Indie Wonderland: Thumper

Drool‘s Thumper graced or topped a lot of GOTY list at the end of last year. It’s been on my to-play list too, ever since I saw… To be honest, I don’t actually know much about Thumper. All I know for certain is that it’s a rhythm game of sorts, and all I’ve seen is some kind of beetle thing skating on a space rail. I’m given to understand it’s scary? What little I read about it (constant praise) convinced me to play it for review, which means I’ve mostly steered clear of other perspectives. So if you, like me, don’t actually know what the hub-bub is regarding this game, you’re in luck: we’re about to embark on this journey of discovery together.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, nonexistent. Mechanical, medium-to-high.)

(Game source: Bought it myself.)

Opening

I launch Thumper. I’m greeted by an opening screen that’s mostly angled shades of red, accompanied by a low humming music track. Oooooh. It’s in motion, I can tell: the screen rushes forward along white lines that stretch into the brightly lit distance. From that distance, a single word approaches, intermittently accompanied by rushing side rails.

Well. That’s certainly a way to pique my interest.

A small menu appears, and I briefly play with the options. Insofar as there are any. Thumper has… audio settings, surprisingly. And I can choose to play it in fullscreen. The most interesting options choice here is whether to play with mouse and keyboard or gamepad. I pick the latter, for no particular reason; call it a hunch.

Apart from that, there’s not a whole lot for me to do in this menu but watch the rails rush by. I can look at leaderboards! …That I have no stake in yet. And with Options out of the way, and Exit off the table, and ‘Play +’ greyed out — what mysteries do you hide yet, video game — the seemingly only way to go is forward. Which is almost always good on-boarding, to be honest. Let’s just hope that Thumper has good player introduction.

Initial impressions

Moments later…

I’m watching what looks like a silver beetle rush along a neon blue track, suspended in dark purple nothing. The music has changed, at once both barely and significantly; I’m still listening to ethereal haunting, just of a different kind. I don’t know where I am, and I have no idea what’s going on; without any input on my end, the beetle rushes down the track, and into a triangle structure that may or may not be a hole in space.

I’d explain it to you better, but I genuinely have no idea how.

My beetle rushes through the triangle space and into another void, this one more brown-orange in colour. The winding track terminates at another triangle… but this one is different. It’s mobile, for one, and its center looks less like a passageway and more like teeth. And sprouting from its three corners are what look like three scything blades.

I suspect, deep in my bones, that this triangle is not here to be my friend.

The music picks up beat and tempo. The sky turns a deeper red. The tracks spawns sharp, organic curved structures, much like two rows of scorpion stingers. A deep stuttering base plays as the triangle gets close and flares from the center, giving the unmistakable impression that it just roared at me.

Suffice it to say that I am not in my happy place right now.

From the center of the triangle, a bright yellow light enters the track and rushes towards me. As it does, a countdown timer appears on screen: 3, 2, 1… It’s accompanied by loud ticks, like a metronome. The timer reaches 0 just as the light reaches my beetle, which I suspect is the intention, and a large ‘A’ button prompt flashes on screen.

The visuals, all the while, have been doing their own messed-up thing.

I press A in sync with the beat. The yellow light disappears. In its place, a greenish ball of energy launches from my beetle. It doesn’t so much follow the track back towards the triangle as that the track follows it, warping and folding and shedding its tentacle spikes to keep up. Then the ball — I want to say pulse — reaches the triangle, and explodes in light and fury under the sound of another roar.

My keenly-tuned video game senses are telling me I just did an attack on that thing.

The triangle shudders for a moment, then stabilizes, and resumes its flight. Another light is spawned, with another timer: tick, tick, tick… and I fire it back again. Another explosion. And then another cycle, another light, another pulse.

The triangle doesn’t take the third pulse *quite* as much in stride.

As the triangle fades, the track continues in the distance. Now, I rush towards a stationary circular spike gate. This one doesn’t seem hostile towards me, or in any particular way alive; I move through it easily, hitting A on an equally ‘stationary’ blue light spot that doesn’t launch any energy attacks.

Then, points are counted. Eighteen blue diamonds, for 1800 points. 21 ‘kills’, for 1050 points. No damage, that’s a 1000 points extra.)

My final rank is a B.

I would stop and ask what any of this means, but that’s not the nature of track; I’m already in a different void space, a dark blue one, absent of angry triangles but with organic-looking track sprouts galore. ‘Level 1-2’.

Suddenly, another popup teaches me a second trick. ‘Hold analog stick + A’, Thumper says. This causes my beetle to grind against the side of the rail.

So that’s… good? So far it mostly seems like I’m scratching my paint job, but…

Ah, but see: in the distance, the track curves sharply. Sharper than ever before. And when I get closer, a wall pops up on the long edge of the curve. It’s imposing, glossy black with a neon red strip, and I only have a fraction of a second to wonder what to do before my beetle slams into it. And past it, as it grinds along the wall, turning the intimidating red strip teal blue as it does.

