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Thumper review

You are a chrome beetle, hurtling unstoppably into a void, zooming through hellscapes on rails at grimace-inducing speed. A screaming, flaming skull hovers in the middle distance, sending debris down the track to end you. If that description reads like a nightmare, know that Thumper looks and sounds like one, too. Most games have you fighting your way out of danger, but Thumper fires you headlong into the abyss. It gave me heartburn, but in a good way.

Thumper is a rhythm game with deceptively simple one-button controls, but one  in which the slightest lapse will finish you immediately. Fail to turn, jump, change rails or smash through barriers in time with the grim industrial soundtrack and death is immediate. There are ways to wring a higher score out of each section with perfect timing, but first time through, your only concern will be survival. Thumper’s nine long, relentless levels are split into short checkpointed sections. Lose concentration for a half-second and careen into one of the obstacles on the track, and your beetle’s chrome wings will be stripped violently from its body, leaving you with one last chance before death. Thumper stops short of true sadism by giving you two shots at success but good lord, the feeling when you’re on that last try and you’re about to come up on a new section of track is not pleasant. Suddenly you’re battling your nerves alongside everything else that Thumper throws into your path.

What’s so interesting about Thumper is the atmosphere of doom and malevolence it conjures. Most iconic rhythm games (Rez, Amplitude) try to lull you into a sense of flow. Their visuals are all expanding and contracting shapes, blooming colours, pretty lights—echoes of the kind of blissy visuals that your brain comes up with on its own when you close your eyes and relax. The colours—blues, whites, greens—are comforting and chill. Thumper beats you into a sense of flow. The visuals are hellish, sharp, with tendrils and right-angles and weird undulating shapes that recall insectoid limbs. Bosses loom menacingly on the horizon as your chrome beetle speeds down its endless rail, taking the form of fiery skulls or abstract, geometric entities with mouths. The palette is dominated by red and black. It reminds me of Devil Daggers, both in the simplicity of its play and the arresting visual style.