Review: Bit Boy!! ARCADE (3DS eShop)

Kubi, you blockhead...

It's been almost five years since Bit Boy!! graced the WiiWare service, providing a generation-spanning adventure through the history of video games. Unfortunately the execution of that game was middling at best, leaving a great concept — the guiding of a single hero on a nostalgia-tinged journey through the past — sorely underutilized.

Enter Bit Boy!! ARCADE, which has the opportunity to revisit that idea and dig into the large amount of potential that the original game left totally untapped. (Japan, for the record, received Bit Man!! in the interim, but as that failed to earn a Western release we are unable to speak to its quality.)

One thing we'll say right up front, without any risk of disagreement, is that Bit Boy!! ARCADE is absolutely superior to Bit Boy!!. If you enjoyed Bit Boy!!, then there's no chance that you won't enjoy Bit Boy!! ARCADE, as this late-arriving sequel does everything absolutely, unquestionably better.

If you did not like Bit Boy!!, however, you're bound to be frustrated by the fact that ARCADE inherits many of the issues that plagued the original, and adds a few as well. It's overall a stronger experience, but it's not one that can really stand up on its own.

The story is that Kubi died after his first adventure, and Bernd Geiblinger — the real-life CEO of Bplus — attempts to bring him back to life. While Bit Boy!! broke the fourth wall, ARCADE absolutely demolishes it. In fact, Bernd serves as both the literal "face" of Bplus and your constant companion / narrator. Think Navi with an Austrian accent.

For whatever reason, Geiblinger resurrects Kubi not by programming another one, but by praying to a magical floating space gear, or whatever that thing is, and our heroes are off. It's some kind of continuity nod to the ongoing mythology that started in Plättchen: Twist 'n' Paint, but we had trouble following it there and it's gotten no easier since.

As with the first game, Bit Boy!! ARCADE consists of a series of mazes. In each of them Kubi will have to rescue his friends, avoid enemies, and collect PixelFlies, which look a lot more like discarded bandages than either pixels or flies. Unlike the first game, however, the "video game history" gimmick is ditched in favour of a more singular, focused approach. The levels do indeed change as you progress through the game, but the alterations are almost entirely superficial.

The problems that carry over from Bit Boy!!, however, are immediately apparent, beginning with the long, dead-end corridors. This — coupled with a frustratingly short-sighted camera that's every bit as bad as it was in the later levels of Bit Boy!! — results in a lot of needless death, as you may make it almost all the way through an inescapable hallway just to find a monster waiting for you at the end. Or, more often, you find nothing, and have to turn around...only to find that a monster followed you in and there's no way of getting around it.

The enemy AI should mitigate the frustration somewhat, as unlike the creatures from the first game (which moved randomly), ARCADE's enemies follow fixed behaviours. This, too, is problematic, however, as the designs of the enemies make it nearly impossible to tell which way they're facing. For instance, the main enemy is a humanoid "shadow" that turns right at every intersection. Easy to anticipate, in theory. In practice, however, they look the same from both the front and back, meaning that while you know it will turn right, knowing which way is right is an eternal crapshoot.

This is especially irritating when you have such little control over the camera. While you can ostensibly manoeuvre it with the Circle Pad, you really can't do much more than nudge it this way or that, as though the camera is being held by an elderly man with a severe spinal injury. This means that instead of observing from afar and memorising patterns, you don't see anything until you're already within striking distance.

The camera being controlled by the Circle Pad is a waste; movement is mapped to the D-pad and (that's "and," not "or") the face buttons. In many games, you may have to hold down a button to make your character run. In Bit Boy!! ARCADE you have to hammer both a direction of the D-pad and a corresponding face button. Combine this with an ever-circling camera, movement confined to an invisible grid, and a tendency for a press in one direction to sometimes move Kubi in another and you've got a whole lot of meaningless deaths for the developer to pray to the almighty Sky Gear to undo.

A map on the touch screen would help a lot here, as you'd be able to see which corridors are traps without having to step into them, but instead that valuable real estate is taken up by the developer's digitised face. Since the dawn of the DS developers have utilised the touch screen for almost every purpose imaginable, but this is the first time (to our knowledge) that a developer has used it to display a permanent likeness of his own face.

Even if you do manage to master the controls — which, admittedly, is not impossible — you'll have to face other problems that run the gamut from puzzling design choices to outright broken programming.

