The Anti-Zen of 'Thumper'

There is no tranquility in the music, only menace.


Developer: Drool
Release Date: 2016-10-10

I thought that I knew what a rhythm game was. Even back in my PaRappa the Rapper days, rhythm games were about losing myself to the beat. It was about achieving that much sought feeling of flow. From Rock Band to AudioSurf, even at their most difficult settings, you could find a kind of zen in the performance of music. Going into Thumper with this perspective was a huge mistake.

Developed independently by Drool, Thumper is aptly called a “rhythm violence” game, a moniker I didn’t know before picking up Thumper earlier this month. The strange shapes and psychedelic colors that surround the game’s brightly winding path certainly bears a striking resemblance to other calming rhythm games. Looking just at screenshots, like I did, you’d be excused for believing the landscape was some gyrating reflection of the music meant to calm your mood and lull you into a steady musical pattern.

In fact, Thumper’s design, at almost every turn, breaks you out of any zen-like state. In fact, this game is magnificent precisely because it rejects the concept of flow as a goal in and of itself. If you’re calm while playing Thumper, you’re probably not paying attention.

The basics are easy enough to understand. When your beetle-like avatar encounters a blue or green bar, you hit a button to trigger a thumping beat. When you encounter a red wall, you turn against, skidding just alongside it. Eventually you’ll have to hold down a button to smash through orange bars that appear. At first, playing Thumper is like playing music.

Then, very quickly, the difficulty spikes tremendously. Slamming down on blue bars just before skidding against a turn is easier said than done. Eventually the game adds deadly obstacles, a second track, killer snake things, and backgrounds that morph and turn and sway against the curvature of the track. The geometric shapes are not some melodious realization of flow, they’re distractions meant to break your concentration. At some point, with your heart racing and your thumb growing sore, you’ll realize that you’re just a puny insect racing down an insanely crowded track towards the tentacle maw of a giant floating skull.

While the tracks in Thumper are consistent, mastering them with a high rating still demands incredible timing and focus. Unlike other rhythm games, the music isn’t really your friend. Your actions don’t always align with the music and each beat that you make on your own is additive to the frenetic rhythm of the game. It’s almost like you’re the second drummer on stage, just trying to keep up with the maestro in the other seat.

This is going to sound trite, I know, but Thumper really is the Dark Souls of rhythm games. Like Dark Souls, Thumper is stern but fair. You can be wounded twice, that’s it. When you are wounded in Thumper, the screen shakes and glows a violent red, making it far more likely that you’ll crash again. Just like Dark Souls, weakness is brutally punished.

Of course most of the time you are allowed to make the occasional mistake. If you miss scoring extra points by breaking through blue floating rings, no worries. However, when on some tracks, you must exhibit near perfection. Boss fights in particular are frustrating ordeals. There are times when earning a wound early in a run means that you should probably just start the whole thing over. Despite how stressful these encounters can be when you defeat a boss in both games, likely after several nerve-wracking attempts, you are rewarded with an amazing sense of accomplishment.

Thumper is the anti-zen game that I never knew I wanted. It’s a game that shares more with “shmups” or the notoriously difficult Super Hexagon than with any other rhythm game that I can think of. There might be some guru out there who finds a calming peace in the madness that is Thumper, but for most people, this is a game that uses “rhythm” as a weapon. There is no tranquility in the music, only menace.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.