Unless you’ve had experience of the BIT.TRIP games previously, you’d be forgiven for thinking Runner3 is a platform game; Commander Video and his pink lady friend counterpart both jump, kick and slide their way through obstacle-laden courses. So on the surface it looks that way and through a certain pick up in occasional levels, this certainly becomes an aspect of the game. However, BIT.TRIP Runner3 is a rhythm game and it should be treated that way. You can’t choose in which direction to run and aside from a pressing ‘L’ or ‘R’ to choose alternate paths while running, so there’s no freedom in movement.
While Commander Video runs on his own, each action, must be timed to an internal metronome or guided by the soundtrack which supplants effects into the arrangement as you collect stacks of gold or slide under an obstacle. Once you realise that your button presses are, in essence, adding something to the track, the game clicks into place. Think of it as hitting notes in the plastic guitar age of gaming – however, instead of strumming on beats, you’re jumping over an enemy or kicking through a door. Frustratingly, not all actions give a form of feedback be it via vibration or sound, which can cause setbacks in progression and at times, you’ll find yourself wondering if your fingers moved too slowly or if the hit boxes are wonky. When the anger subsides though, you’ll know where you went wrong. You’ll fall into a routine or a pattern.
Commander Video will take off from the start line in the first level and signposts let you know how to jump and even when. As the stages progress, more moves are added to your arsenal and it’s not long before you’re sliding underneath blocks or fence posts, kicking obstacles and even double-jumping to achieve more height or distance. There’s a handy checkpoint in the middle of each level which helps when button juggling becomes harder, but if you ignore it you’ll be rewarded. Collecting gold unlocks future levels - which happen to be ultra-hard challenges - and allows personalisation of the protagonist through new skins, accessories and other cosmetic features. Once a level has been cleared a second route opens up for additional playthroughs which allow for gems to be collected, these act as a secondary currency for rarer items.
The gem routes also offer a higher level of difficulty, forcing quicker reactions or narrower windows in which to land the right action and taking these routes often lead to other collectibles, one of which is a VHS cassette that unlocks a set of sub-levels called Retro Levels. It’s within these that Runner3 actually does become a platformer. Now you’re given a branch into a new area and within each level is a short platforming based experience that utilises the same actions, but within a new challenge. The idea here, is to collect five coins spread throughout the levels, which further unlock stages ending in a boss fight.
These add a little variety to the journey, but are quite clunky compared to the majority of the game. Where the usual levels rely on fluidity of movement and reaction, these Retro levels expand the parameters and require you to use precision of placement using a control scheme that often has a little too much leeway, causing more stumbles and falls than memorable moments. While this may not hinder progression – missing the odd coin is no issue unless your goal is to collect everything in sight – it does make these boss fights more awkward than they need to be. An example of this is seen early on, in the first collection of Retro stages. The boss moves through the levels on rails and at a steady pace, meaning one slip up and you’re caught and it’s back to the start. When the movement lacks the precision needed, it’s easy to feel hampered by the game, rather than your own skill.
These diversions are just that; diversions. The crux of the game, which follows a wonderfully surreal and convoluted story narrated by Charles Martinet (the voice of Mario) follows a simple blueprint. If you’re here for the ride, you can forget about some gold and the gems and just reach the end of the game. This will still hold some challenge as later levels are Switch snappingly tough, but if you like some masochistic gameplay, you can set the bar higher and attempt to hit full completion. It must be said, that the game features some great scenery and a collection of enemies that seem to have spilled from the brain of Salvador Dali. Each world has an overriding theme which grows more preposterous as you progress and the developers do a great job of keeping you rewarded for experimenting or exploring – unlocking cameo characters is a huge joy.
Runner3 is an ideal game for the ‘one more go’ flavour of gameplay suited to Nintendo Switch, playing well in handheld, though even better on the TV. The larger screen feels as if it offers a little more preparation time for reactions, plus it shows off the vibrancy of the visuals to higher effect. From the basic premise to the bonkers design of environments, this instalment brings a great deal of fun, but also challenge and does so with a bombastic soundtrack and plenty of quirky humour.
Runner3 is wonderfully creative and funny, relying on a style of play that belies the challenge at its heart. A few moments of unbalanced control or obstacle design can frustrate, but this will pass when Commander Video finally nails a sequence of movements and makes you feel like a fast-fingered expert.