Developer: Gaijin Games / Publisher: Aksys Games / ESRB: Everyone / Played on: Wii / Price: $8.00
BIT.TRIP RUNNER is the Kill Bill of videogames – not in the sense that you’ll kill waves of blood-spewing henchmen with a sweet katana, but in that it mixes reverence of the old with new techniques, and becomes refreshingly original in the process. Like the rest of the BIT.TRIP series, RUNNER is homage to gaming history, but its mix of razor-sharp platforming and music game sensibilities make it much more substantial than a kitschy throwback.
RUNNER is less esoteric than the rest of the BIT.TRIP series, in that you have a fairly concrete idea of what’s going on. You take control of Commander Video (whose name I only learned by looking at the Wikipedia page), who runs to the right automatically. You must guide him through stages of obstacles, each requiring a certain action (jump, slide, kick) to pass safely. The gameplay is similar to Canabalt, or a particular stage in Battletoads, depending on your age, but RUNNER is unique in its employ of music.
Each dodged obstacle produces a musical note, and obstacles are presented in sequences that run in time with the background music. The resultant bleeps and bloops produced by jumping over bumps, kicking down barriers, and launching from springboards compose each level’s melody in a Rez sort of way. What’s more, the presses required to dodge these obstacles are also timed with the background track. This all mixes together to make RUNNER a pseudo-platformer that’s every bit the rhythm game as Rock Band or Guitar Hero, just with a different mechanic of producing notes.
You may be producing some four-letter notes of your own before long, because this game is balls hard. The first levels are innocuous enough, but around the midpoint in the game, the timing to navigate waves of obstacles becomes increasingly exacting. What’s more, one mistake and you’re zapped back to the start. Luckily the precision of the controls and the quick turnaround time from failure to retry prevent gibbering frustration. Actually, the combination of the game’s difficulty and rhythm-based gameplay put me in a button-mashing trance I hadn’t experienced since the halcyon days of the NES. The game is difficult, but properly so, I welcomed the challenge instead of getting unduly pissed off.
However, merely reaching the end of the stage is half the challenge. Bars of gold populate each level, often in compromising positions. In order to get the highest score, and reach the end-level bonus stage, you have to collect every bar while running to the finish. Collecting takes on a puzzle element, as you’ll often have to hit a jump slightly early to make your jump timing correct after a sequence of obstacles to snag an oddly placed bar of gold.
RUNNER’s soundtrack is unsurprisingly composed of upbeat chiptune tracks, in keeping with the rest of the BIT.TRIP series. Certain nodes, when collected, add a layer of complexity to the background track (along with a score multiplier). While RUNNER’s music starts off minimal, the tracks are much more upbeat and “oontz oontz” trance-y than BEAT or CORE at their most complex. That said, there are only three real tracks in the game (each matching a stage of twelve levels each). The rhythms produced by varying configurations of obstacles keep the tunes from sounding repetitive, but they don’t congeal into songs as definitively as in VOID.
Intentionally blocky and Spartan landscapes compose all of the game’s levels – a happy marriage between the download size restrictions of WiiWare and the BIT.TRIP series’ retro aesthetic. The look carries charm for anyone old enough to remember gaming in sub-thousand pixel resolution. Commander Video in motion looks amusingly similar to Harry from the Atari 2600 game Pitfall, a likeness that is reinforced by the pixilated collectible bars of gold and the bonus stage set in a jungle (complete with Activision-esque Gaijin games logo on the bottom of the screen). In fact, visual references are sprinkled liberally throughout the game, with my favorite being the color trail left in Commander Video’s wake when he reaches maximum multiplier – it’s very evocative of Atari 2600 box art.
As much as I could speak of the retro charm of the visuals, they’re astoundingly well-crafted. Every obstacle is visually distinct, which is an accomplishment given that they zoom at your running dude in fractions of a second. In my several hours of play, I didn’t realize what hit me only once or twice. Despite the frantic pace of play, it’s always easy to track your character and obstacles.
Simplicity and responsiveness make RUNNER’s controls near-perfect (helped by the omission of motion controls). As stated previously, you must pass each obstacle with one of the game’s four actions: jump, kick, slide, or… jump again, but specifically for springboards. Each action is tied to one button or direction on the d-pad, so there’s no obscurity in the controls or their implementation. Either you do the right action at the right time or you don’t, and cuss as Commander Video is snapped back to the beginning of the stage. You never feel like missing an action is due to loose or confusing controls – it’s always your fault, which makes you want to jump back in and try again.
BIT.TRIP RUNNER operates on several levels: as a retro celebration of Atari sensibilities, a tight and refreshingly simple platformer, and a novel implementation of rhythm and chiptunes. While it’s possible that someone might not like any of those aspects, that person is boring, stupid, and hates puppies. Don’t be that guy; buy this game and have fun.