I didn’t get a good screenshot of this as the turn only takes a fraction of a second, so enjoy this random shot of beetle wings instead. I have no idea where they came from, or what their purpose is.

And just like that I’ve completed level 1-2. One left turn! Level 1-3 teaches me the right turn technique, which is exactly the same — shocking, I know. Levels 1-4 through 1-6 even combine different turns directions at once, just to really ensure that I’ve mastered this.

In fairness, levels 1-4 through 1-6 also do some cool funky graphical stuff. For instance, level 1-6 here takes place in what feels like a ‘tunnel’. This means I have less time to see the turn signals coming, forcing me to react faster — or rely on the audio cue of the wall popping up.

Level 1-7 reintroduces an old friend, Angry Triangle. It and I go through our dance again, where it shoots energy at me and I counter by exploding it. It’s a little different than before: Triangle has learned to deploy turn walls just as I’ve learned to dodge them. I do appreciate that; it almost makes me feel like I’ve got a buddy in learning Thumper. A buddy that’s an angry geometric concept possibly trying to kill me, but I’m not picky when it comes to friends.

Level 1-8, right after, actually introduces a new concept: sticks! Toothpick-looking barriers spawn on the track, under a staccato rhythm of tak tak tak. If I crash into them, the screen shakes and thumps as parts of my beetle fly off; crash into them again, and my beetle explodes, resetting me to the start of the level. That is, the start of level 1-8, which I appreciate.

So crashing into these things is no bueno. But what happens if I crash into them… faster? Thumper suggests that I hold the A button, no other analog direction, and doing so speeds my beetle up something fierce. And when a hard-to-stop beetle force meets a marginally-movable toothpick object…

Anyone who’s ever used toothpicks regularly can attest that they always *snap* at the least opportune moments.

I race through a few more levels this way. Barriers and turns start showing up increasingly often, in different combinations: it’s barrier-barrier-turn here, turn-turn there, barrier-turn-barrier-barrier-turn…

I kinda like this screenshot, because you can see from the colours that I’m correctly oriented for the first turn wall, but not the second. And make no mistake: the window for shifting orientations is *tiny*.

I fly through thirteen levels in total, slowly getting the hang of sliding past walls and crashing through barriers. Then I hit level 1-14, which is again a boss. This one is more of a circle than a triangle, but the basic mechanics are the same. It puts me through more of an obstacle course than its pointy predecessors, but I’d be disappointed if it didn’t.

It also looks significantly more menacing.

Moving forward from that fight, because all you do in this game is relentlessly move forward, I enter…

…Huh. I expected level 1-15, but this one is called level 1-Omega?

The final boss, though. That’s encouraging.

What am I fighting this time? Another triangle? Another circle? Some other geometric shape enemy?

Or maybe a bizarre giant lizard head from beyond time and space?

Why did I even mark that down as an option?

I, er…

I can’t say that this isn’t weird. The visuals are as messed-up as they’ve ever been, and even the music has taken on a tinge of the surreal. And that head thing is… distracting. All the same, I’m going through the same beats. The Final Boss adds one interesting spin: instead of √≥ne yellow light I have to catch and return, it sends out a sequence of them, often separated by turn walls or barriers. And I have to hit every single one to turn them into an attack; missing even a single light ‘disarms’ the rest, and causes the final one — the brightly glowing one that actually launches the attack — to not spawn. The fight fairly obviously loops from that point onward: I’ll do it the right way or I’ll do it not at all.

(Editor’s note: it’s not impossible that an earlier mid-boss introduces this sequence mechanic, in which case I apologize for not screenshotting accurately enough to reconstruct that. This game is fast, okay. Lot of focus needed to stay alive.)

Still, it turns out that giant lizard heads explode just as much when pelted with beetle energy pulses as any geometric shape. It explodes, screeching its angry base, and I ride the track to victory. It doesn’t actually stop, mind: just curves into the unseen distance forever as the screen fades to black, and my final score is tallied. C rank, B rank, C rank, A rank, S rank… Guess I’ve got something to put on those leaderboards after all, now.

It’d have been great if I’d been number 1 here, but that’s just not the hand the universe dealt me.

Just like that, I’m back on the main screen. Level select is now unlocked. There are nine or ten levels overall; I’ve completed one, and earned access to two.

And I had fun doing so! It was a short-ish experience, and weird, but I can’t deny that I had fun. It’s hard to bring across in text, but racing the track was very mechanically engaging. Even with a small set of challenges, the combination of visual confusion and high speed makes for a…

But now I’m getting ahead of myself. I have a second page in these things for a reason. Let me play a few more Thumper levels first; I can’t imagine that what I’ve seen now is all this game has to offer. Might not even be indicative of the larger experience! I’ll race a few more while you move to the next page, and then we can see if Thumper manages to keep up its strong first impression.

Onto page 2. >>

2 comments

  1. How can I possible judge that this is a good game without a screenshot of the options page? It’s a glaring omission in your review.
    You must know your readers have come to expect a certain standard for this.

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