News Article

Features: The History of BIT.TRIP, Part 2

Posted by Jon Wahlgren

In this installment, Gaijin struggles to find the fun in CORE and crafts what they feel to be a beautiful game in VOID.

Be sure to read part 1 of our history of BIT.TRIP.

ON THE MAP

Luckily for Gaijin, BEAT was a success; had the game tanked then the series would’ve likely gone ahead as planned, but it ensured them that they were on the right track. “There was talk of whether should we cut it to four or five games, but we always kept coming back to six,” artist Mike Roush said.

Reveling in the acclaim of their work was not a luxury the small outfit could afford to keep up, as their allotted time for development of the next game meant that as soon as one game was out the door and in Nintendo’s hands the team had to get cracking on the next. When their first title had finally released, the team was already knee-deep in game two: CORE. By the time BEAT was out and had a following, the team said, there wasn’t any time to address the more vocal feedback from players centered on e.g. a checkpoint system, so they just barged forward. “We’re releasing so many games as a small studio that we can’t take the time out of our work schedule to revel in, ‘We just finished something, guys, isn’t that fun and great? And look at the news, it’s awesome!’” lead designer Alex Neuse said. “We have to keep moving. We don’t have a lot of buffer time these days.”

“Every time we release one of these we say we’re going to have a party,” Roush said. “It never happens and we just start making the next game.”

Untitled
Storyboard for CORE's first cutscene, which lined up with the final version quite nicely.

CORE’s concept was inspired by Cosmic Arc, a game developed by Neuse-favorite Imagic and released in 1982 for, what else, the Atari 2600. One of its stages put players in control of an alien ship’s blasters and had to shoot at meteors coming in from four sides, which influenced the foundation for Gaijin’s sequel. And having just created a game based around rotating the Wii Remote, the team wanted to give the D-Pad a go. But the trio struggled to make the game gel — simply put, they found it just wasn’t any fun. Actually, it kind of sucked for a while.

In the final game, a disambiguation of CommanderVideo is locked in the center of the screen and beats fly by in the space around him, and players intercept the beats by selecting one of four directional lines and shooting as they pass. At first, Gaijin had the beats coming towards the Commander along the directional lines, but Neuse said that since the beats could always be hit the game provided no challenge, was boring and strayed from the beat-based gameplay they were shooting for. Another iteration quoted the 2600 game Turmoil, throwing eight vertical stacks on the field and having players switch between them to fire at incoming beats. At one point players could move the core along the beat lines, but that proved to be “insanity,” according to Neuse.

“All of those (iterations) just sucked,” Neuse said.

It wasn’t until about halfway through the game’s three-month development that the team took a step back to pinpoint exactly where the game was going wrong, and they managed to solve their conundrum examining what makes music/rhythm games fun. They came up with a Guitar Hero-esque timing-based solution across the original concept’s four lines, and the final game’s idea of using the negative space for beats to whirl around fell into place.

Finding the fun was a huge relief for the team. “(It) was really scary, because there were parts of development where I was basically thinking to myself, ‘this isn’t fun,’” Roush said. “Then, all of a sudden one day, it was fun.”

With gameplay in place, Gaijin’s efforts shifted to cranking out the rest of the game. A screen-clearing bomb was added to help stem the melting of brains that came with missing a beat in a segment, but one issue that wasn’t settled until the last minute was which of two control schemes to use — one “fired” immediately on pressing a direction, and another aimed with the D-Pad and fired with a button. Neuse was split 50/50 on which to use and feedback from playtesters swayed him towards the aim-and-fire option; it was a decision he came to regret. “I think that CORE is a stronger game with the original gameplay mechanic and I wish that I had just stuck to my designer-brain guns and said, ‘No, this game is about pointing, it’s not about aiming and firing,’” he said.

Untitled

Roush worked diligently on evolving the art style, taking it into a deeper, more abstract direction. He wound up taking it so deep, in fact, that he’s confident players haven’t quite parsed out the events and symbolism going on in the backgrounds. “Everything means something,” he said. “Nobody ever figured out that level 1 is essentially (CommaderVideo’s) body; (for instance,) the moving machines are his legs working. Halfway through stage 2 it moves into his anatomy — you can see his “junk” from the inside (laughs), then it goes into his stomach, intestines, lungs...all of level 2 is essentially his brain starting up and sending signals out.

