Developed By: Broken Arms Games Pty Ltd
Published By: MixedBag SRL
Category: Action, Shooter, Roguelike
Release Date: 5.25.18
In all likelihood, playing ATOMINE for the Nintendo Switch won’t land you on some kind of CIA or IDF watch list, but then again it might. It is a slick twin stick shooter, though, so if that appeals to you it’s probably worth the risk. Well, most of the time.
ATOMINE (yes it’s all in caps) is a fictionalized account of the STUXNET virus responsible for destroying several nuclear centrifuges in Iran. In reality, STUXNET was (is?) allegedly the first cyberwarfare weapon ever deployed. In ATOMINE, players take on the role of the titular computer virus in order to hijack and activate a US nuclear missile. It’s, um, kind of an intense backstory for a fairly simple game. Right off the bat, I was a little uncomfortable playing a cyber terrorist computer program, but you don’t really remember the story once the game starts. I suppose there’s some seriously disturbing commentary on the nature of focusing so intently on the how that you forget to consider the consequences in there, but the game lacks sufficient narrative structure to make anything but the most general statement of “hacking nuclear equipment is bad.”
Provocative backstory notwithstanding, ATOMINE is a rock solid game, mechanically. Each game consists of taking a run the software controlling the launch of a nuclear missile. Players do this by controlling a small cube with the left stick and firing their weapon with the right. This is literally the definition of a twin stick shooter, so while it isn’t all that innovative, it is very polished. Levels are procedurally generated, so every run is different, which adds some nice variety to the gameplay. This roguelike element also varies the challenge level of each run, which can be a little frustrating. Sometimes, one run will be chock full of tough enemies, and the same level in the next run will be populated by pushovers. So, while later levels generally are more challenging, that’s not always the case. Once you get used to the game it’s not much of an issue, but when you’re still trying to get a feel for things it gets frustrating.
In order to advance to the next level, players must defeat a certain number of enemies. The counter is displayed under the mini map in the upper right corner. Every few levels there is a boss fight, and the bosses are unique and challenging to varying degrees. Figuring out the boss’ patterns isn’t that hard, but surviving them can be tricky. The biggest problem I had with the gameplay, though, is that dying means you start your whole run back at the beginning. I suppose having checkpoints would mean you could beat the whole game really quickly, but it was hugely discouraging to get 90% of the way there and have to start over again.
There is some customization involved as well. Meeting certain objectives during gameplay unlocks different versions of the ATOMINE virus, and they start with different health bars, speed stats, weapons, and special skills. Defeated enemies drop XP orbs, and collecting enough XP allows you to choose an upgrade at certain upgrade ports in each level. There is a random selection of four upgrades that can be taken with each level up. Players also acquire different traits for their weapon as they progress through levels, and these can be applied at an upgrade port whether or not a level has been gained. All of these upgrades are wiped out when you die, so you start again at zero when a run ends.
Defeating enemies also accumulates points, and at the end of each run these points are tallied and added to a cumulative total that spans all of your runs. Filling the points meter grants the player a credit. Credits can be used to unlock new upgrades in the menu which will then enter the pool of upgrades the player may select when leveling up during a run. Completing the upgrade menu is a nice incentive to keep playing the game after you’ve gotten all the way to the end of the run, but only for the most hardcore completionists.
ATOMINE enjoys a smooth, minimalist visual aesthetic. The character models are sharp and distinctive, if a little generic. The player avatars are all variations on a cube, whereas the enemy models are pyramids or spheres for the most part. It’s a subtle way to keep you from confusing your avatar from your enemies when there’s a lot going on onscreen, which happens a lot. Enemy fire is always red while yours is always green, which, again, is a good visual cue to help you process the action smoothly. The backgrounds are fairly generic, just blocks surrounding a blank playing area, but they do the job.
So, generally, the graphics work to make the game look and play smoothly, but in certain levels there is a noticeable framerate drop. In most levels, the backgrounds are static, and as long as you’ve visited an area, it stays rendered. However, in a couple of levels your field of vision is severely limited, and the backgrounds render only if they’re in range of your avatar’s vision. When there are multiple enemies firing and the backgrounds rendering and disappearing on screen, the game experiences a slowdown. Like I said, it only happens under certain, predictable, rare conditions, but it was pretty annoying when it happened.
The audio for the game is not particularly impressive. There is some minor voice acting, mostly during the opening cutscene explaining the game’s story and there is some commentary during gameplay, and it’s done well enough. The music is a fairly generic electronic/rock track list which is enjoyable enough but not especially inspiring. It doesn’t get in the way of the game, but I didn’t feel like it added much to the experience either.
ATOMINE for the Nintendo Switch has no touch or motion controls, so it can be experienced equally well whether you play it docked or undocked. Personally, since it was pretty quick to just pick up and start playing whenever, I preferred playing it undocked. It honestly didn’t make a difference though; it played exactly the same either way.
TL;DR: Solid, slick design, but not especially compelling.