By Steven Petite
Talk about the very meaning of ‘pulse-pounding’. I want someone to measure my pulse while I’m playing Thumper. I’m certain mine was absolutely off the charts. The new “rhythm horror” game from Drool (former Harmonix employees), is absolutely ridiculous—and I say that as a high-grade compliment.
You are a space beetle, and your job is to, well, I’m not really sure, actually. Descend further into Hell? Break free from Hell? Lose your damn mind? Any of these are plausible, but one thing is certain when it comes to Thumper: this game believes in you.
The space beetle never stops moving along a path that reminds me of a demented version of my old Hot Wheel track setups. It’s a music game in some sense, as lighted blips along the way signal the player to press the action button to produce chimes. Each slick turn incites a crackle, boom, or pop. But it’s as much of (if not more) a visual test as anything else. Because the pace is rapid (note: extremely fast, and I can’t stress this enough). Misstepping once means a cracked shell and faltering twice means death, your eyes have to be wide open and looking ahead to what’s next as much as they need to remain focused on your current position. Don’t blink. Really, don’t blink.
Comprised of nine levels with twenty or more stages within each, Thumper introduces a new step of complexity with each passing level. Like all well-conceived games, it smoothly intertwines what you have learned from previous stages with the latest bit of knowledge to create a growing experience of accomplishment and development.
But here’s the thing: with each level comes a stage that seems impossible to pass. The flaming skull boss battle that looms frighteningly in the distance during each final stage seems more menacing and indestructible as the game carries on. Not to say that this is the hardest game of the year—although besides Dark Souls III, I’d have a hard time finding one that outmuscles Thumper—but it makes you feel as if you are constantly running out of breath. Then, suddenly, when muscle memory prevails and you settle into a eerie trance, you start stringing together perfect turns and a cadence of precision smack-downs on the blue and yellow lights that you didn’t know you had in you.
There was a moment in particular in the level six boss battle when I couldn’t keep up with the pattern of lights and turns. Worse yet, as the game progresses, certain stages have a guardian of sorts that electrocutes our Coleoptera when you missing one of the melodic lights. As I continued to fail, I noticed that before the circular guardian wrapped itself around the track, I had already completed the series of button presses needed to fling a pulsating attack at the fiery skull. Thumper had unconsciously taught me in the previous stages, and all I had to do to access that period of prosperity was to, as strange as it sounds, zone out in the most hyper-aware sort of methodology.
Thumper is a minimalistic game with deceptive depth. It’s not for the faint of heart, or for anyone who doesn’t have the attention span to remain completely focused at all times. It stimulates a myriad of emotions from frustration to sheer panic to the overwhelming satisfaction of making progress. Manically addictive and devastatingly brutal, Thumper keeps you going at top speed, and along the way, you find all six of your legs.