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Review: Bit.Trip RUNNER

6:00 PM on 05.21.2010 // Jonathan Holmes

It's rare for a game series to truly reinvent itself. It's even more rare for a game series to reinvent itself before it starts to grow stale. It's even more rare than that for a game series to reinvent itself before it starts to grow stale and after it's only been around for about a year. But that's exactly what Bit.Trip RUNNER does.

That's just the start of what makes Bit.Trip RUNNER unique. Though the game has the Bit.Trip name, it looks and plays almost nothing like prior Bit.Trip games, or any other game outside of the obscure PlayStation title Vib Ribbon. The purely abstract shapes and simplistic visuals of the first three Bit.Trip games are almost totally gone. Almost totally gone are the retro gameplay stylings of Bit.Trip BEAT, Bit.Trip CORE, and Bit.Trip VOID. On the surface, RUNNER is almost a total deviation from the entire Bit.Trip series thus far. Once you get into playing it, you'll see that the game manages to take everything that made the first three Bit.Trip games great and focus it into one concentrated blast, while bringing loads of new stuff along the way.

That's what the game seems to be going for, and it pretty much nails it. Hit the jump to find out exactly how RUNNER pulls that off.

Bit.Trip RUNNER (WiiWare)
Developer: Gaijin Games
Publisher: Aksys Games
Released: May 17, 2010
MSRP: 800 Wii Points

First, a quick summary of Bit.Trip games so far: Bit.Trip BEAT is a Pong tribute whose main focus is showing the gaming world that with enough creativity, all you need to do to make a great game is to let some dots fly from the right side of the screen to the left. Bit.Trip CORE was a tribute to the target-fire genre of the '80s (Missile Command, Asteroids), and it focused on hypnotizing the player until they enter a dissociated state where their brain becomes one with the game screen, the soundtrack, the buttons on the Wii Remote, their eyes, their ears, and their hands. Bit.Trip VOID is sort of a shooting-free shmup that tasks the player with constantly weighing greed for more points against the fear of taking a beating. Bit.Trip RUNNER effectively brings together all of those elements from those games, in the style of an auto-run-mascot-based-2D-platforming-rhythm-action-game.

This radical change of genre calls for a some huge changes to the series' status quo. Like you might expect, in Bit.Trip RUNNER, you're always running, very much in the style of Runner Robocop 4. The end result feels like a forced speed-run in a classic 2D platformer like Mario, Mega Man or Sonic. Since it's "mascot-based," RUNNER brings CommanderVideo, a character only explicitly represented in the cut scenes of past Bit.Trip games, right to the forefront. He's not the only character to get some representation. The game features a whole world of surreal personalities, including background NPCs like CommandgirlVideo, random enemies like the Getsersmek, and end-level bosses like the Non Trotski, all unified under a visual style that melds retro-chic with modern-day polygons.

Of course you'll always be running, but you also spend a lot of time jumping, sliding, super-jumping, kicking, jump-kicking, and shielding. Timing is extremely important in all of this; just because you manage to jump over something doesn't mean you did it right. How close you are to the object before and after you jump over it also counts for a lot, especially on later levels. You'll also need to get your muscle memory on, learning certain button/control pad combinations like you'd learn combos in a fighting game, or scales on the guitar. Just like in CORE, RUNNER slowly teaches you to play the Wii Remote like a musical instrument. To further drive this home, each button press gives off a random (but always in-tune) musical note -- one that always fits with the rhythm of the game's score. That means that the game's soundtrack effectively changes every time you play it. The better the game's music sounds, the better you're probably playing; the more full the soundtrack, the farther you probably are in a level, and the more you have to lose.

This synthesis of on-screen events/sound effects/soundtrack isn't new to the Bit.Trip series, but it's never been done better. The deeper you get into a level, the more desperately you want to stay alive, and as the intensity of your experience with the game increases, so does the intensity of the music. Start all over, and the music loses its complexity and reverts to a simple rhythm track, one that centers and focuses the player. It can actually be a relief to take a hit and be forced to restart the level, restart the music, take a deep breath for exactly half a second, and then immediately head back into the fray. I've never played a game that encouraged me to keep playing more than Bit.Trip RUNNER does.

Part of that comes from the fact that "dying" in the game doesn't really stop anything, not even the soundtrack. Taking a cue from the "don't beat your children" school of difficulty design, RUNNER penalizes you for taking a hit, but in a way that is barely discouraging. You immediately have to restart the level after taking a hit, but the transition from hit to restart is so seamless that you may not even notice it, let alone have a chance to give up on the game. This makes RUNNER something that's extremely hard to put down. There are no breaks, no moments of true loss or failure -- just a few temporary setbacks: short respites from high tension, all set to an infectious beat that compels you to keep moving forward.

