We really liked Bit.Trip Beat. Combining old-school gameplay with an awesomely neo-retro aesthetic and just plain awe-inspiring level design, this first installment of Gaijin Games' new WiiWare series encapsulated everything great about indie development.
Less than five months after the release of Beat, the fellas at Gaijin are back with the second installment in the six-part Bit.Trip series, entitled Core. Eschewing the Breakout-esque gameplay of the first game with...well, with a mechanic a bit too complex to describe in a single pre-jump paragraph, Core presumably seeks to provide a completely different Bit.Trip experience, while still remaining true to the spirit of the first game.
But is the damned thing any good? After the jump, Anthony Burch and Jonathan Holmes will attempt to answer this question.
Bit.Trip Core (WiiWare)
Developer: Gaijin Games
Publisher: Aksys Games
Released: July 6, 2009
MSRP: 600 Wii Points
People will invariably compare Beat and Core, but apart from the art style and basic twitch-rhythm-gameplay premise, they share almost nothing in common. Maybe that's why I was so surprised to find myself absolutely in goddamn love with Bit.Trip Core once I finished it.
Initially, the game felt like a flaky, less-interesting interpretation of the core Beat experience. Instead of using a paddle to hit beats, which felt immediately intuitive, familiar, and satisfying, I was awkwardly pressing one of four directions and hitting the 2 button to zap a beat just at the right moment. It felt more rigid than Beat, and much more spatially confusing: I pretty much floundered during my first few minutes of the game as I attempted to identify which beats were headed to which quadrant of the screen. This was unusual. This was perplexing. This wasn't fun.
Then, an hour later and entirely without warning, something clicked.
Once you get sufficiently used to the basic gameplay, everything suddenly makes sense. No, it's not as tactile or outright exciting as Beat; it's something else entirely. At some point, you realize the game has subtly shifted your spatial perception to the point that what originally looked like a remarkably confusing hodgepodge of dots flying in different direction somehow resolves itself into a clear, measured ballet. I've heard fans of Space Giraffe refer to the process of playing it as something akin to learning how to see in a brand new way; until playing Bit.Trip Core, I didn't know what they meant (though I still don't like Space Giraffe).
Once Core successfully pulled me in and taught me to perceive things in the way it wanted, it felt unlike anything I'd ever played. Where I originally had to exercise brief but intense mental reasoning to vaporize the beats ("okay, it's coming from the left and going right, so I should hit...up and 2?"), such exercises became second nature to me by the halfway point. Without even noticing it, the game had hypnotized me into a Core master: literal floods of beats appeared on the screen from every goddamn direction imaginable and, thanks to the gradual difficulty increase and the tremendously clever learning curve, I somehow managed to make sense of it all. Even when my mind wasn't quite sure if I was doing the right thing, my hands somehow knew just when and where to vaporize the beats. It feels incredibly weird, but incredibly cool to unknowingly get into Core's groove; your rational mind and reflexes operate on two completely different circuits, to the point where your hands and sense of rhythm subvert your rational mind.
In other words, the goddamn game basically hypnotizes you.
In a good way.
The quasi-hypnosis is effective thanks chiefly to Core's greater emphasis on rhythm-based gameplay. Sure, Beat made some pretty noises everytime a ball hit your paddle, but you could play the game with the sound off and still do just as well: the game didn't require you to predict beats or pay attention to rhythm in order to progress. Not so in Core. Given the speed with which the beats appear, it's nearly impossible to succeed without internalizing the rhythm of the music to predict exactly when you'll need to vaporize the beats. Once again, this will happen pretty much automatically after you play for a certain amount of time. Core's music is so inextricably tied to the gameplay that after a certain amount of time, you won't be able to help doing everything to the rhythmic thumping that drives every stage.
As most of the game focuses on teaching the player to understand its own internal flow and rhythms, the level structures aren't quite as interesting as those in Beat. Where Beat had a boring, recognizable core mechanic spiced up by the spectacularly inventive and complex configurations of enemies thrown at the player, Core is the inverse: its base mechanics are completely new and exhilarating once you get used to them, but are only understandable because of the game's comparatively simple beat patterns. While the game looks awfully intimidating at times, you'll never have to hit beats with the lightning speed and dexterity so many parts of Beat ncessitated. This is one of my two complaints with Core; near the end of the game, you'll feel like you're just seeing slightly sped-up repetitions of the same basic beat patterns you saw in the first two levels. That, and the second level boss is so much cooler than the third level boss that I kinda wish they'd been switched.
I realize that this is all a bit abstract and probably more than a little unhelpful, but it has to be said that you can't really understand Core until you've played it. Thankfully, this is a remarkably easy task to undertake, considering how damned cheap the game is. Overall, Core is a worthy successor to Beat in every way: it's an entirely new experience unlike anything else you've played on the Wii, while refining and enhancing the basic themes of the first Bit.Trip game. I went into Core fully expecting to find a watered-down cash-in sequel, and left it feeling like my mind had just been raped by a beatboxing unicorn with a strobe light duct-taped to its horn.
