March 2, 2013

BIT.TRIP Runner2

Great great great great great.

I love rhythm games, I love running games, and I love 8-bit nostalgia. The first BIT.TRIP Runner was one of my favorite things on the Wii. I had only played the free demo, but that immediately caused me to go out and find the physical compilation of the first six BIT.TRIP games. I played Runner almost obsessively, getting everything, completing all levels on all difficulties, obtaining all extras, you name it.

When Runner2 was announced, I was ecstatic. When the first images popped up, I turned somewhat wary. It had lost its purist 8-bit style in favor of more softer, curvy, cutesy approach. But I've never been one to judge a game solely on visuals without actually playing it, so I took the risk and picked it up yesterday.

What a trip. This installment is vastly superior to the first. Not that the first one is bad, I love the first one. But this one was much more inviting. The learning curve is more gradual, holding the player's hand into the more complex maneuvers, rather than presenting them and leaving the player unattended. After all is said and done, I prefer this visual style over the first Runner. I'm a sucker for 8-bit visuals, but Runner2 just seems to mesh better overall as a complete product.

I found Runner2 easier than the first installment. In the first game, I spent way too much time on some levels, becoming incredibly frustrated at the pixel-perfect accomplishments the game demanded of me. In Runner2, the game is slightly more forgiving, and the new visual style helps with that. The button presses are microseconds closer to being where I aesthetically feel the beat actually is, and this has made all the difference. In the first Runner, the beat is actually closer to when you clear an object/enemy, therefore making your button press slightly before the beat, which was irritating at times. Runner2 is a much more smooth, fluid-feeling experience.

The biggest change for me was the inclusion of checkpoints. I was on the fence at first. I was proud of my accomplishments in the first game, and they didn't have any checkpoints. If you got hit, you started the level over, simple as that. I vowed to not use the checkpoints. You have the ability to jump over (therefore not using) a checkpoint, giving you an immediate extra 50,000 points for doing so. This is a brilliant way to make the game more approachable by newcomers, but still cater to the "hardcore" fans who don't need no damn checkpoints. Yet after a bit, I caved and started using them, because they were there, and I'm not a high score maniac.

No regrets.

Time-wise, I breezed through the whole game on the Normal difficulty. The Hard difficulty didn't provide much more suffering, but I enjoyed it more. There were never any spots where things simply caught me unawares (I've got damn good reflexes). If I died, it was usually in the same spot repeatedly until I could slip past it. I feel that the easing up of the whole thing is actually a blessing, as it makes the game fall into the classification of "Delightfully Challenging" as opposed to the first's "Infuriatingly Destructive." After about ten hours of gameplay, I've completed the game on Normal and Hard and gotten all extras, and I feel fully satisfied. It was definitely worth the price, and I know in the future I will absolutely come back and play it again.

Nearly everything that irked me about the the first installment was rectified in this one. This was mainly accomplished through the adding of new moves. Apart from the standard jumping, sliding, springing, blocking, and kicking, Runner2 introduces slide kicking, slide jumping, loop-de-loops, square-de-sqaures, rail-sliding, boost pads, and dancing. Although some of these moves were in the first Runner, they were not necessary to gather all gold or complete a level. This led to me basically holding the slide button for extended periods of time, which felt a bit like cheating. Runner2 fixes this by requiring you to jump slide, stand for a millisecond to grab something, then slide again before you even touch the ground. Little nuances like that in the level design fix nearly all the problems from the first game.

Square-de-Square on the right.

The difficulty differences are also improved. In the first Runner, Easy meant "No Gold," Normal meant "Gold Optional," and Hard meant "Gold Required." The enemy placement never changed. Whereas in Runner2, Easy means "Less Enemies," Normal means "Standard Enemy Placement," and Hard means "Lots of Enemies." The gold is present in all three, and it is necessary to collect all of it for a "Perfect" rating. This actual changing of difficulty is greatly appreciated, as opposed to feeling like an afterthought. It is also possible to get three separate "Perfects" on one level, one for each difficulty. Honestly though, after beating a level on Normal or Hard, doing it on Easy is incredibly boring.

I dislike the "Perfect+" rating, as it feels rather cheap. After completing a level with all the gold, thus already earning a "Perfect," you are given the opportunity to fire your character out of a cannon into a giant target. Hitting the bulls-eye earns you a "Perfect+." After all the hardships of a level, possibly dying countless times to reach the end with all that gold (and being rather proud of the accomplishment), being told that all skill and talent is being tossed out the window in favor of some stupid, three-second timing exercise is exasperating. I am not a point fiend. I don't need a "Perfect+." I don't have to have the highest score in the world. A "Perfect" is totally fine with me. I got all the gold in the level and avoided every obstacle. End of story.


