If someone told you that 2021 was the year they got into Housemarque, you’d assume it was because they fell head over heels for the Finnish video game developer’s newest product, the brutal, beautiful Returnal. That game is a technical showpiece for the PlayStation 5; arguably one of the hard-to-get system’s must play games from its first year on the market. And yet, I have no firsthand experience with it but this was STILL the year I got into Housemarque. So, how’d THAT happen?
Well, despite that framing, my story really has its origins in 2020. I don’t remember what exactly sparked the realization but towards the end of August 2020 I remembered I had Resogun on the PlayStation 3, and that it had a separate trophy list from the original PlayStation 4 release. Now, in my mind that game remains one of the PS4’s must-plays, and like Super Stardust HD on the PlayStation 3, has been a favorite of mine since first encountering it. I haven’t JUST been turned on to Housemarque, y’all. Heck, I remember playing the obscure Golf: Tee It Up! on the Xbox 360 (to be fair, not knowing/caring who Housemarque was at that point).
Anyway, I played through Resogun on a trophy hunting quest, which eventually saw me returning to the PS4 version and cleaning up ITS trophies, too. I’m guessing due to that, and in search of a couch co-op game to play with a friend, I thought of Alienation – a game whose Asia-only, yet region free and in English physical copy I had purchased years before. Our playthrough took us to the end of December – the game’s not that long, we just don’t get together often – at which point I allowed the game to really sink its teeth into me.
Through the middle of February, I did just about everything you could do in that loot-based, twin-stick shooter. I found it’s blending of simple arcade action, RPG mechanics, and loot tantalizing – there was always something to improve or be on the lookout for. By the time I reached “the end” and started grinding trophies and hunting for rare drops in the post-game, it was a dopamine drip-feed where every couple of minutes I was psyched about some boss or horde I survived, an amazing new upgrade, or a weapon I lucked into. I don’t have a list of my favorite games, broken out by genre, console, etc. (yet), but if I did, Alienation would’ve rocketed to the upper echelon.
And so, that experience had me looking back through Housemarque’s catalog to see what else was awaiting me. There was Dead Nation of course, which is a precursor of sorts to Alienation, although importantly lacking the loot and RPG mechanics that hooked me in that game. Elsewhere on the PlayStation 4, they’d developed Matterfall, whose adaptation of some of the same arcade gameplay mechanics to a side-scrolling platformer sounds intriguing, but honestly like there’s one too many mechanics to juggle at once. And then there’s Nex Machina.
A collaboration with Eugene Jarvis, a designer perhaps best known for his work during the golden age of arcades, it’s an homage to twin-stick shooters like Smash TV, in the same way Super Stardust HD was to Asteroids and Resogun was to Defender. In this case, they took the room-based progression and hectic twin-stick shooting and cranked the knob labeled “more” up to eleven. The first couple of sessions had me and a friend leaning forward on the couch, unblinking, as we tried our best to keep track of what was going on in the fast-paced, luminescent neon world appearing on-screen.
As soon as the game dropped us into a stage, we just started blasting. Our little avatars hustled around at a breakneck pace, firing any direction we aimed the second analog sticks of our controllers. We needed to destroy all of the enemies to progress to the next stage, and sometimes that happened so fast we didn’t have time to try and save human hostages or search for power-ups. Those weren’t crucial elements in our virgin playthroughs, but after a few more, it became apparent that each stage offered far more to those who controlled the chaos.
When we slowed things down a bit and actually poked around the stages, we found there were plenty of hidden exits to bonus stages, secret humans to save, and a number of other high-score inducing perks to be found. Unlike Alienation, which featured procedurally generated stages, the ones here were set; e.g., that wave of enemies would always spawn at that location, that human will always be there, etc. Each session saw us getting a little better at remembering where to shoot or rush to, and with ninety stages, it was a great test and reaffirmation of our memory!
The ninety stages that made up Nex Machina were broken up into six distinct worlds, so it wasn’t just voxels and neon lasers all the time. Well, I mean, it was voxels and neon lasers all the time, but sometimes it was against the backdrop of a voxel forest as opposed to a voxel ice mountain. Like much of their recent output, with Nex Machina Housemarque combined their obsessive fetishization of particle effects and neon projectiles with a silky smooth frame rate that never bogged down. And, like many arcade and arcade-influenced games, there was some semblance of a story or reason we were blasting our way through these locales and saving humans, but it was largely up to us to fill in the blanks.
We made some determinations of what was going on based on the boss fights that capped off each world. These hulking behemoths occupied much more real estate than the comparative peons that populated stage after stage. They showered us with blankets of bullets and lasers and the like, in patterns not dissimilar from those of bullet hell shoot ‘em ups (or Returnal, so I hear). The pattern recognition necessary in avoiding there projectiles was another test of our memory, and especially our fine movement on harder difficulties.
With each step up of the difficulty, we received fewer continues and tougher odds. The already fast moving game became a blur of Benny Hill proportions on certain one-off challenges. And when enemies began firing off revenge bullets upon their death, well that was a non-starter for us. Complemented by a stellar trophy list featuring challenging gameplay feats that seemed just in reach with a little more practice – typical of Housemarque – Nex Machina held our interest well beyond a couple of hours long playthroughs.
Recalling our sessions with Nex Machina, there was one moment that I’ll always remember when thinking of the game. A bummer, it occurred during a continue screen. In our very first session, after probably an hour of nonstop, manic shooting, we used the natural break as a moment to catch our breath and use the restroom. We didn’t think anything of the continue screen’s countdown timer since we hit the PS button and that would pause the game, right? Wrong. When we hopped back on the couch and returned to the game, we were aghast to find our playthrough was over prematurely. Devastated, we cursed and bitched and moaned, and then sat right back down and did it all over again. Having only played the game an hour and despite the setback, we were already hooked on the speed, the adrenalin, the euphoria of weaving between dozens of bullets with our last life. This was a game of all highs, no lows.