First Impressions: Bit.Trip RUNNER

8-bit run amok!

RUNNER is the fourth and next entry in Gaijin Games' six-part Bit.Trip series and we've been fortunate enough to spend some time with the latest build, which has just been sent off to Nintendo for final approval. Though this preview is based on the "final" version of RUNNER, we want to emphasise that changes are still possible in response to feedback from Nintendo, so there may be differences between what's described here and the actual published version of the game.

Players have direct control over Commander Video in this entry (apparently that's always been the case, but in a more abstract sense) in an homage to 8-bit platforming games like Pitfall and Keystone Kapers on the venerable Atari 2600. Whilst prior games in the series have differed from each other they've all had common goals of interacting with "Beats" in order to complete each of the three lengthy musical levels included. RUNNER also has three tracks/levels yet is a major departure not only in structure but in goals as well.

There are still Beats to collect, but they're quite different from previous outings: gold bars (a clear reference to the aforementioned Pitfall) and orange "plus" signs. Also unlike previous outings, rather than having one long level they are broken down into twelve stages each, with the last one indicated by an ominous pixellated skull. These combine to change the game's structure significantly in relation to other Bit.Trip games and should make it more accessible to players who found the previous games overly challenging. Each stage has its own high score and can be replayed on its own (though once one is complete the next will start after entering initials for the stage leaderboard) with the only goal being to cross the finish line at the end of the stage – collecting Beats is completely optional.

just because it's optional doesn't mean there isn't ample incentive to do so. Getting all the gold bars results in a "Bonus Get" Challenge Stage (making hardcore RUNNERs "Bonus Getters" in the parlance of Japan) which is even more of a rip-off – sorry, homage – of Pitfall, complete with 2D trees in the background and campfires to jump over as you try to collect as many pixellated gold bars as possible without slipping up. This is added to your score for the stage leaderboard, so you'll certainly want to pick those up if you want to impress your friends. The orange beats affect the Mega Metre at the top of the screen. Players start out at Hyper level with the graphical and musical complexity increasing every time a "Mega Beat" is picked up. We won't tell you what happens if you get to the highest level, Extra, but it will remind players of the logo of the greatest third-party developer for the Atari 2600, which put the biggest grin on our face imaginable.

Series vets might think from what's been described above that the game is somehow easier and that is sort of the case, but don't be fooled into thinking it's a cakewalk – this is still a Bit.Trip game after all! Commander Video is a sprite with a mission; what it is we don't rightly know, but he is compelled to run and the only thing players do is trigger various actions in order to get him to the finish line. Initially Commander Video is restricted to jumping using (2) (as with the first two games in the series, you hold the Remote on its side). Every other stage thereafter a new action is introduced: pressing down on (DPAD) makes him slide along (bobbing up and down to the beat is great fun) and pressing (1) kicks. That description probably has experienced Bit.Trippers thinking "they aren't going to have sections where you need to jump, duck, kick, jump, kick, etc., are they?" Well, yes, that will happen, and unlike previous games in the series there is no Nether to work back from: only a binary pass/fail. Either Commander Video gets to the finish line or he restarts at the beginning of the stage: there is no "try." You'll have some great music to time your actions to, so don't despair: just turn on, tune in, get into the zone and you'll succeed.

We cannot hide the fact that even after our brief time with it, we think this is shaping up to be the best of the series so far; Gaijin Games have outdone themselves by creating a good balance between challenge and accessibility that will have players thinking "next time I'll time that jump better" rather than throwing down the controller in frustration. Even gamers who don't like platform games will find themselves unable to put down the controller until long past bedtime for one more go – yes, it's that kind of game.

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