Imagine your favourite food is spaghetti bolognese. You love the tomato sauce balanced against the delicate pasta. There’s a local eatery in the neighbourhood you frequent every few years. Each time you visit they create a variation of their recipe better than the last. Mmmmmm, extra onion. Ooooooh, a hint of chilli. Last time you visited, they were so good that you thought they could never do better. This time, they have perfected the recipe. Housemarque is that restaurant, and Nex Machina is the finest spaghetti bolognese ever made.
Plain and simply, Nex Machina is a phenomenal arcade twin-stick shooter. It is brutal and fast-paced, yet elegant and refined. Housemarque has taken the finest features from previous hits Resogun and Super Stardust and added a sprinkle of Smash TV to create an irresistible “just one more go” gameplay hook.
At a base level, you move with the left stick and shoot mechanical death machines with the right stick. Dead enemies and crates drop random upgrades; these can increase your gun’s range and spread, or perhaps provide you with one of six powerful secondary weapons, for example a long range laser beam or a sword that kills almost anything in one hit but has a minuscule hitbox. Additionally, you have a dash (upgradable to a triple-dash), which grants a moment of invincibility to escape sticky situations.
While your selection of abilities and the premise of the game seem simple, the whole experience comes together to form a challenging balancing act. Each world is split into 15 levels, with the last level including a menacing boss. To finish a level if you have to kill all of the main death machines. Each level feels like a micro challenge, with its own unique layout and combination of death machines to evade and kill. Then there are Humans to save (Resogun anyone?), hidden Humans to also save, and Invaders that appear for a brief length of time and then vanish again (Resogun anyone?!) to kill. And then there are also hidden beacons to find, Disruptors (glowy beetles that appear randomly across the levels on each playthrough) to kill, and secret exits that lead to bonus levels full of even more Humans to save and death machines to destroy.
As you rip through waves of death machines, you build up a score multiplier. Hidden multiplier upgrade tokens litter the levels, which boosts how quickly your multiplier increases. Dying knocks your multiplier down a few notches and removes one of your power-ups. Those seeking the top of the Leaderboards need to play flawlessly.
Where Nex Machina truly excels as an arcade game is through my favourite feature: The Human combo timer. Each time you pick up a Human you kickstart a Human combo timer. If you can get to another Human (in the same level or the next) the timer resets and your Human multiplier increases by 1. The higher this number is by the end of the world, the more bonus points you earn. This turns Nex Machina into a delicate dance in which you aim to glide from Human to Human while killing all the death machines and completing the many optional challenges that I highlighted above. It’s like playing Guitar Hero but without any instructions. It puts you in a trance.
Nex Machina is a game that is easy to pick up and relentless to the point that you will never master it. Despite this, Housemarque have created the most perfect arcade hook that you will spend the rest of your life trying to master it. Nex Machina is a masterpiece.