|Platforms||WiiWare, Windows, OSX|
The era of digital distribution has been good to many smaller developers. One needs to look no further than the Minecraft success story to see just how fruitful the budget game market can be.
Even on Nintendo's meager WiiWare service, some have found the opportunity to shine. Gaijin Games, a small studio founded by a former LucasArts employee, has found acclaim with its Bit.Trip series. With six games in the series released within two years, each Bit.Trip title is built on the same foundation of rhythm and psychedelic retro aesthetics but offers a different gameplay hook. Beat, the first title, is like the love child of Pong and a laser show. Core is more like a tricky Guitar Hero with a D-pad. Void is an avoid-and-collect using the nunchuk's control stick. Fate is a rail shooter utilizing the Wii remote's pointer. And Flux, the final chapter in the Bit.Trip saga, returns to an experience similar to the choreographed Pong performance that birthed the series in Beat.
I recently acquired Bit.Trip Runner, the fourth game released (and the third I've played, after Void and Beat). It happens to be the one that generates the most buzz in the gaming community. Runner certainly sounded appealing to me when I was introduced to it as a "rhythm-based platformer." My experience with the game, however, came somewhat short of my high hopes.
Bit.Trip Runner stars Commander Video, a...thing?...who apparently likes to run. He jogs automatically from left to right across bizarre 3D pixel-art landscapes, avoiding obstacles and grabbing gold while chiptune beats play in the background. There are a small set of rules that will lead players to success. Jump [2 button] over small obstructions. Kick  apart large barriers. Slide [down] under hanging obstacles. Launch [up] from spring pads. Block [right] incoming pong balls. Obey these laws and you will run to the end of each stage. Collect all the gold throughout, and you'll get a chance at a silent bonus stage full of gold. Fail even once, however, and you will immediately start over from the beginning.
Music has always been Bit.Trip's backbone, and the tunes in Runner are up to the task. Though a few songs used in the menu and credits are borrowed from Anamanaguchi, the chiptune-rock band behind the Scott Pilgrim game's excellent soundtrack, the majority of the musical legwork was undertaken in conjunction with Runner's development. This was by necessity: each of the player's actions correspond with an accompanying musical flourish. Jumping over a pit produces a quick note. Launching from a spring pad yields a rising series of eighths. The effect is a blippy melody that, when added to the accompaniment, creates a joyous, lifting tune for Commander Video's steady trek.
Likewise, the visuals are an absolute delight. Vibrant, trippy, and stylish, Runner brings Bit.Trip out of the spacey Atari aesthetic of its three predecessors and appears more like 3D renderings of sprites, similar to the look of 3D Dot Game Heroes but more dreamlike than nostalgic. The visuals speak better for themselves than I can describe, however, so do yourself a solid and have a look at some screenshots.
The nature of rhythm games dictates that the gameplay is critically intertwined with music and aided by visuals. In the genre's finest moments, the harmony between game mechanics and audio feedback leads the player to feel as though they are playing music rather than a video game, or that their success in the video game is due to musical aptitude. I've lost myself in The Beatles: Rock Band more than a few times, and there's a moment when each demanding minigame in Rhythm Heaven just clicks, allowing me to succeed even with eyes closed.
Much to my dissatisfaction, I never experienced such a feeling in Bit.Trip Runner. In fact, I think my mood while playing the game would best be described as "stressful" and "disconnected." It's not easy to explain why, but I'll try anyway.
In most rhythm games, the timing of the player's successful input is synchronized with the game's prescribed musical output and aided by prompts on screen. In Guitar Hero, you'll successfully complete YYZ by mimicking the timing that Alex Lifeson used to create the master track. The note highway on screen dictates which fret to use and also provides additional aid to timing, like a metronome. The result is a very convincing deception that you are creating the music rather than mimicking it.
Now imagine playing a version of Guitar Hero where, as usual, the red fret and green frets are perfectly timed with the music and the note highway. On the other hand, the blue fret must be activated half a beat before the blue note on the highway reaches the play line to be successful, delaying the musical feedback beyond when you press the button. Additionally, the yellow fret must be pressed a full beat ahead of the note highway meeting and corresponding sound reward.
This is sort of what it's like to play Bit.Trip Runner. Some of the actions, like soaring from springs or blocking pong balls, are perfectly timed with the music. Others, like leaping over pits or kicking barriers, require the player's input to be anticipatory to the music. The pits and barriers make contact with Commander Video at the moment where the musical cue would play: if you press the jump button as the corresponding note plays, you're too late. In order continue successfully, you'll have to activate the proper maneuver (jumping or kicking) prior to the corresponding note and meeting with the incoming obstacle.
The result is the feeling that I wasn't playing a rhythm game at all. Quite the opposite, in fact: I actually had to avoid getting caught in the rhythm. When in sync with the extremely catchy tunes, I saw more failure than success. I had to consciously tune out the music in order to succeed. I even muted my TV at times and saw improvement.
Obstructions to success can come from the visual design as well. The bold, busy color of the scenery often bleeds into the foreground action and hides incoming objects. Further, the foreground utilizes a scrolling polygonal path for the sprite-based Commander Video; collision points between the 2D hero and his 3D surroundings can be a bit unclear, especially during the more frenzied jump marathons later in the game.
All of this combines to create a feeling that I was only succeeding in spite of the audiovisual design rather than due to it. I can't imagine a more damning takeaway from a rhythm game. Alarmingly, I felt more comfortable in the gold-collecting bonus stages, where the music is absent and the visual design is boiled down into a very basic 2D display, comparable to Pitfall on the Atari 2600.
Bit.Trip Runner is beautiful when boiled down to its base elements. The infectious music, imaginative visuals, and simple die-and-retry gameplay model are all strong foundations upon which to build. Unfortunately, the combination thereof produced one of the most unsettling games I can remember playing. The relief I felt after finishing off the final boss (two hours after starting the game) was easily the most satisfying point in the experience.
Clearly, however, my experience is not the norm. The game is highly regarded by most major review outlets and evangelized user reviews. And since it costs only $8 on WiiWare (and you can probably find it cheaper on Steam these days), my disappointment doesn't extend very far into my wallet. If you have a genuine interest in Bit.Trip Runner, and if my traumatizing tale didn't completely scare you away, you might as well plunk down the eight bucks and see if you're less dependent on the traditional rhythm game setup than I am. If you end up enjoying the experience, there's plenty to keep you busy: 33 standard stages (each lasting between 30 and 120 seconds when successful and several more minutes of failure prior) and a bonus stage for each, plus three boss stages. For those attempting to earn a perfect run through every standard and bonus stage, expect to spend several hours jogging with Commander Video.
Despite my unfavorable experience with the game, I actually hope to revisit Bit.Trip Runner someday so that I can absorb its transcendent audiovisual splendor all over again. I just refuse to be the one playing it.