Games

The Anti-Zen of 'Thumper'

There is no tranquility in the music, only menace.


Thumper

Developer: Drool
Release Date: 2016-10-10
URL

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.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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