There's something inherently natural about the desire to make rhythm. Leave a conga drum out in the open, and it's guaranteed to get bopped a bit by random folks passing by. We may not all have perfect timing, but thumping hands in a percussive manner comes as natural as whistling or toe-tapping to pretty much everyone.
In that sense, the real surprise isn't so much the recent rise and fall of music video games, but rather that they haven't had more of a longstanding presence alongside other classic genres. We've pretty much always seen some variant; sound and pattern recognition (endless runners like Temple Run), instrument training (Miracle Piano, Rocksmith), exercise and dancing (Dance Dance Revolution, Pump It Up), abstract music integration and layering (Frequency, Amplitude, Rock Band Blitz) and of course, the playful guitar/band sims (Rock Band, Guitar Hero).
All the while, music- and rhythm-based video games are perhaps the medium in their purest form. After all, what are the majority of video games if not sequential pattern recognition and recall? Get this prompt, press this input. Pretty much every game has some method of rhythm and timing, and a player's skillset generally involves responding appropriately. In the same (arguable) way that the only separation between music and noise is structure, the back-and-forth tug of a Dark Souls boss isn't too far removed than hitting every button on a plastic guitar during a Flyleaf song.
But I digress, to no surprise. Thumper, by two man studio Drool, is a self-described "rhythm violence" game. Creators Marc Flury and Brian Gibson, both previously at Harmonix, have crafted what they call "rhythm hell." Given this is a "Spooky Play," that phrase is a lot more innocuous than it would suggest; Thumper has no blood, gore, language, or pretty much anything offensive, other than some seriously trippy and intimidating imagery. Bigbad's name "Crakhed" could be offensive, but I'm pretty sure that's a cat's name.
The whole game is really just a nightmare from the dude who made album art for Journey.
Gameplay takes a page out of the Amplitude/Frequency playbook, though in some ways stripped down even further. There is one button, and the d-pad or analogue stick, and that's it for inputs. Yet the mileage Thumper gets out of that is reminiscent of Trials, Super Monkey Ball, or spiritual grandfather Temple Run; the simplicity belies the focused challenge. A "space beetle' (you) hurtles down a lane, "thumping" occasional squares on the track with the press of a button. Walls on either side require a direction and button press, and holding the button slams through barriers or initiates jumping over obstacles. There are more layers that develop over the ten levels, including lane-switching and downward slams, and of course there are scoring mechanics including ring-breaking and how well-timed everything is. This helps account for the singular difficulty; missing certain track elements breaks off the beetle's outer shell for the first hit, and a second shatters it into what looks like chunks of neon sparks and heavy glass. Respawns load right away, continuing right after the previous, generous checkpoint.
If all of this sounds simplistic, that's by design. However, by no means is the game a breeze; the sheer speed and intensity will likely break some gamers. Given that the entire experience is set to the rhythm of a forceful, industrial soundtrack, a sense of timing and "getting the beat" is crucial to success. Each sequence is a consistent pattern, so even those who can't keep to the timing of their washing machine still can succeed through persistence, but Thumper will silently judge you if you've never heard of using two bass pedals.
Ten levels may sound slight and on par with the $20 (digital only) asking price, but each level has dozens of sections and initial completion time will likely take as many hours as there are levels. Leaderboard score-chasers will get far more mileage out of the absurd challenge of hitting everything perfectly.
So back to what makes Thumper a "Spooky Play."
A kid's game, obviously.
Thankfully there is no attempt at a real story or even explanation as to exactly what is going on in the game. Instead, there is a presence, a pervasive sense of dread and menace. The music often lulls into screeches, creaks, and deep tones used in haunted house attractions and movies. Every action by the Space Beetle, from slamming into walls to "thumping" squares on the track, are designed around feeling a very violent impact. Particle effects abound in flying shards, light rays, and chunks of (what looks like) metal and chitin. Bosses are modeled after creepy-crawlies or harsh geometric-shaped robot things. Even the track itself writhes with flailing tendrils and segmented leg-like projections, mimicking centipedes and other "I can't sleep at night because this is a thing that exists" critters.
I guess if you are an Entomologist, maybe it could be Rhythm Heaven.
While there isn't anything in the game scarier than horror-themed sound and freaky designs, I have to note that playing the demo at a Gamestop made a few onlookers quite creeped out and even uncomfortable. The experience is coated in an odd existential dread, as if you are catching a glimpse at some ancient, cosmic conflict through a lens of which "normal people" are blissfully unaware, in a reality behind the curtain of our own. Thumper has no immediate Lovecraftian connection, but the same type of otherworldly not-meant-to-be-seen vibe is present. The fact that the game is simple and abstract in no means makes it a subtle experience, but Thumper never over-reaches what it sets out to be.
Here is a case where the trailer is the best final word; if this looks like something you'd enjoy, I definitely think you would. If you find yourself tapping your hand when the music starts, buy it.
If anything with more than four legs gives you the willies or you have always considered yourself rhythm-impaired, yeah, no-go.
P.S. A note on VR: Thumper released on PSN and PC, with PSVR support out of the gate (and PC VR support coming soon.) How is the PSVR Thumper experience?
Well, I liked the game before (it released two days before the PSVR) and I have to say, now I think playing without it misses half the experience! This game was definitely made for 3D, and what was freaky and intimidating on the screen looks positively gigantic and amazing with the PSVR. And since the game doesn't require any head movement or erratic gestures, there's little to no worry about motion sickness, tracking, or other potential VR issues. I can't say Thumper will sell systems like Wii Sports, but in the same way that Resogun was regarded by some to help justify owning a PS4 until more games released, its definitely a great start.
I'm def interested in this, but waiting for Rift support.
Seems so fitting that Gibson would be part of this. His band Lightning Bolt were local legends in this parts when I was in college. I got to see them a few times, including a magical show w/ Sonic Youth.
@EngineerMike:lemme know what you think. I know its not for everyone, but I'm loving it in VR. Also enjoying Eve: Valkyrie. Would probably like Driveclub VR if it didn't give me nausea within seconds of racing. 😭
really fast moving stuff has given me a bit of motion sickness as well. Slower moving space stuff is amazing though. House Of The Dying Sun is incredible, and I hope you folks on PS4 get to play that one at some point.
Is the music in the game more "industrial" than what's in the trailer above? I'm curious, because, when I think of industrial, I think of Celldweller, Circle of Dust, NIN, Deitiphobia, etc. I didn't get that vibe from the short burst of music in the video. Looks amazing, though!
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