A few hours in
Okay, well, some things definitely changed. For instance, do you remember how level 1 had fourteen sections, and I thought that was almost lengthy? Turns out I didn’t know jack.
And sure enough, Thumper didn’t stick to just the two gameplay elements. Turn walls and toothpick barriers were complemented quickly by quite some other things, such as: multiple lanes! Energy squares, like in the bossfights, except these ones only score you points and boost your speed! The ability to fly! Ground spikes! Boss armor! And Laser-Ring The Perfector, who asks — nay, demands — that you perfectly match a series of energy squares, or suffer deadly laser retaliation.
You might think that such an addition of extra options by necessity invalidates my earlier judgment. Thumper on world 8 or 9 is definitely not the same game as the Thumper I played on world 1. But, all the same, it actually kind of is. Later-stage Thumper is a more complex and coherent and content-rich experience, that’s for sure. But the core of Thumper shines through from the start: a rapid rhythmic reflex game that — getting ahead of myself here a little — I had a really good time seeing through to the end.
You might not be surprised to see me describe Thumper as a rhythm game. If for no other reason than that the game describes itself that way. But if you haven’t actually played it yourself, I want to be a little more precise here. Thumper is a rhythm game, but it’s not as overt a rhythm game as other titles. In (say) Crypt of the NecroDancer, or Dance Dance Revolution, the rhythm both guides and constrains your actions; it’s a straightjacket that determines when you can and can’t do what you do. But in Thumper, the rhythm isn’t so much the basis for your actions as the result of your actions. Thumper isn’t a game about following an overt rhythm, it’s about recognizing that a latent rhythm is present, and then bringing that out.
Thumper doesn’t have a lot of strong rhythm built in. While the normal background music tracks are energetic and upbeat, they’re also very basic, almost nothing more than ambient supporting sound — albeit more frenetic. But the trick about Thumper is that the strong sound is generated as you play. Remember how earlier said that the first turn walls ‘appeared’ as I got close to a curve? All obstacles do that, walls and barriers and energy squares and so on. And there’s a reason for that, I understand that now. Because every obstacle has a sound, its own distinct sound cue. Energy squares appear with a roaring thoomp, barriers pop up with a sharp tak, and walls unfold with an elongated woosh, the duration corresponding to the length of the wall. It forms a natural melody as you play. Square, wall, stick stick stick, thoomp, <>woosh, tak tak tak.
What’s more — and this is already one of my favorite parts of Thumper — all elements don’t just have a unique audio cue for appearing, but a second unique cue for when your beetle interacts with them. Like the sharp crack when you break a barrier, or the metallic twang of hitting a wall into the zoom of grinding on it. It’s a second rhythm, a rhythm of success (if you manage) that follows on the rhythm of challenge.
Grasping Thumper‘s emergent rhythm is the first step towards being sorta good at it. Like most (good) rhythm reaction games, you can’t really play Thumper strictly visually. It looks like you could, I get that, and if your visual reflexes are fast enough you might even do well. But the fact that obstacles only pop up within a short distance makes that an incredible reflexes gamble. And that’s only in the earlier levels. Later levels pull extra tricks, like hiding obstacles around blind corners or curving the track far out of sight. You just won’t do well if all you do is look; you have to listen, too. This is why it’s important that every obstacle’s cue is distinctly unique: the game warns you what’s going to happen, beats before it actually happens.
I say ‘beats before it happens’, because equally important is the fact that audio cues and obstacles are a set length of time apart. It wouldn’t be useful to hear the cues if you still had to eyeball your reaction time. But here, for maybe the first time, does the rhythm actually come into play. If you’re a rhythmically inclined person, you will use the audio cues to perfectly navigate an obstacle course. And it will be cool. Hell, it’s almost possible to play Thumper with your eyes closed — if left-turning and right-turning walls had distinct cues, I just might manage.