“BEAT was sort of this weird little story in the background. CORE is way out there but a little more literal.”

Roush managed to sneak in a few hidden tidbits into his work. Hot off seeing a Saw movie but unable to recall which one, Roush set about modeling one of the movie’s sinister, “insanely hideous” chest-ripping just for fun — it’s that “weird yellow thing” floating about in the background of level 3.

With the game out the door and on players’ consoles, CORE wasn’t met with the same universal acclaim from the BIT.TRIP faithful and instead turned out to be a fairly divisive title. "A lot of people pick it up and say, ‘Oh ****, what? Forget it,’” Neuse said. “It is more about gameplay than anything else. It’s wholly unique among video games in that you’re using your brain in a way that you don’t normally. It’s very confusing, but there is a method to the madness. And when you can tap into it you see the merits of the gameplay, but it’s hard to tap into it."

Even Gaijin is split on CORE’s gameplay.

“I’ve never been past half of level 2,” Roush admitted. “It’s embarrassing to say but I can’t deal with the frustration involved in me playing CORE. Instead of going on sort of a rampage, I put the controller down. (...) Some of us who play BIT.TRIP games have this funny thing where basically we’re playing and at a certain point we go, ‘&$%^ Alex! This is bull$#!7!’”

“I actually think I got worse over time,” designer Danny Johnson said. “When I first played I could get into that vibe, but when I put it down and came back I couldn’t, it left me.”

BOTTLED ELEGANCE

BIT.TRIP VOID, despite being the third entry in the series, brought about a lot of firsts for the series. It has a floatier, more free-form style than previous titles, whose no-boundary setup reflects CommanderVideo’s exploration of interpersonal boundaries and emotions. The change away from the rigid structures of BEAT and CORE helped cement part three as one of Gaijin’s overall favorites. “With VOID, you can play it and get a sense of satisfaction even if you lose,” Johnson said. “The highs and lows are less, so you’re not punching in walls.”

“I think VOID is beautiful,” Neuse said. “I think it’s almost a better spectator game than it is a player’s game. I love watching it. There’s something about VOID that puts me in this meditative state — the music so chill, the gameplay is very straightforward, it’s black and white and you don’t have to really think about anything else.”

It took a little while for Neuse to realize just how much more freedom the new structure allowed, enabling him to design stages that sent in patterns from all sides and communicate to players that they are now in a much larger area, something that playtesters struggled to come to grips with initially. As he built the stages, Gaijin layered on complexity in the game’s audio and visual departments, to the point of becoming much too “noisy;” this prompted the team to scale back its presentation to the point of minimalism. Visually, the final build of VOID looks drastically different in tone than earlier iterations, trading in midnight colors for black and white over a sunset backdrop.

Untitled

“I didn’t really like how it looked at all,” Roush explained. “There wasn’t anything about it that made me excited. The void was made up of different colors, the background was different, so (about halfway through) I said I just want to make it black and white.”

Gaijin had wanted VOID to be devoid of a HUD from the beginning, and the new abstract, minimalist look fit snugly into this desire, allowing the team to place the score ticker and other elements unobtrusively in the backdrop. What didn’t fit snugly at all for a while was their original control idea of a completely pointer-based game, where players moved the void around like a cursor and adjusting its size based on the Remote’s distance to the sensor bar. Neuse said this method completely destroyed the sense of meandering and flow they strove for. Plus, getting the size control mechanic to work was a nightmare, so out it went in favor of the nunchuck’s analog stick.

