s unflinching minimalist aesthetic Thumper has one setting. And it only needs one.

While the game can brutally hard (I’m looking at you Level 6/Crakhed), Thumper’s levels are as challenging as you want them to be. You can flail your way through a section. This will prompt a C grade, the lowest from a scale that, to my knowledge, goes up to S. The C as lowest grade is a clever touch—positive reinforcement for near failure.

On that note, Thumper is much more forgiving than it could have been. You’re not always punished for nuance, missing a thump by a millisecond or moving too early into a drift is acceptable.  Instead emphasis is placed on obtaining the aesthetic thrills of high level play, encouraging you to pursue seemingly superhuman execution.

Racing through a section at S-grade difficulty matches the satisfaction only a perfect Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls run generates. Chasing that high leads to a single, endless strategy: thump better. And while I could go on about mechanics and music visualizer visuals, it’s for the intoxication that we play Thumper.

How It Feels

That Drool developed Thumper is ironic. Playing Thumper makes my mouth dry. It makes my pupils dilate, jaw clench, and hands cramp. If you want to produce some anti-video game propaganda, film a gamer’s face while playing Thumper. The footage would be indiscernible from someone who took one too many Adderall.

Thumper may remind you of Amplitude or Rez. This comparison showcases the limitations of video or writing accurately representing game experiences. To watch or read about Thumper is to not feel the game’s metallic clangs, whirs, and thuds.

The distinctive artistic style misleads onlookers, undermining the game’s mental and physical demands. Playing transforms the visual onslaught into tunnel vision, eyes and ears focused on the predictive tell ahead. In this liminal space between consciousness and muscle memory, in sensory limbo, sits Thumper’s alluring pull: a synesthesia of sonic thrash, lights, and dexterity.

Last Words

Thumper is so militant in its specificity, so singular in its ambitions, that it’s hard to find fault in the game.  Any perceived shortcomings come off as personal problems: game length, turns too fast, rhythms too syncopated. If you let it subsume you, you’ll have to try not to enjoy it.

Thumper truly is a game-game. There’s no reliance on the trappings of other mediums. No story. No dialogue. All there is you, the space scarab, and a gameplay experience dedicated to unsettling you with techno-industrial thriller vibes. The result is undeniably affecting. You are instrument. You are sound. You are inertia incarnate.

 

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