In terms of puzzling design choices, you have the fact that there's no way of telling where Kubi can and cannot walk. Sometimes he'll climb onto a ledge if you tell him to, and other times he won't, even though they're of equal heights. Sometimes a differently-coloured floor tile means it's off limits, and other times it's just a differently-coloured floor tile with no difference in functionality at all. Sometimes you can cling to the side of a wall, and other times, for no discernible reason, you can't. Maze games can be frustrating enough on their own, but toss in walls that don't look like walls and floors that don't look like floors and you've got a game ripped straight from the realm of nightmare.

Bit Boy!! ARCADE, meanwhile, is fully voice-acted. On its own, it's a cute idea — especially as the developer plays himself — but for whatever reason Kubi sounds an awful lot like popular depictions of Satan. He has a deep, resonating growl that passes, we guess, for a voice, and it makes him sound positively demonic. Also, though we're sure his banter with Geiblinger is supposed to be funny, it plays out like Kubi is less of a hero than an impertinent little imp that won't leave us alone. Having a non-threatening little cube with a smiley face speaking like Linda Blair in The Exorcist is incongruous to a truly baffling extent.

In terms of broken gameplay, you'll have everything from teleporters that simply refuse to work to a countdown timer that continues to decrease as Kubi celebrates his unskippable exit from a level, meaning you can run out of time even after you've made it to the goal. There's also an odd tendency for Geiblinger and Kubi to enter their "disappointed" animation when you succeed at a boss level, even though they're only supposed to do that when you die.

There's also an unfortunate need to stop moving in order to free one of Kubi's friends, which breaks the momentum of the game and leaves you vulnerable to attacks in these tight corridors. Why you can't simply "touch" the friends is beyond us; having to stop and wait while Kubi rescues them is akin to playing a game of Pac-Man in which each time you grab a power pellet you have to wait for the yellow disc to chew it 32 times before swallowing.

And yet, all of this doesn't quite merit a warning to stay away. Because, oddly, in spite of all of its flaws, glitches, frustrations and inanities, Bit Boy!! ARCADE has a good amount of charm. Granted, the Bernd 'n' Kubi Komedy Revue that babbles away while you're trying to survive a level consists of far from clever material, but when you remember that a developer inserted himself — quite literally — into the game just to crack wise and make silly jokes with one of his characters, it's actually kind of sweet. It's like watching a child play with his toys. Bit Boy!! ARCADE may not be a great game, or even a very good one, but it conveys an infective sense of imagination.

There's also a decent amount of variety in the game, with boss levels and optional objectives throughout. While you have to locate each of Kubi's friends to complete a level, you can also collect PixelFlies to unlock other areas, defeat all of the monsters to earn a Perfect rating, and break 300,000 points to earn a medal. On top of that, you can revisit areas to replay them with a greater emphasis on action, giving Kubi the limited abilities to jump, fly, and explode. Oh, and then you can go back to replay them with a combined emphasis on action and maze solving. Bit Boy!! ARCADE is nothing if not generous.

This game also has what might be the single most interesting overworld map in gaming history. While the levels — even with their layered goals and evolving terrain — grow stale far too quickly, the overworld becomes continually more interesting, with small programming demonstrations and proofs of concept scattered around, illustrating various speeds, lighting styles, camera functions, animation rates, polygon counts, and so on. Each of these miniature object lessons comes with optional commentary from Geiblinger, and while we wouldn't exactly hold Bit Boy!! ARCADE up as a masterpiece of design, the explanations of these programming concepts are positively fascinating. We didn't keep playing Bit Boy!! ARCADE to rescue Kubi's friends or defeat any bosses — we kept playing to hear more about design theory.

Bit Boy!! ARCADE has some major flashes of creativity. Its soundtrack, for instance, is shockingly good, and the choice to use Play Coins as arcade-like tokens to buy continues is inspired. There's a great deal of good here.

The problem, as with its predecessor, comes down to the execution. Bit Boy!! had a great central idea, but failed to live up to it. Bit Boy!! ARCADE scrapped that central idea and added a wealth of new ones...yet it fails to live up to most of those either.

For fans of the original game, this is a solid purchase. For anyone else, we'd recommend a bit more consideration before buying. We will say, though, that this could be the gaming equivalent of The Room. It may not be very good, but what it gets wrong it gets wrong in such interesting ways that you can't help but get sucked in.

Conclusion

Bit Boy!! ARCADE is the most accomplished game yet from Bplus, but it's still nowhere near the game it could have been. With a hands-down fantastic soundtrack, a boat-load of charm, and a genuinely insightful celebration of the game development process, there's the ghost of a very good game buried somewhere inside. But confusing design choices, recurring glitches, and boredom that sets in far too quickly make it tough to recommend. When it comes to video games, it's what's on the inside that counts. True to the physical form of its hero, however, everything Bit Boy!! ARCADE gets right is on its surface.