Of all the BIT.TRIPs, VOID was given the least amount of time to complete due to the team losing two weeks up front for E3 2009, but this turned out to not be a problem: VOID wound up having the easiest development of all six games. And Gaijin couldn’t have been more pleased with the results. “It’s a very beautiful game, not just in visuals but the gameplay is quite elegant and fluid,” Roush said. “In some ways I’m surprised we were able to do it in that short an amount of time:”

The free-form elegance of VOID wouldn’t last, however, as the next game had its sights set on platforming and a corporeal CommanderVideo. Feeling the importance of ensuring that game four would be a success, Gaijin took a good, long look at what made other mascots so popular and successful. So what’d their research for a silver bullet find?

Eyeballs. Lots and lots of eyeballs.

_In Part 3, Gaijin explains their carefully laid plan for game four's runaway popularity, go through BIT.TRIP hell and reflect on the end of the series.

_Earlier: The History of BIT.TRIP: Part 1

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User Comments (26)

madgear

#1

madgear said:

I'm tempted to get all the Bit Trip games - I bought Flux after playing the demo of Beat (and I played that demo so much!). I'm actually thinking of buying Beat now that I've finished Flux because I just want more. The other games don't seem quite as appealing to me as the Pong games - it's the simplicity that makes it so great.

The review scores for the other games are good so I may check them out - but Flux and Beat are fantastic games. I'd much rather sit and play one of those games than a more modern looking retail release. There's just something great about sitting on your sofa playing a game where all you want to do is do better than your last game - I wish more games were like this.

Kid_A

#2

Kid_A said:

Once again, brilliant. I'm really enjoying these posts even though I have no knowledge of the games they describe. Can't wait for part :)

SilverBaretta

#3

SilverBaretta said:

Haha, what an ambiguous ending line. Another fantastic article, looking forward to the next one, as well.

SuperMarioFan96

#4

SuperMarioFan96 said:

Another brilliant entry. I love reading these, and I love that Gaijin has given so much information on what has happened. Can't wait for part 3! :)

theblackdragonAdmin

#6

theblackdragon said:

oh my, i'd love to see more of their storyboarding and notes for cutscenes. if they were to go through the trouble of publishing them in a book along with the story behind some of the symbolism and whatnot, I would totally spring for it.

also, I'm one of those who absolutely, positively loves the hell out of Core. yeah, Exploration is a frickin' brutal level, but Control was amazing and I firmly believe that everyone needs to experience it at least once. That's why I willingly offer my own savefile whenever anyone is having serious trouble getting past Exploration.

That said, Void is just not my bag. I've tried over and over again to get into it, and I always get to the boss of Id and die, die, die. it absolutely kills me. i try a few more times, get frustrated, and then i go play one of the other games instead. Every so often I'll get in the mindset of 'it's the only b.t game I haven't beaten yet, maybe it wasn't so bad, maybe I'm just blowing it all out of proportion'... I'll go back to it, and then it'll chew me up in its formless, void-y jaws and spit me right back out as annoyed and irritated with it as ever. it hurts the worst when I remember that it had been gifted to me for Christmas that year by a good friend of mine. D:

My biggest problem with Void (and I'm ashamed to say it since i was one of the ones begging for the feature on the forums) is the checkpoint system. pausing between parts of the level kills the flow, and having limited continues like that made it almost pointless IMO; may as well have kept to the same Beat and Core-style die-and-go-back-to-the-beginning gameplay for all the good it does me. I was so happy to see that they further refined the checkpoint system in Runner and Flux (idk, i think playing a level stage-by-stage is a checkpoint system in and of itself) to make it as unobtrusive as possible. If Void were remade to have checkpoints in that style, I don't think it would piss me off so much every time I tried to play it.

JonWahlgrenAdmin

#7

JonWahlgren said:

I didn't really get into VOID for a while since I thought it was a little too mellow and floaty for my tastes, but going back to it for writing this made me really come to appreciate it more. Still can't play CORE without exploding my brain though, which makes it my least favorite.

Lotice-Paladin

#8

Lotice-Paladin said:

Another great article and some insights about how they approached things like controls and visuals.

argus

#9

argus said:

These articles are great. CORE is my favorite of the series, so it was fun to read about it. Incidentally, VOID is my least favorite.

