So first off, big thanks to my pal Alwyn, who decided to help out with this blog. I asked him if he wanted to see anything on this site and he suggested that I should write an article on how Nuclear Throne came to be. Seeing as most of the articles on this blog are sort of reviews, it’d be nice to have some variety, so I decided I should do that. Also I have almost 300 hours into this game, ahead of Binding of Isaac and before Clicker Heroes (the finest clicking game of our generation), so I’m kind of invested in doing this anyway.
The story of Nuclear Throne‘s fruition starts not with the developers that made it, but with Mojang. Mojang is of course mostly known as the developer studio for Minecraft, now a first-party studio for Microsoft. In 2012 and 2013, then-independent Mojang had partnered with Humble Bundle to hold the Mojam. It was an event where Mojang and other developers participate in a game jam to produce games that would then be sold in a bundle for charity.
One of the participating developers in the 2013 jam was Vlambeer. Vlambeer is a two-person studio, consisting of Rami Ismail and Jan Willen Nijman; the company also gets the aid of freelancers, most commonly that of artist Paul Veer and music man Jukio Kallio (who at the time produced under “Kozelik” but now goes by “Kuabee”). Having previously made Super Crate Box and Radical Fishing, the studio became known for punchy, arcade-like gameplay.
The jam ruled that the games should be based on some keywords a bunch that people had voted on. Among these words were “nuclear” and “endless” – two words that were appropriate to describe Vlambeer’s offering, Wasteland Kings.
Wasteland Kings was a top-down roguelike shooter, though it wasn’t the first time Vlambeer toyed around with the idea of one. In 2012, Vlambeer made Gun Godz, a pixelated first-person shooter with a fascination for aggression, releasing as a free game in support of Venus Patrol. While the final result ended up being something like a Wolfenstein 3D-like with fresh aesthetics and sensibilities, it wasn’t always the case. According to a post-mortem for the game, Gun Godz was originally envisioned as a top-down roguelike shooter. However, the team wasn’t sure how to go about it, leading to the FPS reapproach.
An interesting aspect to mention from this early version of Gun Godz was that the player would constantly be pursued by the police on the way to the end of the level. This aspect would end up being realized in Nuclear Throne through a faction of time-traveling, dimension hopping police enemies called the IDPD, who start pursuing the player after the player beats the final boss and chooses to loop back to the start. One character in particular is cursed to always have the IDPD chase her from the beginning of the run, which may be close to the original ideal of Gun Godz.
So, the Wasteland Kings prototype. While it was originally part of the Mojam Bundle, Vlambeer now has it up for free, so I checked that out and you may as well too while you’re at it. The basic conventions that Nuclear Throne would later be built on is all there. You pick a character to run around the wasteland, each one with a special ability that’s used with right-click. There are four types of ammo the game’s weapons run on (though the game leans more toward bullet using weapons), with some melee weapons also thrown into the mix. You get these weapons from random drops and red chests and you use this arsenal to clear the level of enemies, creating a portal that takes you to the next one, the number of enemies you face increasing with each level. The enemies and canisters hold radiation that act as an EXP system that lets you get new perks in-between levels, such as making enemies more likely to drop things and increasing the range of melee weapons.
Of course, there are differences with the final game, besides the lack of polish. The fifth weapon type of energy weapons did not exist, walls were completely durable instead of being destructible like everything else in the wasteland, the second world went on for three levels instead of being a one-stage transition to the next world, the junkyard looked strangely clean and devoid of the exploding cars and awful ravens that would help characterize it, etc. There were also no bosses that forced the player to scramble around, just the goal of beating the enemies. Speaking of which, the goal of reaching the Throne was not present, likely not even envisioned at all at the time – just the endless game of beating as many enemies as possible before dying.
That doesn’t mean the prototype’s bad. In fact, the gameplay is pretty satisfying. Maybe if you’re thinking about getting Nuclear Throne but still on the fence about it, you could check this out as a sort of demo. It’s not too representative of the general game, but I think it’s representative of the general experience you’d be getting.
So yeah, Wasteland Kings is pretty good. It’s not hard to see why Vlambeer decided to take it and develop it further. In August 2013, Wasteland Kings was announced to be put up on Steam Early Access, for the sake of getting feedback from early players. In that same month, the game was also announced to be ported to PS4 and PS Vita.
About a month or so later, at Eurogamer Expo 2013, it was announced that Wasteland Kings would now be known as Nuclear Throne. The reasoning for the name change was because of inXile Entertainment. The studio was developing Wasteland 2 and there were concerns that Vlambeer’s game would be confused as an installment for that franchise. Rather than deal with the trivial problems of copyright, they opted for the name change. At the same expo, Ismail showed off progress of the game, showing the evolution of the character select screen, early versions of the tracks that’d be heard in the final game and bosses.
Development on the newly-christened Nuclear Throne went on. The game started having weekly updates, fixing glitches and polishing the experience based on feedback from Early Access players and gradually introducing more content. To go along with the open development process, Vlambeer did streams on Twitch. Streaming on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the team showed off development and gameplay, helping foster a community on Twitch. Unfortunately, aside from a few clips, the Vlambeer Twitch channel doesn’t have past recordings saved up. As far as I know, none of these streams were mirrored to other sites.
While there isn’t any official recordings of Nuclear Throne available for viewing, there’s plenty of footage for older versions of the game. Let’s players that bought the game during its Early Access period have plenty of videos, both for entertainment and as documents of the game’s development history. One of the most prominent let’s players is SLEEPCYCLES, who has played the game since before the first update to well after the game formally released. Another prominent content creator was SmiteTV/Smight, who had run a tournament where players raced each other to the throne. #esports
Nuclear Throne was finally moved out of Early Access on December 5th 2015, alongside a 96th update and the game’s launch on Playstation systems. The game would further update, but at a much slower rate, mainly focusing on bug fixes and the like.
People still wait for a 99th update. Update 99 has hit many walls, especially since the update’s intended to go up on all platforms simultaneously. It’s been sent to Sony for certification a few times and as of this writing, it hasn’t seem to have gone through.
While the game’s in a bit of a rut when it comes to official updates, there’s been growth from the fan community, which has a modding scene. The most notable fan mod is the Nuclear Throne Together mod by YellowAfterlife, whose biggest feature is online multiplayer. While the base game does have co-op, it is local only and regarded to be somewhat glitchy. The mod elevated that, while also fixing some of the co-op glitches and being compatible with other mods.
Nuclear Throne has never been on sale ever since it was released. The justification for this was that if the game was on sale, people would be buying it because it was cheaper, not because of the game’s own merits. While I feel that some people would find that reasoning to be ridiculous, as someone that’s impulse bought things because they were cheap and haven’t gotten around to playing them yet, I understand completely. That said, Nuclear Throne has been part of bundles, heading back to where it was technically born for a Humble Bundle or two, as well as being part of itch.io’s A Good Bundle.
What does the future hold for Nuclear Throne? Well, probably nothing major. We may eventually get the 99th update, maybe more. The game as it is though is pretty great, a satisfying time-waster that’s worth the years of development put into it. It may never go on sale, but it’s a game worth buying at full price.