The BIT.TRIP series is one of the shining stars of Nintendo's WiiWare service. The simplicity of the game mechanics would work well on the 30-year-old 8-bit consoles to which they pay homage, but it's the intelligence of design and music-rhythm aspect that makes them so addictive. BIT.TRIP RUNNER is the latest entry in the franchise and we think it's the best one yet, offering a musical take on the platforming genre with strong references to Activision's pioneering classic Pitfall.
This is the first game in the series to give players control over a more literal representation of CommanderVideo, the star of the BIT.TRIP series. After an intro showing his crash-landing on an alien world, the game wastes no time throwing players into the action. Like other BIT.TRIP games the mechanics are quite simple: CommanderVideo runs at a constant pace, so the only thing required of players is pressing different buttons to guide him past obstacles in gameplay reminiscent of Vib-Ribbon for the PlayStation. Initially the Commander can only jump up steps, over barriers or traverse gaps between platforms, but his repertoire increases over the course of the three levels to include kicking, sliding, leaping and blocking various obstacles in his way.
Aside from the core gameplay and decidedly brighter visuals, the other major departure from previous series outings is the game's structure. Each of the three levels is divided into twelve stages that can be replayed directly, allowing subsequent sessions to cleanly pick up at the last completed stage. Each stage has its own name and separate high score table and players are given additional replay incentive in the form of trying to collect all the gold bars in the stage, though "following the gold" also proves to be the easier route when there's a choice of paths to take. Collecting all the bars in each Challenge (as the stages are referred to in-game) will result in a Bonus Challenge, providing an opportunity to earn even more points. Once your score is totalled and any bonus challenge completed, play automatically proceeds to the next stage.
The hands-off aspect of play continuance and restart is one of the more clever aspects of the game's design. Unlike other BIT.TRIP games there is no ending for bad performance: rather than downgrading the audio-visual experience as in previous BIT.TRIP games, hitting an obstacle or falling into a pit will simply result in CommanderVideo warping back to the beginning of the current challenge, and after a quick bit of air guitar he's off and running again. Whilst this seems simple enough, the effect on gameplay is substantial: you only have time for a single expletive before you're playing again, and the rest of the game is so well-designed that this change in focus is enough to negate any frustration you might have at replaying a challenge. It's also incredibly easy to lose track of the number of attempts you've made: the addictive gameplay means it's difficult to quit, especially once you've figured out how to pass that next obstacle.
Though there's no Nether penalty state for punishing poor performance, there are bonus items to pick up to enhance the game's audio experience. Each one will upgrade players from Hyper to Mega and beyond. The visuals remain the same, but if you manage to get all of the rose-tinted "plus signs" you'll be treated to a special visual enhancement in the form of a rainbow trail for CommanderVideo which is a direct reference to one of the greatest game studios of the early 8-bit era. This homage is felt even more strongly in the Bonus Challenges, which dispenses with the 3D polygonal background of the normal game in favour of something that would look very much at home on the Atari 2600 and features a rolling logo in the corner of the screen that should tickle veterans of the early days of console gaming.
Although the retro sensibilities are pleasing and the soundtrack is toe-tappingly good, it's only when you've had a lot of time with the game that you start to realise how well-designed it is. Though the "beats" from other BIT.TRIP games are largely absent (they do show up after the first level), the same role has been filled by successfully navigating obstacles. Every time an obstacle is avoided a different musical cue will play depending upon the method of avoidance. The timing of these actions contributes to the over-arching musical narrative and once you become attuned to the rhythm of the background music this will help you anticipate future obstacles.
Whilst breaking each level up into individually replayable segments might at first make this game seem a lot easier than other BIT.TRIP games, this is definitely not the case (as countless replays of stages 1-10 and 1-11 by this reviewer will attest). If you find the BIT.TRIP games to be extremely challenging in general, it's unlikely that RUNNER will change that opinion, but being able to play through levels piecemeal will at least make you feel like you're making progress. The rapid repetition of shorter stages means that you can pick up on obstacle patterns and via memorisation, learn to bypass them. By paying close attention and moving with the beat you'll find that ultimately all challenges can be met and end-level bosses defeated, though it may take many, many replays to achieve your goals.
As challenging as the main part of each stage can be, it's the Bonus Challenges that are the biggest test; so much so that the Operations Guide indicates Gaijin Games will recognise anyone achieving a perfect result in any stage (all gold bars collected in the main and bonus challenges) upon being given proof of this. Though we doubt players will be receiving patches for their jackets, it's nice to see the homage to Activision's past glory extends beyond the look and feel of the game to the developer's relationship with its fans.
BIT.TRIP RUNNER epitomises the best qualities of the BIT.TRIP series in terms of being a fun game to play as well as honouring the pioneers of console gaming. The simple platforming mechanics are cleverly fused with the catchy and uplifting soundtrack into an addictive experience that's been designed to be hard to put down. It cements Gaijin's reputation as a developer that has repeatedly shown it has a firm grasp on the craft of gaming.