Saturday 28 May 2016

Nemesis at Alton Towers - Review

Last year, I had planned to write a piece for Nemesis’ 21st birthday. I never got round to it, but decided that this ride was worth writing about regardless. So, happy 22nd season to Nemesis!

Isn’t it sort of crazy how legendary Alton’s B&M invert is? Few coasters get the kind unanimous praise and fascination amongst enthusiasts as Nemesis. But is Nemesis really as good as people say?

This way...
Photo by author.

Well, the UK is weird. A small region, a huge population and in spite of there being quite a number of theme parks, there really aren’t that many major roller coasters to contend with Nemesis’ title of awesomeness. Even adding the European parks easily accessible and frequented by us Brits, there still isn’t much real competition, or at least there definitely wasn’t much for the vast majority of Nemesis’ reign. There are a lot of us British enthusiasts and Nemesis is our most treasured ride, one which is not only renowned for being very good, but also comes with a really interesting conception story. When you think British coasters, you think Nemesis. It's no wonder we talk about it so much.

I hate this picture. Its such a common shot, everyone takes it, and it misrepresents the ride completely. The rest of the photos in this review hopefully do a better job of capturing what makes Nemesis so special.
Photo by author.

I’ve come to realise over the years that roller coaster designers do not have the creative intent I wish they did, else there would be more rides like Nemesis. It seems that rather than consider how elements and layouts feel on an emotive level to the rider, they’re just making sure the numbers look good… The cost, footprint, speed and height fits with what the client asked for without the forces getting too out of line. That stuff is essential of course, without that we wouldn't have roller coasters, but what a strange way to design entertainment when you think about it. Roller coasters are huge machines, designed by engineers because of necessity.

Taken from Nemesis' queue extension. 
It's impossible to find a photo of Nemesis that shows the overall experience.
Photo by author.

I think I’ve been on more roller coasters where their qualities felt as though they came from some fluke of design rather than well-considered intention. This might just be personal taste, but the spectacular elements clearly designed to be the selling point of most rides are so often unremarkable to experience first hand. Nemesis, however, is one of those rare examples where it feels like it has artistic intent. Without a doubt, I’m certain that comes from the famously problematic design constraints that lead to its unusual subterranean home. Without the freedom to build above the tree line, just how do you make a good roller coaster? Such constraints require creativity. When someone plans something to be a certain way for a damn good reason, when their determination and skill is put to the test, it shows. And maybe John Wardley had a big part to play here too – leading the project with his passion for entertaining people and taking a major role in the design of Nemesis' layout. It’s well worth reading his autobiography.

People tend to agree that the older B&M inverts have more character than their newer rides. They are more forceful and snappy, but none of them are even vaguely similar to Nemesis. Most roller coasters start big, do their most flashy and dramatic element and then gradually peter out to nothing. Now, flying in the face of convention for the sheer sake of it is not innovative, clever, or a sign of good design and rarely produces quality results. Designs have conventions for reasons, reasons that must be understood if you’re going to break them. But with roller coasters, those conventions are purely about practical engineering and not the result of what works from an experiential point of view. If roller coasters were movies, most would start with their best scene and finish disappointingly.

When Nemesis leaves the chain lift, it doesn’t power down a huge first drop and into a loop. That convention is followed not only by almost every B&M invert, but also almost every looping coaster in general. So for a ride not to do that is a breath of fresh air to me, regardless of successfulness. Nemesis doesn’t really have a “first drop”, it just kind of picks up speed along a slight decline before flipping, seemingly out of nowhere, into a corkscrew.

Nemesis' "first drop" from rarely seen angles, shows just how nonexistent it truly is.
Photos by author.

It’s a strange replacement for a big first drop and the weirdest part is how quickly the train gains speed here despite barely changing elevation, or so it seems I guess. This unimpressive start solves Alton’s height problem and creates ambiguity about where the ride truly begins, which is important in understanding the significance of the layout as a whole. Exiting the corkscrew, it powers around an intense helix incredibly close to scenery, blasting onlookers with a gust of wind, before dipping down and leaping over the station building with a zero-g roll so snappy it produces airtime. Then it rolls up the edge of the pit, before diving down and into a tight vertical loop. Then a turn, dip and snap into another corkscrew that always catches me off guard, before turning into the brakes.

