Starting a Bit. Trip game is like taking up a musical instrument in primary school and being indentured to a teacher by a mother’s vain attempt to mold a miniature euphonium-lugging effigy of her own unfilled hopes and dreams. These nail-hard rhythm games feel similar. Performances are special experiences, but that doesn’t keep the preparation from being exhausting.
Frustration is the price we pay for ultimate satisfaction, but – in the Runner games - it’s like rehearsing a new piece of music: Each difficult phrase is dissected, through repetition ad nauseum, to the point that the actual music itself is lost to you. The magic remains for the listener, but for the player everything must become predictable – otherwise how could you perform such a difficult piece?
Bit. Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien is the latest, and first non-8bit iteration, of the Bit. Trip series. Each title disguises a rhythm game behind the interface of a typical retro arcade game, with each game in the series handling a different genre. Bit. Trip: Beat, the first, transformed the rectangular paddles of pong into a conductor’s baton. The Runner games look lot like platformers, but really they’re closer to Guitar Hero.
A Mario Brothers’ brother moves towards the right of the screen, sure, but he does it as his own pace and can even about-face and make his way left or explore up into the unusually solid clouds or remarkably spacious sewer system.
In Runner, however, Commander Video jogs at a brisk, predetermined and constant pace to the right and must jump when he reaches an obstacle or slide into narrow gaps. He must high-kick when breakable boards obstruct his path or loop loops whenever loops insist on looping. In truth, there’s no reason why the obstacles couldn’t just be colour-coded icons scrolling towards the screen.
The look absolutely works. Commander Video, the liquorice strip-like protagonist of the Bit.Trip series, has been logified for the first time. Blocky pixels are charming and all, but after a series of at least half a dozen games they begin to feel kitschy. Runner 2 is fundamentally smoother, shinier and squishier than past Trips, and the marshmallow trees and sentient pickles that live within its surreal landscape embrace this new direction. Each new environment is about as surreal as the mellifluous title of the game might suggest, and although the visual feast isn’t as great as the auditory one, cloud-sized jellyfish wearing monocles don’t ever really get old.
The true magic, and the advantage of the pseudoplatformer direction that the Runner games take, is the way that the levels cleverly reflect the contour of the games’ wonderful retro compositions. Each change in elevation within a level marks the lines on a stave. Breakable pieces of the environment are snare hits. Leaping over a square beat of missing boardwalk can generate a minum rest in the melody.
Every stage that treadmills back towards the left of the screen is effectively a musical score, and a sense of utter elation can be synthesised as, for example, Commander Video ascends and forms an interrupted modal scale that carries the music in a new direction.
I say, “can be created”, and that’s the real trouble with this, admittedly ingenious, system: it relies on the skill of the player. Little is more displeasing to the ear than hearing someone practice the same couple of sections of a tune, over an over, as part of the 10,000 hour slog that is necessary to master any skill.
Practising difficult sections, sometimes hundreds of times, castrates the audiovisual “surprise” that would otherwise accompany them and, since the difficult parts are often the most musically compelling, that’s a genuine design issue. Gaijin Games has crafted a videogame that becomes drastically less enjoyable the worse the player is at it. It’s a much more rare problem in games than one might think.
Guitar Hero and its ilk get around this problem by sectioning each song down into an absurd number of graduated difficulty levels. Even the truly rhythmically challenged can play Kansas’ Carry On Wayward Son in “Camel (Unilateral amputee)” mode, and feel complicit in performing the entire song with a much-simplified sequence of clicks and clacks on the plastic controller.
Runner 2 has only three difficulty levels, but they don’t make a noticeable difference. Each level is also littered with gold bars and crossed shaped power-ups that must all be collected, on a single run, without using checkpoints, to perfect the level – these are fun to collect, but are rarely responsible for a level’s difficulty. Runner 2 has a complex, arcade progression through a map of different levels and worlds that requires players to find keys in one level and unlock chests in others to gain access to completely new playable characters. This greatly enriches the game, but can’t deal to its central flaw.
Ultimately Bit. Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien is another entry in a staggeringly long list of independently developed, retro inspired games that are lovingly crafted and extremely tough to defeat. It gains plenty of points for being different, and there’s no doubt that it will capture a massive legion of players who will, perhaps, abandon the incessantly ticking metronomes that makes the practice of a real musical instrument in favour of hours in front of the neon screen.