Tuesday, December 18, 2018


Back in 2016, the two-man studio Drool released Thumper, a new type of rhythm game dubbed “rhythm violence.” This concept and the initial trailers hooked me on the idea, but I didn’t get around to playing it until I received a physical copy of the game through Limited Run. Within a few hours, Thumper provided an unforgettable experience that’s hauntingly breathtaking, even more so in VR.

In Thumper, you play as a beetle and guide it along a track across a series of uniquely horrific worlds spread out over nine levels. Each level, divided into up to 30 sub-levels, contains a handful of bosses, culminating with a boss that resembles a screaming, flaming human skull.

There’s no real story to Thumper, at least not one that’s obvious. This lack of a story is actually for the better, since it allows the player to come up with their own interpretation of what each iteration of the final boss is. From my playthrough, the narrative seemed to gradually veer into cosmic horror, as the final boss continued to evolve in its appearance until it resembled something that was difficult for the human mind to comprehend.

The gameplay is simple at first. You tap X over white thumps, bank turns and slide through red bars to a beat until you reach the boss. During later levels, however, you have to also jump into blue rings and above strips of red spikes, switch between multiple lanes and survive laser sentries, all while moving to an increasingly faster tempo. While the first few levels introduce new mechanics one by one, including the need to break shields during a boss fight, later levels emphasize the need to keep up with the beat while mastering increasingly irregular beat patterns. On top of all this, you can only take two hits before you die.

The only thing that keeps the game from becoming impossibly difficult is the fact that when you die, you start over at the beginning of the sub-level you died on, meaning you only have to redo up to about a couple minutes of progress. A nice quality of life addition is the fact that boss patterns will repeat until you get them right, but this is balanced by the fact that death means restarting the boss from the beginning.

Because the tempo change is gradual, I was able to easily adjust to the difficulty and lower reaction times to the point where I didn’t notice how fast the game was until I later viewed the final stretch of Level 9 out of context. It felt very rewarding when I realized what I had accomplished, but the game was also physically demanding. Tapping X countless times over the span of a few hours hurt my thumb and I had to occasionally take a break to recover.

Thumper marries unique gameplay with haunting imagery.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a rhythm game without music and Thumper delivers. Dark and oppressive electronic music is generated procedurally by the game, according to the layout of each sub-level, and reacts appropriately to the player’s input. Without any marked meter on the track, as in other games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, the game’s own beat acts as a guide to how the player may react to incoming obstacles, which works fairly well, though later levels have so many obstacles that it more often comes down to the player’s instinct. Of course, it does help to have a natural sense of rhythm.

The composer, Brian Gibson, had also arranged the tracks separately to be listenable as a more traditional experience. From listening to it this way, I was still able to picture the proper moments from the game, including the track itself, which speaks to its effectiveness.

Complimenting the soundtrack is a matching sense of visual design. The smooth and polished design of the beetle helps it stand out from the dark, jagged and writhing elements of the world around it. The track itself twists and turns as though it were a living being, a feeling aided by the tentacle-like designs that protrude from the sides. Bosses are usually some abstract shape, like a triangle or hexagon, often with tentacles of their own, and Final Bosses evolve from a flaming, screaming skull to a Lovecraftian nightmare of eyes, spikes, jagged tentacles and teeth. As noted before, the final form of this boss more resembles an Elder God whose form is otherwise too difficult for the human brain to comprehend, though the boss that comes afterwards has a more elegant design that may otherwise be left open to interpretation.

The experience of Thumper is also enhanced when played in VR, as I did for this review, especially with a good pair of headphones. VR brings the player much closer to the action, removing the physical space between them and the TV. As such, the beetle is placed more or less directly in front of you and obstacles are easier to react to. I’ll admit, however, that this seemed to make the Final Boss of Level 9 more frightening during a certain segment after its defeat.

From my experience, once I played Thumper in VR, it was next to impossible for me to play it any other way. For one thing, I now had what felt like a barrier of physical space between me and the TV, which made everything feel much further away from me, an adjustment I found too difficult to make. I also experienced a small, but noticeable input lag when attempting to play this way, something that I didn’t really worry about while wearing the headset. I have no idea if this lag is something all players experience outside of VR or if it was some combination of specific circumstances. Either way, it’s something to keep in mind when deciding to play Thumper traditionally.

Thumper is a unique rhythm game experience that I would highly recommend. It manages to find a new twist on the genre through the “violence” component and becomes highly memorable through its combination of dark visuals and matching soundtrack. The game can get very challenging, to the point of injuring thumbs, but is also very rewarding. I would also tell you to play it in VR if you can, but with the warning that it might be impossible to adjust back to playing it outside of that setting.

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