Developer: Gaijin Games / Publisher: Aksys Games / Played on: PC / Price: $14.99 / ESRB: Teen [Crude Humor]
I feel like BIT.TRIP Presents… Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien came from some alternate dimension where games like Temple Run and the original BIT.TRIP Runner were a major, established genre. Every bit as crowded as first-person shooters in our dimension, this bizarro world is choked with auto-scrolling platformers, each of which added small innovations that Runner 2 pulled together to make it a genre standout. And yet, the game has tumbled into our dimension, where not only is it strange that BIT.TRIP Runner got a sequel, but also that it’s so goddamn amazing.
The core of the game remains the same from 2010’s BIT.TRIP Runner. Your on-screen character blithely runs to the right without stopping and it’s your job to navigate him around the stage’s obstacles by kicking, ducking, jumping, etc. Each unique obstacle has a matching action and it’s up to your motor skill to match them as precisely as you can.
From that description the game sounds like a more complicated pattern match game of Simon, but there’s a secret sauce under the game’s deceptively simple mechanics. First, you have a musical aspect—all of the obstacles are sequenced in time with a background track, and each plays a note or musical sequence as you pass it. Not only do your in-game actions construct a song, but you can use the beat of the music to anticipate and time your button presses around the obstacles. This makes Runner 2 every bit the music game as Guitar Hero, just with a less obvious facade.
Additionally, this game is difficult but in the best way possible. Though the stages hold you to a high standard in terms of reaction time and input complexity, you know that the goal is always fair and attainable. Every death is justified by a large flash on the obstacle you hit, followed by a short sequence that yanks you back to the stage’s beginning or middle checkpoint to try again.
To make matters worse (or better, depending on your constitution), every element of Runner 2’s challenge is optional. It offers easy / medium / hard difficulties, sure, but choice is also baked into the level design. Forks in the level are indicated by a pair of arrows—one green, one red with a skull. The implied affront to your ego all but forces you to take the hard path every time, kicking yourself for being so stubborn but at the same time knowing you’ll get it this time. Even the aforementioned checkpoint tempts you with a sizable score bonus if you hop over it, betting against yourself to finish the course without a single mistake.
Runner 2’s scoring mechanic has picked up a few invaluable additions that will make battling for scoreboard ranks maddeningly addictive. In the first Runner, it was easy to get a perfect score on a level—just pick up every possible score bonus and you’ve got it. Runner 2 adds a “dance:” a flourish that locks your character into a short animation with a score bonus at the end. This sounds trivial, but the timing of the dance is tuned with razor precision. Fitting a dance between a set of obstacles can sometimes call for frame-perfect timing, and that’s the sort of expertise that will separate first place and first loser in the high scores.
Moving up a bit from core mechanics, Runner 2 adds a host of improvements that make it a better game starting with the re-worked music. The chiptune soundtrack has been abandoned, though its spiritual essence remains. These are still simple melodies at the core, though the accompanying instrumentation is richer. A simple sequencer provides the main notes of a song, while a drum fill in the background scales up in complexity according to your progression through a stage. It’s a combination rarely heard in music: airy, sugary synth combined with punchy, meaty drums to provide driving progression. Imagine if The Crystal Method remixed an Owl City song and left aside all the lyrics dealing with embracing insects.
Runner 2 also crams more variance into its levels, not only with the branching paths from the original, but in alternate exits for levels and unlockable skins for the game’s cast. Rather than bash through levels one at a time, now the game’s stages are laid on a world map similar to Super Mario World. Not only do some levels have alternate exits, but portions of stages will be locked until a stage marked the “Key Vault” is cleared. This encourages replay of old stages to not only chase down that 100% clear but also to unlock new skins for the game’s playable cast.
Skins are the least of the game’s visual overhaul as well. Previously, and perhaps owing to the limitations of the WiiWare service, the BIT.TRIP games were defined by a minimalist and retro visual style. That’s still present, but the game has been re-worked with an amazing level of visual fidelity and charm. Perhaps homage to the Super Mario World styling of the game’s overworld map, faces are doled out to the background landscape. The game simply bristles with character: mountains with googly eyes and snaggle teeth impassively watch as you run by, while a pickle man waits at the mid-level checkpoint and completely loses his shit if you dare to hop the barrier for the risky point bonus. There’s a level of oddball in Runner 2 that I’d expect from a Twisted Pixel product, so much so that unlocking the next playable character or seeing the next stage is motivation enough to keep playing.
There are very few games I’d recommend to anyone regardless of gaming experience or preference, but Runner 2 is one of them. It’s a fantastic reminder that sometimes games are most effective when they don’t try to emulate explosion-riddled Hollywood blockbusters and instead embrace solid gameplay mechanics and unfettered creativity. From Runner 2, it’s clear that Gaijin Games is not only able to make technically sound and satisfying games, but they also have a level of boundless creativity that means they’re destined for continued greatness.