I can't stress enough how revolutionary this feels. In other 2D platformers, death really hurts. It hurts your pride. It's frustrating. It feels like punishment. Being forced to see the "Game Over" screen, then being forced to choose "continue" or "end game," then being forced to restart your level; these seem like little things, but they really have a strong psychological effect on the player. They tell us that all our progress is lost, that we suck at the game, and as such, if we keep playing, we'll probably lose again. By doing away with that whole process, someone playing RUNNER will never be led to think that way. Even the most game-phobic, "I suck at these things" Debbie downer is sure to be compelled to stick with RUNNER.

It also helps that the game starts off easier than the other Bit.Trip titles. But don't worry, Bit.Trip fans -- it ends with a higher difficulty than all the rest (with the exception maybe of BEAT). Structurally, the game is made up of three worlds, with eleven levels and one boss fight per world. The levels get progressively longer in each world, as new techniques and patterns are slowly unveiled. I clocked about 13 hours when all was said and done, and that's without unlocking all the bonus levels (more on them later). Gaijin Games have really mastered the art of difficulty progression. As soon as you think you've seen all the different types of problems they can throw at you, they riff off of a past challenge and present it in a whole new way.

Playing the game is a truly physical experience. Your heart will race when you're on the verge of achieving a perfect run, you'll squirm like a panicked worm on a hook when you brush up against instant death, and you will laugh and scream out various expletives when a new challenge that you never saw coming finally leads you to succumb to error. Though the game doesn't have realistic graphics, the thrill you'll feel while playing it is as real as it gets.

That excitement is also driven by all the potential ways to succeed in Bit.Trip RUNNER. The game is about more than running and avoiding obstacles. It's about getting the highest score possible. Point multipliers and gold are all over the place, often in tempting locations that, if mismanaged, will more than likely lead to a hit and a restart (which resets your score). These treasures add a surprising amount of depth to the game, and subsequently, a lot of replay value. You may get through one of the harder levels in RUNNER after six or seven "deaths," but you'll be playing those levels ten times more if you want to achieve a "perfect" run.

That goes double for the game's retro levels. These Pitfall-inspired bonus stages rob you of you infinite lives, and leave you with just one. That may be an artificial way to add some thrills to the game, but it certainly works. You unlock a retro level by achieving a perfect run in the regular level, which is hard enough as it is. Getting a perfect in a retro level? That feels nearly impossible, at least at first. Those with true tenacity will make it happen, though; of that I have no doubt. Bonus: anyone who gets a perfect on the whole game gets their name posted on the Gaijin Games website. How's that for an "achievement"?

Sadly, the game isn't perfect. The bosses aren't quite as mind-blowing as those found in past Bit.Trip games. Fighting them is more or less like doing a regular level, particularly the last boss, who offers a dramatic buildup but in the end feels a little anti-climactic. The bosses also lack the references to "classic games" that have become a staple of the Bit.Trip series. Actually, RUNNER's coolest reference to gaming's past doesn't involve a "classic" game, but instead, it's a reference to Bit.Trip BEAT. As cool as it is to see Gaijin Games sample themselves in this way, I was still a little disappointed that the traditional Bit.Trip tribute to Atari-era gaming wasn't as full-throttle this time around.

Another downer is that RUNNER's backgrounds and enemies get less interesting as the game goes on. The first world is a visual feast, with gigantic moon-worms, living skeleton statues, and roving UFOs to spare. The second world, a countryside mining zone, is a little more sane, but it still knows how to throw a few panda-ghosts, giant bug-eyed fish, and angry tree-men in your face. The third level, which takes place in a city, feels surprisingly less alive. Maybe there is a message in there -- that the natural world is more filled with life and creativity than even the most well-populated cities. Or maybe the game's developers knew that by world three, the player would be so bombarded with the constant barrage of enemies and obstacles that adding more on-screen action would be too overwhelming. Whatever reason, it's worth mentioning that the game has a curiously descending arc in terms of how crazy it looks from beginning to end.

Those minor complaints are nothing in light of what Bit.Trip RUNNER achieves. Like BEAT, it caused me to marvel at the the creative use of economic game design to create an experience that inspired both comfort and anxiety, familiarity and wonder. Like CORE, RUNNER caused me to enter a meditative mental zone where I felt like my conscious mind was at rest, while my eyes and ears became hard-wired to the game itself. Like VOID, the game constantly presented me with choices, letting me apply my own personality and style to grabbing its multiple prizes. All that comes together to make a game that's easy to recommend to just about anyone who likes skill-based videogaming. As great as BEAT, CORE, and VOID are, they all feel like acquired tastes next to RUNNER. The game is so encouraging and visually engaging that you don't need to be a card-carrying "retro fan" to truly understand its appeal.  Bit.Trip virgins and Bit.Trip veterans alike: buy this game.

Score: 9 -- 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.)



Bit.Trip RUNNER - Reviewed by Jonathan Holmes
Entrancing - It's like magic, guys. Time disappears when this game and I are together, and I never want it to end. I'm not sure if this is a love that will last forever, but if it is, you'll get no complaints from me.

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Jonathan Holmes, Bad Joke Uncle
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