The first inversion and following helix.

Exit of helix into zero-g roll.
Photos by author.

The one thing people often criticise Nemesis for are the dud moments. People say they stand out like sore thumbs amongst an otherwise relentless “faster, faster!” experience, but I’ve never understood that criticism. I think such moments can be really good points of a roller coaster, but I don’t agree that Nemesis even has any. On paper, the stall turn after the zero-g roll and the turn after the loop are those moments, but Nemesis takes them at such speed that, in practice, these elements are not particularly noticeable. If anything, they serve to maximise the impact of the element they sandwich - the loop – the iconic roller coaster element nestled at Nemesis’ heart. The stall turn sets up the loop by dramatically pulling away to charge straight towards it. Nemesis has a pulse, a narrative-like sequence of elements that feel more emotively engaging than a conventional roller coaster. As for the turn after the loop, the surprise corkscrew hits before you realistically have time to contemplate what’s next. The final turn around before the brakes is perhaps the only part of the ride which feels purely practical “ok we better get back to the station now” and not as though it were designed for enjoyment alone, but it is far from distracting. Nemesis also hits the brakes too early… If I was going to criticise anything about the ride experience, it would be how short it is, but I’d much rather that than it peter out to nothing. I'm left feeling like I am waiting for many coasters to end after their best segments all too often.

Left: The "stall turn" sets up to charge towards the loop.
Right: The turn after the loop.

The loop is hidden away, only the top of it barely visible from the ride's entrance.
Photos by author.

One unfortunate side effect of where Nemesis is located has meant that for much of its existence, most riders either didn’t realise it was unusual or understand what that even meant. I went through a phase of feeling underwhelmed by Nemesis. When something strange is all you know and then you get exposed to somewhat more normal examples – in my case Nemesis Inferno and Black Mamba – you get this misguided appreciation for this new and different experience, one which in the wider context is far from new or different. Not to say that Inferno and Mamba are not great rides, because they are, but they’re not critically outstanding ride experiences like Nemesis is. It took riding several more of their kind to realise what made Nemesis so special. And none of those other coasters are bad either, none of B&M’s inverts are, but they don’t have the almost narrative-like significance in their layouts Nemesis does, progressing through a series of elements where each compliments what comes before and after in a sequence that just feels right despite its weirdness.

Nemesis Inferno is a very typical B&M invert.
Photos by author.

It’s worth stopping to talk about Nemesis Inferno at Thorpe Park briefly whilst we’re here. Whilst Nemesis Inferno was clearly designed to piggyback the successful Nemesis brand, it bears little to no similarity to Alton’s coaster past the ride type. Inferno isn’t a bad ride, but it is one of the weaker B&M inverts in my opinion. There are plenty of people who love it though and a fair few folks who prefer it to “the original”. But to me, Inferno merely feels like it is going through the B&M invert motions to a lesser standard than say Batman, without a care or understanding for how the sequence flows. Standard invert stuff: drop, loop, zero g, corkscrew, corkscrew, helix.  The interlocking corkscrews are a personal pet-peeve of mine, because whilst they are visually interesting and situated over a spectator pathway, they link together by nothing more than a turn around. It feels forced because it is. Inferno is actually really intense; it can even make me nauseous and affect my vision. I’m prone to such things, but Inferno is the only one of its kind which does this to me. I think a lot of that is actually down to the poor layout. The loop followed by zero-g is fine, but leaving that, there is a series of right hand turns that make up the potion of the ride where the interlocking corkscrews are. It always feels like you’re going in one big circle for ages only to throw you into an intense helix finale and that all feels rather repetitive. The highlight of the ride for me is the gentle pre-lift swoop through the misty tunnel, especially on a hot day, and how that contrasts to the otherwise intense experience.

