Thumper is a rhythm game out of the small development studio Drool. It made it’s way to the Nintendo Switch earlier this year, to offer some of that addicting challenge on the go and the big screen. Thumper is described to be a rhythm violence game. As odd as it sounds, it’s nails the mark on what this game is about. It’s hard hitting and gut wrenching, and down right satisfyingly difficult.
In Thumper, you control a metal beetle. You move at a frantic pace along a guided rail, and have to time certain actions to markers or obstacles along the track. This can be anything from blue squares where you simply press the action button as you pass over them, to leaning into turns by pressing and holding the action button and tilting the analog stick in the direction you are turning. As you progress through Thumper, the obstacles get more varied and complicated, and often thrown multiple elements at you at once.
One small variation to the experience in Thumper are the boss fights. Bosses travel along the same path while staying ahead of you on the track. You still perform the same set of actions, however you are required to nail them in succession. Doing so will launch a projectile towards the boss causing damage. If you miss an action, you restart the sequence again, otherwise hitting the boss the required amount of times will defeat them.
Timing is key in Thumper. If you’re off for just a fraction of a second, you’ll miss the action, or worse, take damage. I haven’t dabbled in many rhythm games over my years, but Thumper seems to set itself apart by just how fast and intense things are right from the get go. What may seem like a simple task to keep count and time your actions accordingly is harder in practice. It’s very easy to miss executing actions properly as things move alarmingly fast.
Thumper is not very forgiving either. Everything moves at an incredible pace and there is barely any time to get ready for anything. The game at times will introduce new twists and not give you any heads up. You also don’t have much in terms of the beating you can take. Your metal beetle if hit, will shed it’s outer layer. If hit again, you die and it’s back to the last check point, which is preceding by some obnoxious high-fi sounds depicting your death. Dying generally makes me feel bad like it did in the original F-Zero. Take on the games optional PLAY+ mode will grant you only once chance to get hit before dying.
What makes things even tougher, is the levels are extremely long in Thumper. They consist of anywhere between 20 to 30 chapters. Your average time on each level can be between 20 to 30 minutes. This all sounds quite daunting, but thankfully the levels have many check points, so dying never feels too frustrating as you will never loose too much progress. Even better, you can save up to whatever check point you’ve reached, so that after quitting a game, you can resume right where you left off. This certainly helps alleviate some of the difficulties of Thumper, if you need to take a breather and come back to some of the daunting sections later on.
It’s certainly not a game for everyone though, and even with the benefits of checkpoints and save states, the extreme challenge will probably frustrate many players. In my play through, I’ve died countless times as my heart races trying to make sense and keep up with everything that’s going on. However I love the appeal of this game being an uphill battle right from the start and how you are seemingly overcoming the odds. Beating these challenges are ultimately satisfying for those who stick around and aren’t deterred by the games difficulty and demands for being extremely precise. Those seeking to also achieve the highest ranking in each stage and even take on the more daring PLAY+ mode will find many reasons to keep playing Thumper beyond completing the game.
What really ups the intensity in Thumper is it’s sound track. It’s loosely built with electronic elements, and sounds very tense. Everything about the sounds can make you feel very uneasy combined with the need to survive through the course. It’s definitely an experience you can’t find in many places.
The sound track is one of the hardest things to describe. Hearing people on podcasts trying to convey how it sounds is no easy task. It’s industrial, robotic, and very percussive. At times it sounds like robots are welding weapons in an evil factory somewhere. The best way I like to describe it is that it’s obnoxious and in your face. Once you give it a listen, these descriptions will make total sense. I’ve even heard my brother loosely describe it as “Movie trailer music”. Which again made total sense to me.
There isn’t a whole lot of melody to Thumper. Emphasis is given in it’s percussive elements. Which I think lends to it’s violent nature. When I think of drums, I picture someone violently smashing a drum kit, or in some cases, war drums. The sounds does lend to it’s oddly labelled genre as it feels like the games sound track is literally trying to beat you down.
Thumper’s visuals are down right trippy. Back grounds are littered with some crazy effects and patterns that wave around as if to distract you from your task at hand. Although you’ll be focused mostly on keeping to the beat, there are slow parts you pass through that give you the chance to take it all in. Whether it be wavy like tentacles in the distance, or futuristic tunnels, it’s a visual treat, especially running at 60 FPS on the Switch. The obstacles you encounter are also visually varied, so it’s easy to be able to differentiate between all the actions you need to perform for each, even at the crazy pace things move at.
