In my mind, the Bit.Trip games always felt like a series of experiments. From the pong-esque beat to the original Pitfall inspired Runner, through the bullet hell of Flux, the continuing adventures of Commander Video have been a trippy and slightly nostalgic affair. The games couple simple, challenging, trial and error gameplay with fat Atari era pixels and fantastic chiptune soundtracks that built up as players progress through the games from simple bleeps to a multi-layered crescendo. Gaijin manages time and again to marry the rhythm genre to unlikely suitors be it platformer, pong, puzzle or shooter.
If you haven’t played them, I suggest you go out and get the collection for the Wii or saga version for the 3DS. You won’t regret it.
The latest instalment of the series Bit. Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien opens with a fantastic 2D vignette reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon from the 70’s narrated by Charles Martinet (Frickin’ Mario) that goes a little something like this..
When last we saw Commander Video and his ‘courageous contingent of charismatic compatriots’ were in hot pursuit of the villainous Timbletot, chasing him to a realm above realms; the HyperSphere. Suddenly out of nowhere, Timbletot blind sides the five fearless friends with a nefarious reality unfusion beam. Shielding his elite assemblage of exceptional allies from the brunt of the blast Commander Video is sucked to into an unknown dimension; a land of wondrous imagination found only at the apex of light and matter.
In fact it’s probably better just to see it for yourselves.
As the game begins proper, the first thing series veterans will notice is that the game’s presentation has been dramatically altered. Whereas Bit.Trip Runner was noteworthy for blending 8bit character models with blocky, monotone 3D backgrounds that made the game look stylistically like a game from the Atari era, Runner 2, in comparison, embraces the modern era with open arms.
Cheery, colourful worlds bristling with life and character from the weird digglet like creatures of the Welken Wonderland to the happy sasquatches of the The Supernature whizz by as Commander Video and his menagerie of unlockable mascots dash across the screen fluidly swinging his limbs and dancing with reckless abandon.
Despite the visual makeover the core gameplay remains the same as the previous Runner game. Players must guide Commander Video as he perpetually runs, whether you want him to or not, through each of the games 120 stages avoiding numerous obstacles whilst attempting to collect gold bars and multipliers along the way. This begins simply enough by jumping over creatures in spiky helmets then with each successive level the game steadily introduces more elements such as sliding, kicking through barriers, running around large loop de loop contraptions, grinding on rails and bouncing off of giant bumpers. Before you know it the relatively simple stages of the game’s opening world give way to incredibly complex courses with multiple elements and multiple branching pathways that demand players use every last skill they have acquired up until that point.
The game’s real magic lies in its ability to seamlessly marry gameplay and sound. The evolving chiptune inspired soundscapes of each of the game’s stages begin with subtle ambient noises and a slow steady beat. Single notes play as you jump over a few sparse enemies but as the stages increase in difficulty and the on screen action becomes more intricate and advanced so does the games soundtrack as the simple tunes of the games opening stages are replaced with more complex riffs and melodies. Collectable multipliers also add extra depth to the tracks as they steadily build to a crescendo at the end of each stage. This palpable link between simple precise player inputs and musical payoff often make Runner 2 feel more like you’re playing a musical instrument than a game. Being able to pull off a perfect run in many ways feels very similar to the accomplishment of learning how to play a new song as much as beating a challenging level in a game.
Bit. Trip Runner has a reputation for being an utter bastard at times as one false move would send Commander Video hurtling right back to the beginning of the level. Although the same is still true in Runner 2 its slightly more forgiving as each stage now has optional mid level checkpoints, an absolute god-send in later levels. The game also now sports three levels of difficulty with no penalty for lowering the difficulty if you need to. This tailored approach should ensure that more players manage to see the game through to completion while still enabling veteran players to ramp up the difficulty to the point of masochism if they desire.
There’s plenty to be getting on with too. As well as attempting to get a perfect run on every level of the game, there are also additional characters to unlock, new costumes to be found and retro game cartridges hidden throughout the game that unlock 25 additional 16bit styled levels that are some of the toughest in the game.
This gives the game an insane level of replayability but that’s only a tease for the games real challenge, the online leader boards. Attempting to crack those babies is going to take every ounce of your knowledge and skill of levels. Knowledge of when to dance, when to jump and pulling off a perfect run will be critical to top the charts. I’m not usually one for even bothering with them but the little scoreboard in the bottom right corner of the screen at the beginning of each new level displaying what your closest rivals have managed to achieve makes it hard not to be sucked in, or at the very least, have something to aspire to.
In short Runner 2 is an absolute blast. It takes everything that made the original such a joy and runs with it, so to speak, whilst at the same time expanding upon and refining the formula to create a game that is accessible yet challenging, fresh yet familiar and thoroughly modern yet still quintessentially old school.
It’s rare for a game to make me grin like an idiot from the opening titles to the closing credits despite being tough in places I found it impossible to get angry with the game as it oozes joy out of every pixel. For this reason alone I can’t recommend Runner 2 Future Legend of Rhythm Alien enough.