There's a really strong sense of liberation to BIT.TRIP Presents: RUNNER2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, made more pronounced if you’ve hung with any of the six WiiWare entries of the series. In no small part is it because of all the running and jumping, which does metaphorically speak strongest to our sense of freedom — constantly moving, blowing past whatever challenge may come — but it’s more than just forward momentum at work.
It’s the living, smiling world rooting for you at every step, the ethereal soundtrack that effortlessly builds into a soaring crescendo and barrier-free motion, all contributing to the sense that star CommanderVideo and friends can do anything here. Few feelings are as liberating as the one of possibility, which RUNNER2 captures with gusto.
Much of it surely stems from Gaijin Games finding themselves suddenly unchained. Having worked within the constraints of WiiWare since the studio’s founding, knocking six BIT.TRIP games into the outfield or out of the park entirely, it became more evident as the series progressed how the studio’s ambitions outpaced their hardware home. Free of outdated tech and an archaic size limit, RUNNER2 feels like the result of a studio finally able to make the game that they’ve always wanted. And what a game it is: RUNNER2 takes what made the original such a rewarding experience — purity of gameplay, a sense of freedom, an uplifting soundtrack — and blows it out to fantastic effect, growing larger in scope than its predecessor to the point of making the original look like a pithy 8-bit prototype.
A surface-level look at the premise doesn’t sound all that special, perhaps even downright unremarkable: run, jump, punch, slide, another one of those endless runners that seem to hit with alarming frequency on mobile devices, but RUNNER2 is anything but a piece of me-too software. Yes, those same materials are here, but put to far more interesting use: Each of the 125 stages is designed to make your brain sweat and your fingers jitter by interweaving acrobatics with precise timing driven by a swelling soundtrack. That’s more than double the number of gauntlets for CommanderVideo and friends to run than in the prior game and seemingly just as many new types of obstacle to overcome, including a few environmental tricks and others that quote past BIT.TRIPs. It requires great focus and the will to put up with temporary failure, but successfully dancing through intricate strings of jumps, slides, impossible slide-jumps through narrow passages and between enemies, punches and grind rails yields great satisfaction.
One of the larger issues with the original outing was its uneven difficulty curve, now smoothed out to prevent more casual players from hitting an impenetrable wall while giving the Usain Bolt’s of the gaming world all the challenge they could want by including three difficulty levels to tune the game to your wavelength. In addition, stages have multiple paths of varying challenge, alternate exits to pursue and treasures to snag that allow you to further fine-tune that sweet spot. Around halfway through each stage is a checkpoint in case you kick the bucket, which you can jump over to reject for a score incentive. The choice is largely yours, which is a far better approach than frequently slamming against unforgiving walls.
No matter how easy or challenging a path you choose, death is inevitable yet painless as your character is snapped right back to the nearest checkpoint. Be it the beginning of a stage or its halfway point, instantly resuming goes a long way in keeping frustration at bay and facilitating an addictive “one more go” mentality. The tight controls provide a transparency between your own performance and the events on-screen so that where to assign blame is never opaque, spurring you to continue pushing to do better next time. And make no mistake: there will be a next time. With secret characters and costumes to unlock (a pink track suit a la Punch-Out!! being our favorite surprise), hidden retro stages, tons of gold to collect, targets to bullseye and subtle encouragement to best your online friends’ high scores, it’s clear that RUNNER2 has a lot of ground to cover.
The BIT.TRIP games have a surprisingly deep underlying narrative if you're willing to dig a little, so hardcore fans may be a bit disappointed to find that RUNNER2 is a side-story taking place between fourth title RUNNER and fifth title FATE, and thus somewhat inconsequential to the overall story. Picking up with CommanderVideo and his indie game compadres traveling through space, our lead is shot with a Reality Un-Fusion Beam and transported to another dimension. Really, though, it’s a setup for Gaijin’s artists to break free of their blocky 8-bit prison and go absolutely crazy with what seems to be a European/John Kricfalusi-influenced style. The difference is remarkable, going from a neat but restrained blocky diorama to a world bursting with life and a newfound sense of slapstick humor. From smacking in to walls to a dedicated dance button, campy narration and unlockables like playable pickle Uncle Dill or the Inverse Merman, RUNNER2's tone breaks away from the otherwise serious series to raise a few chuckles. Character animation is lively and chipper, and the background is teeming with so many interesting things to see that sometimes you wish the game would just play itself so you can watch. Which is, occasionally, annoying: Obstacles have a nasty habit of blending in with the often busy background a little too often, seldom enough to kill your momentum for very long but with enough frequency to register as irksome.
Save off-screen play on the GamePad, there isn’t really anything special about the Wii U version — not even touchscreen navigation in menus, even though their design is chunky to the point of practically begging to be poked. Given the series’ heritage the game definitely feels at home on a Nintendo platform — even more so considering Mario’s voice actor, all-around nice guy Charles Martinet, narrates — but you'll get the same core game here as anywhere else.
Both love letter to the purist gameplay ideals of yesteryear and free-spirited embrace into what the future may yet hold, RUNNER2 is the rare breed that wants to grab you by the hand and lead you on an earnest, cheerful adventure. This is a tightly constructed, demanding yet addictive title that is chock full of clever ideas and never loses sight of what makes games fun — even if the enthusiastic visuals obstruct from time to time. Smoothing out the difficulty curve goes a long way to open the game up for those who threw their hands in the air out of frustration at previous titles, accomplished even more impressively without dumbing down the higher end of the skill tree. With challenge as big as its heart, RUNNER2 is easily one of the best games on the Wii U eShop.