There isn’t much variation to the visuals however. Each level effectively looks the same, and the same colour palette is used throughout the game. The bosses you face also repeat the same design in each level. Despite how cool they look, it is a shame there wasn’t any variation in this department. Regardless, Thumper still is a good looking game and it’s frantic pace helps add to it’s visual chaos. To truly best get an idea of how Thumper looks, it’s best to see the game in motion, screen shots can only do it so much justice.
Even though you’ll die a lot in Thumper, there are those moments where things do come together. On some first attempts, you can probably clear pretty advanced sections of the game, and feel really good about yourself. Highlights include things like riding up rails, and hitting a series of turns that require you to bank and then perform a jump to hit rings over head.
It’s moments like riding up rails, nailing action after action where I can now hear the music in it’s full, disturbing form. My mind drifts, and instead of relying on my eyes, I start listening for audio queues and know ahead of time what action I need to perform. As I heavily focus during these moments, it gives me a feeling of foreshadowing what’s to come. Once I cross the check point, I can finally relax and exhale. I couldn’t help but think of Obi-wan Kenobi during times like this. I hear his voice echoing through my head, saying “You’re eyes can deceive, don’t trust them!”
It may sound like I’m taking this analogy to one extreme, but this is as best as I can describe the rush and feeling I got from Thumper once I really got the hang of it. Upon my opening moments, I could barely nail the first action and watched it zoom by me countless times. Fast forward to some of the more challenging stages, I can’t help but think of that scene in the first Star Wars when Luke is making the Death Star trench run and hears Obi-wan say “Use the force Luke… Let go…”.
I played Thumper on the Nintendo Switch. While other platforms provide options such as VR, which I hear is the “true” way to play Thumper, the Switch does have a few noted benefits. First off, playing in handheld mode works great. The game looks and runs as smooth as it does in TV mode. What’s also nice, is the music and its intensity sounds pretty good through the Nintendo Switch speakers. I always fear using these speakers will take away from the enjoyment, but if you don’t have any headphones handy, it’s still a viable option to play Thumper. Although I would highly recommend using head phones when at all possible. I would also advise before jumping into things, to dive into the options, and boost the audio volume in the game. It’s set to a very low level by default, and lacks the oomph needed for such a game.
The second benefit of playing on the Switch is the HD rumble. Up until now, I hadn’t taken note of the benefits this new technology can bring to the table until I played Thumper. As you ride along the rails, you can use your analog stick to tilt left or right. Doing so causes the beetle to start scraping against the barrier of the track, which in turn makes the corresponding joy con rumble. The rumble is very subtle as you just start grazing the wall, but lean into it all the way, the intensity of the rumble magnifies accordingly. Another example of the great use of HD rumble is when fighting bosses. When you nail your actions and fire a shot towards the boss, you feel the rumble roll along the joy con away from you, mimicking the trajectory of the projectile fired. When you are in the midst of the chaos, the HD rumble isn’t as obvious or distracting, but instead lends itself to the immersive experience in a much more subtle way, which is great. The implementation of the HD rumble is extremely precise, and it’s very cool to not only see a developer work a unique feature of a new platform into their game well after it’s initial release, but also do it well.
Thumper is a tough experience to describe. Some of my first words about the game is that it resembled the Death Star trench run on acid. At it’s surface, it’s a rhythm game, but one that is done quite differently from the rest. To me, it’s more than that, and I found the entire journey to be quite abstract and deep in very technical ways. From it’s demanding challenges, to the point where everything just comes together and your senses elevate to the point of predicting what’s coming next, it’s extremely satisfying if you persevere through it’s tough moments. Even though the nine levels can take you 10 hours to complete, to me this game has nearly infinite replay value. For those who are terrified of an extremely challenging game that requires near perfect precision, this game is probably not for you. However, if you are someone who doesn’t fear the challenge and desires to achieve the highest scores on every level, there is so much joy to be found in Thumper. Even if getting the highest rankings isn’t your thing, there’s totally nothing wrong with jumping in and beating a stage from time to time just to experience the obnoxious sound track and nail those rewarding combos one after another. Combine that with it’s even more challenging PLAY+ mode, it’s a perfect package at a very reasonable price.