I think the checkpoint system made VOID too easy. I managed to finish it on my second time playing the game, and then I didn't feel compelled to play it anymore. CORE, on the other hand, was a total struggle. I had to earn it. By the time I finally finished CORE, I was hooked. So, I went back and played it repeatedly to increase my high scores.

It's really daring that they went with such different control schemes for these games. I personally prefer d-pad instead of analog stick, so that might be another reason why CORE hooked me and VOID didn't.

Gaijin has done something really special with this series. CORE is not only my favorite BIT.TRIP game - it's one of my favorite games of all time.

Kid_A

#10

Kid_A said:

Well I downloaded Bit.Trip BEAT for my iTouch.

HOLYWOWOMYGOD!
This game is incredible. I am an idiot for putting this off for so long. I will download RUNNER as soon as humanly possible.

Mange

#11

Mange said:

I agree with tbd. I´d love to see more of their storyboarding and notes for cutscenes.

Zeldana

#14

Zeldana said:

I'm not sure how to respond directly to comments, but @theblackdragon;

CORE is by far my favorite in the series too, in the sense that it's the game I keep going back to and playing through the most. The music for levels 2 and 3 definitely have something to do with it, though. It's fantastic!

As for the boss of Id, here's a hint: Think outside the box.
I couldn't get past it either until figured that out. Good luck!

HipsterDashie

#16

HipsterDashie said:

It's amusing reading about CORE, because this is definitely my favourite game in the BIT.TRIP series, and one of my favourite games overall (and it seems others agree). I'm an absolute sucker for non-traditional rhythm-action games (i.e. anything that's not Guitar Hero or Rock Band) like Rhythm Paradise and Maestro: Jump in Music, so CORE played all the right notes to me. Echoing other commenters, I also agree everyone should hear/play CONTROL as it is one of my favourite levels in all of the BIT.TRIPS.

I'd have to say VOID is my second least favourite, followed by FATE as my least favourite. That's not to say they're bad games or anything (I do enjoy playing them, and I think they're extremely well done), they're just not up there with CORE and RUNNER imo. :)

Edit: is it a bad thing that CORE is my second-most played Wii game at 50 hours, when I've only had it since October 10? :D

theblackdragonAdmin

#17

theblackdragon said:

@Zeldana: thx for the tip, i'll keep it in mind tonight. i think i'm about ready for another go at Void, lol :3

@SoulSilver IV: i don't think so, but then i love Core, so that could be blinding me to that actually being a bad thing ;)

CorbsAdmin

#19

Corbs said:

CORE is still really the only BIT.TRIP game I didn't care for much. VOID I really like, but not nearly as much as RUNNER and FLUX. Below is how I rank them from a personal standpoint:

  • 1. RUNNER
  • 2. FATE
  • 3. FLUX
  • 4. VOID
  • 5. BEAT
  • 6. CORE
vakama94

#20

vakama94 said:

Great article, of all the games CORE for me has one of the best music, especially Control, it´s my favorite melody

theblackdragonAdmin

#22

theblackdragon said:

for me at this point in time, it's

  • CORE = RUNNER
  • FATE
  • BEAT = FLUX
  • VOID

granted, i love them all so much that half the time my list will change, but Runner and Core generally top it, followed by Fate, Beat (and now Flux), and then Void at the end.

I gotta say, though, that my reasons for disliking Void are just my own, and they're purely gameplay related — GG did an excellent job with the presentation, and the music is superb, of course. I realize there's plenty of people out there who love Void and hate Core, and I'm okay with that. The fact that there's something in this series for everyone is one of my favorite parts about the Bit.Trip experience :3

melechofsin

#25

melechofsin said:

the Bit Trip series is just amazing... so glad to have had the privilege of playing them. Wiiware FTW.

If I had to choose favorites though, Core will be the least favorite because it's difficult in a non satisfying way. Still great, but too bad they didn't use the direction only instead of direction and aim. That was incredible to read...

in order:
Runner
Void
Fate
Beat
Flux
Core

shinesprite

#26

shinesprite said:

So far its:
1. BEAT
2. VOID
3. CORE
(I don't have the other three yet, but I thoroughly intend to play them in the future.)

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