In a good way.
Like Anthony says, Core is a game that you really need to play in order to "get". Remember those 3D posters from ten years ago, ususally featuring dolphins or sailboats, that you had to stare at juuuuust right in order to really "see"? Core is kind of like one of those, except it is a videogame, and it's awesome in a way that I suspect will be end up being timeless.
On the surface, Core is basically Guitar Hero for aliens, specifically, the aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The game's music, setting, and ascetic, and gameplay are all very otherworldly, as if it were made by beings that had never heard Earth music or played Earth videgaomes. Beat was weird too, but it had the Pong-gameplay and shmup-in-space structure to keep it rooted in somewhat familiar territory. On the other hand, Core is pretty much foreign territory from beginning to end. If Beat is like a first date with a cute, weird girl who's trying to make you feel comfortable by laying out a Simpsons quote every once and a while, Core is your crazy second date. This time, she's pretty sure that you like her, so she's wearing a giant foam rubber cowboy hat, a gold sequined, one piece jumpsuit, and spends much of the night beat boxing and imitating the robear berbils. There is really no attempt to make you comfortable in Core. In fact, even selecting the first level took me a few tries. It's much more of a "love it or hate it" game than Beat, and personally, I love it.
Beyond the surface details, the thing that really makes Core different is the way it forces you to be aware of the entire screen at all times. Unlike in Beat, where you almost always need look at the right side of the screen, anticipate the bits that appear there, and block them with the paddle on the left side of the screen, Core requires that you anticipate bits coming from every part of the screen at any time. This means that you must focus on everything, always, from beginning to end. It's sort of like a bullet hell shmup in that way, except it requires even more attention to detail. In Ikaruga, the screen will often be covered in little dots, but the only dots you have to keep track of are the ones you have to dodge. In Core, you have to keep track of every single bit that shows up on screen, because missing just one could lead to a a greatly decreased score, or even death. There is literally no way to do that without entering (and remaining) in "the zone" for nearly the entire game and that's what makes Core special.
By "the zone", I mean that state of pseudo-hypnosis that Anthony described. He's not exaggerating. Core really does throw you into an altered state of consciousness, like how meditation is supposed to be, but usually isn't unless you're a master or a little drunk. In the zone, you become unaware of your own thoughts, the world around you, everything. The rhythm of the music and the patterns on the screen are the only stimuli your brain is connected to. The stuff that you did that day, the stuff your supposed to be doing, all your problems, fears, and anxieties just melt away. I definitely experienced it at times while playing Beat, but usually just for half a minute or so at a time. In Core, it pretty much goes on for the whole game.
Other items of note are the slight improvements Core makes over Beat's power up and scoring system. If you screw up, you still enter a black-and-white "NETHER" mode, but if you excel to the fullest, you can head past "HYPER", past "MEGA", and into "SUPER" mode, where the screen gets even more psychedelic, and your score increases by thousands every second. Mess up once, and you drop from "SUPER" back to "MEGA", so don't expect to have too easy a time racking up huge scores. Also new to this game is the "Bomb", which wipes the screen of all bits for about a second. It's a nice touch, and gives the player an out if they temporary become un-hypnotized, and need to a moment to get back in the zone. You only get one bomb per level though, so things never get too easy. Core is just as tough as Beat, if not more so.
Also worth noting are the game's bosses, particularly those found at the ends of levels two and three. Like the bosses of Beat's second and third levels, Core's middle and last bosses are playful salutes to classic games that require similar forms of thinking as Core. I don't want to give them away, but suffice to say that any fan of the Atari 2600's game library needs to own Core in order to have a truly complete life.
So which is better, Core or Beat? Well, right now, I definitely like Core more, but that may change in time. Beat has a slightly more interesting soundtrack, better multiplayer, and is generally more accessible. On the other hand, Core is a little more visually and technically interesting, and generally feels more concentrated and intense. I'm also having a great time trying to analyze what the hell is actually going on in Core, more so than I had with Beat. My latest theory is that the core (the little cross and its extensions on the edges of the screen) are actually the synapses of Commander Video (Bit.Trip's main character) and that the impulses from the players brain, to the controller, to the brain-core on-screen are meant to work in perfect unison as some for of symbol of... something.
I haven't got that all worked out quite yet, but god knows I'll keep trying. Core is compelling enough keep me playing it for a long time. Beat fans, music game fans, shmup fans, retro fans, fast-paced puzzle game fans, and anyone who's interested in playing a truly one-of-a-kind title should pick up Core post-haste.
Final Score: 9.0 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)