Thumper is not for people with sensitive thumbs.
It’s such an intense, double-barred rhythm-game experience that I found myself gripping the controller much, much too tightly, as if clinging on for dear life. I actually hurt myself. I had to limit my playtime to give myself time to recover. This is wild. I haven’t had to do this since I first started teaching myself to play games with controllers about a decade ago. (PC gamer since childhood, here.)
So, Thumper is both mentally and physically exhausting. But it’s good to feel really moved by something, isn’t it? That’s why we play horror games: because we like to feel affected, to feel carried away by something, even if that something is intense discomfort.
Thumper absolutely makes me feel something. Its marketing has described it as a “rhythm violence” game, and this is absolutely a perfect description of how it feels to play. It’s a game about musical aggression and explosive energy. Thumper feels this way not because it’s extremely hard (though it can be), but because it’s packed with murky colors, dissonant tones, low roars, evilly sinuous environmental animations, evil swirling triangle-bosses, metallic thumps and screeches, and giant spike-headed skull omega-bosses who look as if they were crossed at birth with some kind of deadly chandelier-monster.
Thumper looks and feels like an abstract screensaver that has been possessed by Satan and is trying to leap out of your television and kill you. It’s wonderful.
Thumper‘s core structure is pretty similar to most music or rhythm games you might have played. Like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and other classic music games, Thumper has a visible “track” along which musical cues travel toward the player. But moments before the player must perform any given action, they’ll also hear a corresponding “prompt sound”. If it were possible to tell the difference between right-turns and left-turns in the track by their audio cues, it might be possible to complete levels in Thumper by sound only, with your eyes closed.
This call-and-response mechanic also creates the “song” you’re playing when you successfully complete the level. The audio cues provide a lighter track that ticks and whines in the background. Meanwhile, you dominate the percussive foreground of the song with a series of massive shrieks and crashes. Sometimes, while playing, I felt like Thumper was furiously howling instructions at me, and I felt like I was angrily screeching them back. Oddly enough, it made me feel like I was more deeply part of the music, somehow, than I ever was in Guitar Hero. In Thumper, you’re not playing other people’s music — you and the game are performing some kind of hateful original duet.
But Thumper is also more demanding than other rhythm games I’ve played. There are action cues that will damage you if you don’t complete them properly. You only have two hitpoints, so it’s pretty easy to kill yourself with only a few clumsy mistakes. The game is divided into levels, which are each composed of numerous short stages. If you die, you’ll return to the start of your current stage.
Levels often carry unique musical motifs — a pattern that repeats throughout many of their stages. It’s a cool effect; I sometimes felt like I was clawing my way through a hostile musical suite, slowly learning to grapple with whatever unique angry melody the level wanted to scream at me.
One of the cooler things about Thumper is that even though the punishments for failure are unusually harsh for a rhythm game, there are a variety of different overlapping failure states. Some are survivable — and this allows you to choose whether or not to actually try 100%ing any given level. Missing a “turn” hazard does damage to your beetle, as does failing to hold X during a set of ground-level barriers, or failing to fly over a flyover hazard. But you can miss some kinds of barriers and X-pressing bass-drum beats without dying. During particularly hard stages, as I held on for dear life, I was constantly making split-second choices about which “optional” challenges to hit.
Boss fights add different layers of fail states: missing the x-press beats will break your attack chain and force you to restart the cycle. Some bosses have “shields” in front of them which can only be defeated by a specific combo of moves. You’ll see opportunities to perform this combo all over a variety of levels, but you don’t actually have to do them to complete a normal level — you’ll just get more points if you do.
The result is intriguing. Although Thumper punishes you harshly for missing some kinds of moves, it’s not a simple Simon-Says game. You are not required to hit even half of the things in some stages — in fact, most have multiple “tracks” you can switch between, Audiosurf-style, which allows you to sidestep some hazards.
The fact that Thumper is made up of so many layers of cleverly-interacting failure and success states means that it’s possible to race through some of these stages and experience them without actually feeling as if you have made even a good-faith attempt to play the level.
Is this good? I don’t know, but I definitely still had fun.
My biggest concern about Thumper is that it does not even give you time to wipe the sweat off your hands. Failed boss cycles run directly into restarts so smoothly that it’s occasionally genuinely confusing. There are certain circumstances when you’re given no time whatsoever to regroup your thoughts and refocus. If you want to see or inspect your score after a successful stage, be careful, because the next stage can start so quickly you might actually crash if you spend too long looking at your score. Thumper has a certain kind of heartless disregard for player peace-of-mind, which I think is part of the relentlessly aggressive mood its creators wanted it to have — but every once in awhile this makes it slightly less fun to play!
I did enjoy Thumper quite a bit. I’m not going to lie: I actually haven’t finished it yet. Playing for too long hurts my right hand so badly that I’ve been unable to sustain longer sessions. It’s a testament to this game, though, that I’ve kept coming back despite the pain.
Thumper is doing a lot of extremely odd, inventive stuff with the traditional conventions of rhythm-game and music-game design, and it’s obviously making me feel something, very intensely. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.