Oh man. Now this is my kinda game.

Let's run down the core mechanics. This is a high-speed twin-stick shooter, steeped in the mold of classics like Smash TV or Robotron 2084, or more modern games like Helldivers, and developer Housemarque's own Alienation. But while the latter set bring in RPG mechanics and elaborate level and gear systems to shake up the arcade roots, Nex Machina instead embraces its roots wholeheartedly. (Hell, they even managed to bring on Eugene Jarvis, the guy who created the entire twin-stick shootyman genre with Robotron back in the day, as a creative consultant. That's about as 'embracing your roots' as it gets.)

The game is steeped in a retro-future vibe familiar to anyone who's spent time with an 80s inspired throwback. Neon colors, thumping synthwave music, and very little in-game story. You are a faceless hero, a person wrapped completely in power armor that stands out strongly on the screen, facing hordes of laser-loving alien robot things, to save innocent people trapped in the crossfire.

In many ways, Nex Machina feels a bit like a developer response to the innately slower pace of something like Alienation. While that game is in no way dull, it certainly can't keep up the mile-a-minute pace that Nex Machina kicks off from square one. This game has been carved down and refined, brought to its genre's purest expression. Two sticks, two buttons, and one of them is only used when you have a sub-weapon in hand. The other, Dashing, forms the game's central mechanic away from the sticks, and is one of the key things that lets the game play hardball.

Like many games where this mechanic is in place, when you Dash, you are invulnerable and intangible. You can phase right through an entire horde of enemies, so long as your Dash puts you on the other side of them entirely, and that gives you a much needed safety window. The game even slows down ever so briefly when you run into an enemy or attack, giving you that split second to Dash and survive.

At least, if your Dash isn't on cooldown. With a recharge meter of perhaps a second or two, the Dash is almost always available the first time, but a wrong move can easily find you coming out of it and landing right into a foe you now have no way to avoid. If only you'd gone left instead of right, you might have survived...!

Thus, we see one of the core elements of Nex Machina's back and forth, its pace and arcade ethos coming through. Any one mistake could kill you, and that includes poor use of the tool that you've been given to stay alive. The trick, then, is how does the game avoid being frustratingly difficult, as so many arcade games of old could be...Or else mind-numbingly easily, when your ability to continue is no longer limited by the amount of cash your mother gave you for the day, and your desire to get some nachos and a soda from the foodcourt before you go home?

The stage system. This is, I feel, one of the places where the game's design really works. Every World is divided up into somewhere around a dozen little stages, each of which probably only takes you 30 seconds to a minute to beat. (My first time I beat the Techno Forest World that starts the game, with continues, I had a final runtime of around 6 minutes and 30 seconds) But each of these stages comes with a different layout, a different set of enemies, essentially a different core challenge. And when you die, you don't come back immediately, or at the start of the World, but at the start of this given stage. You only have to beat a challenge once to not have to worry about it again, but you have to beat it clean.

It strikes a pretty good balance, really. With the easiest difficulty giving you truly unlimited continues, and Experienced giving you a mighty bounty of 99, you have plenty of room to get good and fight your way through. And of course, like those arcade games of old, it can be a bit of a short game...But with so many factors ranked and counted towards points, from how long you take to how many humans you save to which special enemies, secret exits, and so on you deal with, the game just has the demand to master it baked right into its core.

I really should stop and mention the graphics, too. In our modern age of HD graphics and 4k screens, the game's just gorgeous. The colors pop, the designs are crisp and look great even as tiny little things with a zoomed-out camera and while most of the stages take place on that classic top-down perspective, it's not afraid to make good use of its 3D nature. Stage transitions often show you whipping up and down a complex, or wrapping around a massive structure, and the penultimate stage of each World even sweeps in close for a mighty charge into the boss's domain. (Thankfully, these also lean hard on the easy side, acting more as a point to heroically show off the gameplay from a cool angle than an actual challenge)

And of course, the bosses are, like they should be, huge bombastic displays. As one of the game's only exceptions to the typical life mechanic, bosses let you use everything you brought to the table with your continue; every life against their mighty healthbar. And with how shamelessly, relentlessly tough they can get, you're going to need it.

Really, I only have two problems with the game, and they're interconnected; the first is that you only actually unlock new worlds through the start-to-finish Arcade mode. The second is that there's, at least as far as I can tell, no way to stop an Arcade run partway through and come back later. Hitting 'exit game' on the pause screen will just kick you out to the main menu, erasing all your progress without as much as a confirmation screen.

But that's only a problem until you make a clean run, even just on Rookie difficulty. Once you have the levels unlocked, they're unlocked. And then you can use the Single World mode, or the unlockable challenges in the Arena mode, to actually hone your skills and enjoy the game in a slightly more pick-up and put-down friendly fashion.

At the end of the day, is Nex Machina the kind of game you're going to sit down and play for six or eight or ten hours at a stretch, and get completely immersed in a rich lore and complex world? Well, no, but it's not trying to be. It's trying to be the kind of game you can throw an hour or two into at a time for years to come, mastering it the way you would making the perfect sandwich. And in that context, Nex Machina is a hell of an entry for the genre. It's got my firm and resolute recommendation.

Now go kill some machines.