Left: Nemesis Inferno's rockwork facade, with lush greenery contrasting its deep red and brown structure, is a striking visual theme and is a instantly recognisable and so understandable environment.
Right: The interlocking corkscrews dance over spectator pathways below.
Photos by author. 

Even thematically, Inferno strangely didn’t elaborate on Nemesis. Instead, we have a tropical volcano theme, and it's nice too, but it doesn't have the flair of its older sibling. Nemesis has a really convoluted backstory to explain its unusual appearance. I’m not a fan of forcibly inserting narratives where they are not needed and arguably even detrimental to the experience, but fortunately, whilst the Nemesis’ story is well known and well loved on the internet amongst fans, it's not part of the experience on park. I have never heard the narrated audio story with Tom Baker played on site at Alton and I've no idea when they stopped using it, if they ever actually did and if it is more than just fan rumour, but I've never understood this obsession with it and desire for it to be brought back. The thing I really don’t like about that story is that it goes too far to paint unnecessary detail. In particular, the part about how the track and trains are supposed to be part of the Nemesis monster, with the supports acting as restraints to hold it captive. This isn't a runaway train ride where the vehicle can easily be accepted as part of a narrative and more importantly, we have no reason to question why this machine, this obvious roller coaster, is sat here, because it's what we came here for. As Theme Park Design puts it when discussing ride vehicles: "Justification Stories do not have to be created to explain away ride vehicles" because "guests are very often willing to accept ride vehicles as a conceit of the medium". Nemesis is, in my opinion, a better attraction without the explanatory story.

Part of  the Nemesis creature.
Photo by author.

A lot of people say "Nemesis isn’t well themed, it’s well landscaped." I disagree with such petty semantics, because in Nemesis’ case, the landscape is clearly as much a part of the overall atmosphere as the alien monster or the simulated rust painted on the track. Part of what makes the attraction special and successful in my eyes is this unity of all elements into a cohesive aesthetic. A theme not reliant on story whatsoever, but visual language and its connotations. Back in my Skyrush review, I criticised the juxtaposition of the very industrial and threatening lift structure with the choice of a bright blue and yellow colour scheme, how the name, station building and ride experience are at odds with each other. Nemesis isn't like that at all, its elements are coalesced as one very elaborately themed – or elaborately stylised if you’re being picky about what constitutes as “theming” – thrill coaster. There are only a handful of other examples like it in the world. Setting matters and Nemesis is so tied to location that it is truly impossible to tell where pure roller coaster ends and the impact scenery has on the experience begins.

Left: The Nemesis aesthetic: damp rocks, red waterfalls and weathered metal. 
Right: The replication of B&M's track as the legs of the alien monster, uniting the visuals. 
It's better to accept these abstractly than to try and make narrative sense of them, because it makes zero sense.
Photos by author.

Maybe this is just nostalgia, but Nemesis has such a presence. Entering Forbidden Valley amongst the ritual-like rocks plonked here and there, the atmospheric music accompanying you as you explore, you hear the unmistakable B&M “roar” before you even see the ride. Nemesis is always damp, always dingy, even on a rare, perfect summer’s day at Alton Towers.

Entrance of Forbidden Valley.
Photo by author.

Watching the coaster off ride - the train tumbling over itself, rising and dipping down into caverns and through tunnels - is awesome. Nemesis is a spectator ride, with pathways down and around it inviting those too afraid to ride themselves to watch their braver friends. I think what Colossus does at Thorpe Park, where a main pathway goes right through the layout, is perhaps more successful still, but Nemesis’ viewing plateau has this personal quality that works so well with the atmosphere there. The soundtrack of clichéd, echoing, suspense-filled horror as you look around this damp world, the drama of the train circling you... It’s like being in a dungeon facing the final boss in some creepy survival video game. John Wardley has vocalised in several interviews the importance of entertaining non-riders and living in the UK, I've grown up surrounded with those rides he designed. So it's easy to take that for granted, but so important to appreciate given how rare they are elsewhere in the world. Amusement rides are social experiences and that joy of watching others combined with the dramatic movements of the rides themselves is a valuable part of the overall amusement park experience.

