The Anti-Zen of ‘Thumper’

There is no tranquility in the music, only menace.

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.