‘Immersion’ is something of a Holy Grail buzzword in game design and criticism, and Thumper manages it really well. It can’t be overstated how effective the combination of emergent rhythm, frenetic supporting audio, and near-psychedelic visuals is at drawing your attention in. Doubly so because it’s a game that demands focus: it has an incredible sense of speed, particularly in the later levels, and generally you can not afford to look away. And if that sounds mentally exhausting, it, er, kind of is! You can pause play at any time, but nothing kills a good rhythm groove faster than that. Luckily, Thumper understands the limits of your mortal self: every few levels, a short segment will be a ‘break’, where more soothing music plays as your beetle crosses an empty track for about ten seconds.
And yet, we’ve still only scratched the outer layer of what makes Thumper so good. There’s more to this onion.
Let’s talk about the level design. Thumper has nine large levels that are… I’m going to call them semi-distinct. I couldn’t tell you off-hand what makes each level unique, but I remember different experiences while playing them. The different music styles didn’t stand out super much, and the graphic styles really started overlapping mentally after a while. The bosses were different, I do remember that. There were some real weird shapes on display.
But what sets the experiences apart while playing is Thumper‘s interesting level design. I almost wanted to call this ‘procedural’, but I’m not sure if it actually is. I’m still not sure, and I played a ton of it. The levels might be randomized, to a point? Or they might be handcrafted? I had the feeling that some levels became — not different, but mostly shorter, after I died a whole bunch. But that might be my imagination. And at any rate, that doesn’t matter — what’s interesting isn’t so much the yes or no of procedural generation, but the reasons I started wondering in the first place. So instead of procedural, let’s say modular.
It becomes obvious fairly early on in every Thumper level past the first that parts of the level repeat. Not literally: the graphics and the audio are too wild to even notice that. But certain challenge segments repeat. In world 4, you might encounter a particular obstacle course that’s left wall, square, square, right wall, square. And then you encounter it again. And again. Maybe two in a row. And maybe there’s a second pattern, that’s barrier, square, barrier, barrier, square, barrier. So you’ll encounter that one two or three times. And then the first pattern again. Second pattern, first pattern, second pattern, second pattern… and now a third pattern is thrown in the mix. And so on.
Key to why this idea works is Thumper‘s system of sub-levels. Or let’s call them segments. Every level has a bunch of segments, as I’ve shown you. The earlier segments tend to be shorter and more forgiving, while the later are longer, harder, and more frustrating. Throw in a few minibosses here and there, a few rest moments, and a boss fight at the end.
The trick is that Thumper uses its earlier segments to teach you the repeating building blocks of that level, through constant exposure. It’s training through doing, with only a touch of Do It Again, Stupid. In a relatively low-stress environment (relatively), the game shows what it expects of you: in this level, you’re going to encounter this obstacle course a few times, and this one, and maybe this one. It’s not all repeating work, there are enough one-or-two-obstacle segments that tie the experience together to keep it from becoming a busywork exercise. But still, it was obvious to me whenever I encounter another set of long wall, square, long wall, square-then-ring, long wall quick short wall.
Then, once you’re mastered these sections, Thumper starts throwing them at you. Two at a time, three at a time. One run with a laser ring. Now you’re running inside a tunnel and you don’t have advance visual warning. Now the track curves to the side and you feel like you’re upside down. Now there’s danger eels. The circumstances change, but the ‘known’ segments keep repeating. Left wall, square, square, right wall, square. Left wall, square, square, right wall, square. Long wall, square, long wall, square-then-ring, long wall quick short wall. And now again, but in a tunnel.
The reason I’m praising this is that it’s a incredibly clever way to ramp up difficulty. Thumper is a hectic game, I don’t know if I’ve managed to convey this yet. Its sensations of speed and frantic action are best experienced, not read about. But it’s such a hectic game that if it were to throw everything at a player, at once, no human being would be able to deal. It’s just too much input. If you have to cognitively parse everything, the visuals and the audio input and the different controls you need to tackle different obstacles… there’s just no way.