There are more characters to choose from in this installment, and they fit perfectly into the bizarre nature of the game. Apart from the familiar CommanderVideo, they are Unkle Dill, Whetfahrt Cheeseborger, Reverse Merman, CaptainVideo, CommanderGirlVideo, Pitazo, and the original 8-bit CommanderVideo.

There are also many costumes for each, some with a tinge of nostalgia (e.g. the "Power Mitten" costume, which gives CommanderVideo an NES Power Glove, or the "Mac Daddy" costume, which gives him Little Mac's pink jumpsuit and green boxing gloves), others with joyous insanity (see below). It's funny though, because you're rarely actually looking at your character while playing. You're always looking just slightly ahead of them at whatever enemy/object is in your way.

The retro-style levels also make a reappearance, and are hidden in the main levels inside Famicom-shaped cartridges (twenty-five in all). Finding a cartridge automatically makes it accessible at any time from the world map. Whereas the first Runner's retro levels had a strong "Pitfall" vibe, Runner2's seem more like an original creation, and have much more content in them. There are also treasures to be found in the main levels, which hold the aforementioned costumes.

It is also necessary to replay certain levels, as there are alternate exits in many. There is also a "Key Vault" in each world, and upon completing it, you unlock the keys in several other levels, meaning you go back and complete the alternative paths since you now have access to the key/lock. Path are also denoted with a green arrow (easier) or red with a skull (harder), so you can decide (in a split second) which path you want to take. I will point out that at times I did find the "hard" path to be easier. It just depends on the obstacles and what you have an easier time with.

Bosses also make a reappearance, and are just as creative as the first game. There are five this time, each being a different form of Mingrawn Timbletot (à la Dr. Robotnik), the same antagonist from the first Runner.

There is also online connectivity, used to compare scores and such. A feature I really enjoy is that immediately upon completing a level, you can access a "micro-leaderboard" to view high scores around what you just did. This is separate from the main leaderboards, where you can see the highest scores in the world. It's nice to be able to see scores around your own, because it's depressing to finish a level, feel great about it, but then see that your tireless efforts have placed you in 4,357th place. I should point out that this feature isn't available on all platforms.

The game also keeps track of a multitude of statistics (which I wish more games would do, because it doesn't seem like it would be that taxing). Things like how far you've run, how many times you've danced, how many objects you've kicked, how many things you've slid under, and many, many more. There is also a rewards checklist. Things like "Complete 100 Levels on Rather Hard" (aka the Hard difficulty).

The worlds are rich and engaging to look at. I know that the musically-based 1930's cartoons (e.g. Silly Symphonies, Betty Boop) were a big inspiration for the development team, and it shows. Rarely is the background fully static; there's always something moving, bouncing, blinking, or running past. And since music is a huge part of the game, the comparisons are even more evident. The first Runner's backgrounds were insanely busy at times, which was part of the charm of the difficulty, because it made focusing on CommanderVideo that much harder. Runner2 eases up a bit, making the backgrounds less insane and more of a separate entity. It causes the whole thing to flow much better.

The nomenclature of everything has a Roald Dahl feel. Worlds have titles such as "The Welkin Wonderland," "The Mounting Sadds," and "The Supernature." Levels have titles such as "Stratosphere," "Arid Airride," and "Cirrus Circus." Spread over 100 levels, it's an impressive achievement in itself that they managed to be so creative for all of them.

There is an actual, narrated story going on this time. The first game had a silent-movie/abstract story going on that I never really took the time to figure out (or cared about). Each world has its own introduction and cutscenes. The whole game is narrated by Charles Martinet (of Nintendo fame), which is cool I guess, but honestly it was rather loud and annoying.

The main music is again by Matt Harwood, and is just as catchy as the first Runner. Picking up score multipliers add new layers to the music, and there are four in each level. The sound effects remain mostly the same from the previous installment (which I like). Hearing those old familiar noises is nostalgic in itself, even thought the first Runner came out a few years ago. In addition, whenever you dodge/jump/kick/etc. something, it adds a small musical blip to the soundtrack. This means that on harder difficulties, the overall music is much more complex since you're avoiding things constantly. So in addition to looking awesome, you're creating your own pseudo-symphony while doing so. It really makes a huge difference to the sound, and is extremely clever to boot. The soundtrack is available (as well as for the first six BIT.TRIP games) on

The amount of effort and care put into this game is phenomenal. It is such a relief to see a group of people (that isn't gigantic) create such a masterpiece, thinking hard about what would make the best/most fun experience possible every step of the way. The fact that the team kept referring to the first Runner is also a clear sign that the game is not only something new and different, but also an improvement. The first six BIT.TRIP games felt like they needed to be together as a bundle for the full experience, but Runner2 can easily stand on its own. It is a much more fleshed out product.

The team's blog ( kept the public informed on the development the whole way through (sometimes even allowing them to determine aspects of the finished product), and really shows how the fun and quirky nature of the game is derived directly from the people behind it. Top-notch.

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