Nuclear Throne: Three days to start, three years to finish

David Stark / Zarkonnen
6 Dec 2016, 7:24 p.m.

In which I clone a game to make a point about polish.

So thanks to the Good Bundle, I finally got into Nuclear Throne a few days ago, and I am hugely enjoying it. Yes, I'm behind, I know.

What's interesting about Nuclear Throne is that it's really "just" a twin-stick shooter with some roguelike elements and a set of unlockable weapons and abilites. What makes it spectacular, and what took time, is the details of its execution.

Nuclear Throne's based on Wasteland Kings, a jam game that has most of its core features already in place. And in case you thought the rapid creation of Wasteland Kings was a fluke, I present to you: Shootout Mayhem! A game with the same headline feature list as Nuclear Throne, which took me about two days of work. It's a western-themed twin-stick shooter with random maps, multiple playable characters, upgrades, special abilities, and multiple weapons.

You can try it out right now in the browser, and you can also study its (open source) code. It's passably entertaining, but it's nowhere near as good as NT.

Here's a list of all the things I know it's lacking compared to the real thing:

  • Character animations. NT's are juicy and detailed, using animation smears to great effect.
  • Non-stupid AI. Even the simple bandit mooks in NT position themselves intelligently behind cover and try to flank you. That's not easy to get to work reliably and quickly. Shootout Mayhem's enemies just walk towards you in a straight line.
  • The soundtrack! An oft-neglected but vital part of making a game. It's a big part of what makes the game feel right.
  • The sound design. There are sounds for all kinds of situations and small actions and interactions. And the sounds fit together and evoke the right feel. Mayhem's are just whatever I could find on Freesound that was CC0.
  • Weapon design. Each weapon has a specific feel in terms of its animation, its sound, and the behaviour of its projectiles. Mayhem's just vary in terms of damage, range, accuracy and reload rate. They sound weedy. The weapon sprites aren't animated. The grenades make no sound when bouncing. And so on.
  • Look at the though and detail that went into the explosions!
  • Secrets and recombinations. There's a few combos of abilities in Mayhem that are pretty neat, but that's about it. Nuclear Throne has all kinds of secret side-levels, crowns, etc. that make it a way deeper game than it looks.

That's game development for you. The "game" takes two to three days, and the "polish" - two to three years.