Left: One of Nemesis "dud moments" between the loop and final corkscrew actually acts as a way to briefly show off riders to onlookers.
Right: Nemesis exits over a bridge where the final inversion erupts from.

Left: The loop is almost hidden out of site from the front of the ride and various viewing pathways below.
Right: The monster towers above.
Photos by author.

The queue itself is another example of superior attraction design consideration. The layout has changed somewhat over the years and there is this awful cattle pen extension up near the “first drop”, but overlooking that because of how rarely Nemesis’ line even gets up there in my experience, it really is great. The highlight is the bridge by the loop, where as the train thunders round the inversion, a huge gust of wind batters those standing in line. Using the authentic force to instil such excitement and anticipation in waiting guests is brilliantly successful, leaving people laughing nervously. For most of Nemesis’ queue, the ride is clearly visible from a range of unusual angles, the waterfalls create constant background noise and atmospheric dampness, the weeds sprouting out from the rocks twitching as water droplets hit them. The place feels eerie and isolated, but naturally alive and interesting and a place you want to be. It walks a fine line other dark-themed attractions often fail to tread so carefully along, many of which instead come off as miserable. Nemesis is eerily quiet and foreboding, but not miserably dark.

Left: The loop as seen from the queue where waiting guests are blasted by the energy of the passing train. Also offering a view of the deepest part of the pit, something I've always found kinda creepy.
Right: Nemesis first drop as seen from the queue.

Photos by author.

Maybe it’s just that Nemesis has been at Alton Towers for 22 years now, or just that it has always been there from my perspective, ever since I first visited. But the ride feels so uniquely a part of the park and in tune with the authentic landscape, with only Hex doing a better job of that by default, residing partially within the castle walls. Alton is a strange park, one where half the appeal is the incredible place itself… A real derelict castle and surrounding gardens, now home to a weird theme park that isn’t allowed to play by regular amusement design rules of “bigger is better”. Most of Alton is dense, overgrown, eerie woodland, damp stone covered in lichen and Nemesis’ real rock walls, still scarred with the lines of the excavation equipment used to create the pit, are important in tying the roller coaster to this place I suppose it shouldn’t really be. Nemesis is extraordinary. And yes, it really is as good as people say.

Photo by author.


  1. I agree - what makes it so fantastic is how perfectly everything ties together. One doesn't need to be aware of the story of this alien monster found underground - as you say, there is truly an organic feel to it. It doesn't feel like it 'belongs' there, necessarily, but it really does seem to sprout from the ground (which is exactly what the designers intended). There's the classic Wardley theatrics and a ride layout that surprises me every time (OK, I don't get to Alton that often, but it's related to breaking convention and the hidden elements, as you say). The whole area around the ride creates a superb, disconcerting atmosphere without resorting to tiresome clichés like whispering girls and statues of hooded figures (spoiled only by certain station announcements...).

    I also suffer exactly the same problem as you on Inferno. By the end of it, I feel like I've been sat on a dizzying flat ride for too long and I'm ready to get off. By contrast, Nemesis leaves me wanting more in the best possible way.

    In other words, great post and I thoroughly agree with you. One thing though: you've written 'faze' instead of 'phase', might want to fix that. (The 'it's/its' thing comes up a few times too but that's not so obvious...and I know you hate people pointing that out...)

    1. Theme Park Thoughts29 May 2016 at 01:46

      Can't lie, my contempt for its/it's is bordering on extreme. I thought I'd got them all this time though, but alas... Thanks for the spell check regardless.

      I think "organic" may be the best word to describe the Nemesis aesthetic. Nice.

  2. Fascinating post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Brilliant review and mirrors exactly how I feel. The day Nemesis is decommissioned is the day Alton Towers and the UK loses a part of cultural significance.