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I like feeling powerful in games. I like blowing through enemies, leaping over obstacles, overcoming challenges. But that feeling is ultimately a matter of contrast: You’ve got to feel weak before you can get much out of feeling strong.


Hence, at least in part, the appeal of the roguelike. Start weak, get strong, die, rinse, repeat until the power curve has been worn down to a gentle slope by accrued knowledge and, depending on the game, persistent upgrades. The danger here is danger, or the lack thereof; power means less when you’re more-or-less safe from the threat of having it taken away.

Nuclear Throne never feels safe. Your wasteland survivor can be stocked to the (literal) gills with high-tech weapons, bristling with powerful mutations, and so soaked in power-giving radiation that they’d glow like a nightlight, but they’re still 10 bad seconds away from losing it all.


Developed by Vlambeer—who, between this and the equally addictive Luftrausers, have really cornered the market on these sorts of customizable, compulsive games—Nuclear Throne tasks you with leading your plucky chosen crusader through an increasingly dangerous wasteland in search of the titular apocalyptic chair. The aforementioned power curve comes from mutations—picked largely at random—that accrue between levels, and the increasingly lethal set of weapons the game giddily drops at your feet.

Lethal to everybody, in fact. As the guns get better, they also get more likely to take their user with them; I’ve had my fair share of promising runs get cut short by experimenting with a cool-sounding new toy. “Toxic Bow,” I muse to myself. “Surely, this won’t go as poorly as my experiments with the Grenade Shotgun”—but by then, I’m already dead.


Which is great, because it means I get to climb the ladder all over again. Like a Hobbesian playground, games of Nuclear Throne are nasty, brutish, and short, meaning there’s always time to switch out to one of the numerous characters and take another run. (My personal preference: the high-risk, high-reward Melting, whose one-hit-wonder nature is offset by his quick mutation rate and ability to fill the screen with lovely, destructive corpse explosions.) I can go from weakling to demigod three times during a simple lunch break, without ever having to worry about the banal let-down of feeling “safe.”