So, instead, Thumper ramps up slowly. By teaching the obstacle courses early on, it gives you a chance to groove these segments into memory. It’s a combination of ‘this is what I can expect’ and ‘this is what my fingers need to do to deal with it’. By teaching you early on, Thumper gives itself remarkable freedom to go ham on the difficulty later. A Thumper that was just the simple obstacle courses would get dull quickly, and a Thumper that overwhelmed you with inputs wouldn’t make for a fun game. But the Thumper we got threads the middle ground: it trains semi-complicated obstacle courses until they become something like expected routine, then uses the entire routines as building blocks for the real, end-of-level challenges.
And we’re still not at the core.
At this point, you may have the image of Thumper being a rhythmic survival game, where the objective is to clear obstacle courses and get to the end. And it is that, in a sense, particularly the first time you play.
But then there are the leaderboards.
Thumper grades and scores each segment you complete. The grading seems fairly straightforward: the more you mess up, the lower your grade. If you don’t miss any energy squares and you don’t hit any walls or spikes, that’s an S. And I think C is the lowest rating? I’ve never gone below C on any segment, so that’s probably as low as you can go.
But the scores, those are different. Thumper is remarkably silent about those. There are no pop-up tutorials to tell you where points come from. There’s only that segment summary at the end: 20 kills, this many points. 10 perfect turns, that many points. Blue diamonds, more points for you.
So you’ll start piecing the scoring together yourself. No misses speaks for itself, when the energy squares are so prominent at the end. Perfect turns is quickly discovered the first time you bend into a turn at just the right time — and get a different audio cue for your trouble. Kills, that might be… the barriers? And the floating rings? It’s easy enough to see these as simple obstacles to clear and/or avoid, but could it be worth points to crash those? But some of the rings are past turns, which usually knock down your flying. Unless… And blue diamonds, are those related to… you seem to get these at the end-of-level square, which is charged up, so… is it the thumping?
I won’t give away everything that I think is scoring material, because I’m very vain and I want all of you to score more poorly than I do. But you get the picture I’m sketching: one of slowly unfolding awareness. And as you get more and more into things, a magical thing happens: the levels change for you. Your read on what the elements mean, alone and in sequence, becomes wildly different over time. Quick sequential turns aren’t just an annoying danger, but an easy way to rack up perfect turns. On multi-lane sections, you’ll go from cheerily avoiding the single-lane barriers to ramming into them. And I vividly remember where two sequential energy squares with no intervening barriers (or better yet, with intervening rings) took on a whole new significance in my mind.
And that’s the Thumper in a nutshell. First, it’s an overwhelming audiovisual experience. As you get better, it becomes a frantic obstacle course, that gradually shifts from ‘constant chaos’ to ‘repeated patterns interpuncted by chaos’. And as your mastery really rises, you’ll start seeing the hidden patterns, the scoring and combo opportunities hiding in plain sight that earlier you didn’t even know to look for. Any game would be happy to get complimented on one of those three; that Thumper manages to deliver all of them in parallel sequence is testament to how amazingly well-designed this game is.
Thumper‘s last boss stage is… weird. The ‘last boss’, the fight that you probably think is the last boss, is excellent: an incredible challenge, testing every skill you’ve learned so far. It feels like a great ending and an achievement to finally take it down. And then… there’s another one? And it does weird things with speed, and the flow of time, that just… I feel they don’t fit this game at all? It’s almost like a director’s cut, except the director secretly had a different view of what the movie should have been like.
It’s not my only complaint about Thumper. Some of the challenges can feel very Do It Again, Stupid, particularly the ones involving rapid turns inside tunnels. The later segments get very long, and stingy on the checkpoints. I still haven’t mastered the thump move, and I have no idea what I’m doing wrong. And I think there’s supposed to be a score multiplier? That also increases gameplay speed? I think? I see the number pop up on-screen every now and again, but Thumper seems content to leave me in the dark on this one.
But that small list of complains pales in comparison to the entire page of praise I just typed up. And that’s as it should be. No game is ever ‘perfect’, but if you are at all interested in rhythm games, fast action, audiovisual experiences, and leaderboard chasing, I highly recommend giving Thumper a go. So that my Steam friend leaderboards get populated more, if nothing else. As always, it’s not for everyone, particularly if you have low mental energy reserves. But if these kinds of games are for you, then this is the one I’d recommend over almost all others.
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