The music rhythm games of your childhood are bland plastic monstrosities, they ask you to punch plastic keys on a plastic guitar so a plastic representation of an aged rockstar can dance in time to decades old music. Its no wonder this crowd has contracted and now relies on a steady stream of simple DLC packs to keep them afloat. Can our pattern games be fun, engaging, and uplifting while still requiring a bit of skill? Gaijin Games has, for the last 4 years, replied with a firm and confident "Yes".
What started as a 3 man development team in Santa Cruz, California has since created an anthology of psychedelic 8-bit themed pattern games. Each episode in their saga features a spry hero named Commander Video overcoming half a dozen very different trials. Bit.Trip as it's called is a series of video games on the Wii, PC, Mac and Linux that feature bullet-hell shooters, an on-rails shooter, and a Pong clone. Their most popular title Bit.Trip Runner is a timed platformer with forced progression.
Based on an addicting mechanic made popular in mobile and web-based games Bit.Trip Runner had players guide a continually and steadily moving hero across a side-scrolling 3D terrain. As obstacles popped up you'd have to time jumps, kicks, leaps, crouches and slide-kicks in a complex pattern to keep your runner on track. While at first this sounds simple later levels would become maddeningly difficult involving quick switches between opposing styles. It seemed as though the developers always knew how best to annoy players by dangling a figurative cherry at the end of a pole just after a huge chasm. Your mind would often play tricks on you while running to the point that players could frequently get enraged with the little pixelated protagonist.
With the anthology concluded Gaijin Games went to work on their next project, a sequel to their runner game entitled Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien. Commander Video would leave the 8-bit worlds and step into a beautifully rendered 3D environment. To add another level of complexity his new adventure would be simultaneously released on all major platforms.
Hopped On Pop
You might be fortunate enough to see me grunting obscenities and grimacing at my laptop screen. After the events of Bit.Trip Runner Mingrawn Timbletot has transported Commander Video to a new dimension hidden somewhere in our electromagnetic spectrum. Even in this new world Bit.Trip Runner's addicting gameplay is still a staple of Runner 2. If you can believe it Gaijin managed to make the new obstacles even more maddening while now appealing to the casual gamer crowd. You'll guide Commander Video along with his new pals CommandGirl Video, Unkle Dill, Reverse Merman, Whetfart Cheeseborgar, and others across the vastly varied terrain of 120 stages on 5 different themed worlds. You'll be able to play as both Commander and CommanderGirl Video from the outset and the other characters you'll discover on bonus levels in each world. There's hidden stages, unlockable paths and alternate exits hidden in each world.
In Runner if you hit an obstacle or missed a jump you'd be thrown back to the beginning of the level - when this happened for me you might be fortunate enough to see me grunting obscenities and grimacing at my laptop screen. Runner 2 adds checkpoints halfway through each level that when tripped will lock in your progress, re-spawn location, and score at that location. If you're unfortunate enough to fail afterwards you'll then be returned to the checkpoint instead of the beginning of the level. This makes playing Runner 2 much more forgiving than its predecessor but for the true masochist you can bypass these checkpoints by simply jumping over them.
As you run through each level you'll rack up points for collecting gold bars, dodging dangerous items, passing up checkpoints, and blocking cubes. Occasionally there are divergent paths which offer increased difficulty and as such will reward the player with a greater point total. Combine these dynamics with the optional checkpoints and the pursuit of perfection becomes all the more tantalizing. In order to score the most points you'll have to not only survive the levels but choose the most difficult path and grab every single collectable. At first what is a mildly challenging game becomes much more difficult as you try to get the highest score. Did I mention high-scores are shared over the networks and are displayed prominently at the end of each level? it can get pretty competitive. There is a perfect path though so expect to see the top spots grabbed quickly.
If you're a fan of the Bit.Trip series' 8-bit aesthetics you might be a little turned off at first when presented with the new pristine world that Gaijin crafted for Runner 2. But why waste time dwelling on the past? Yes the Bit.Trip games had a good retro feel but who's to say that Commander Video's adventures should always be low-res? The look and feel of this new title is gooey, colorful and heartwarming. As you trot through The Welkin Wonderland or Emerald Brine each location has its own unique look and enemies. It really is a treat to see each and every detail in Runner 2 even as you're sprinting along at breakneck speeds.
Due to the parallax effect I was able to enjoy the calming backgrounds with giant anthropomorphic mountains & clouds even while foreground elements were whizzing past me. Each new location brought an entirely different environment ranging from pillars and platforms to docks, forests, and lava-flows.
Gaijin's entire fanbase was perfectly happy with the low-res world of the Bit.Trip series so they took a huge risk adopting such a different visual style. Negativity aside the design is amazing and one has to commend them for attempting something new while knowing fans would question their choices. I can barely put into words how happy I am to see Unkle Dill & Commander Video flailing their arms as they rocket back to a checkpoint or when I see Reverse Merman's manhood bouncing around as he clears the various hurdles. Gaijin created a world that although not entirely original they can still call their own. This is the first time Commander Video has ventured here and I can't wait to see what else they turn out with this new visual direction.
The Songs I Saunter To
My salvation in the form of an uplifting soundtrack that kept my energy up and drove me to complete each level. Getting knocked down is tough and getting up to find yourself back where you started is even worse. But there! On the Horizon, a glimmer of hope! My salvation in the form of an uplifting soundtrack that kept my energy up and drove me to complete each level. Music in the Runner games has always been happy-go-lucky, now the game actually matches the colorful and bright world that the music seems born out of.
Runner 2 brought on two new electronic groups to compose the dynamic songs for the soundtrack. Both Petrified Productions and Disasterpeace (FEZ, Puzzle Agent, Shoot Many Robots) provided tracks for individual levels. Each level has layers of music that become more complicated depending on which "plus" signs a player collects on his or her run-through, if you miss these the music will stay simple and low-energy. As you collect gold, jump, smack or dodge items notes will play adding complexity to the background music. My only complaint is that due to the music syncing with the environment when I re-spawned the music skipped a beat and restarted at a much lower energy as if it hit a wall. If you think about the repercussions of failing it's really quite apt but still jarring.
The energy of each dynamic song resonates in my ears and through my fingers warming my heart. Gaijin went out on a limb bringing Commander Video and pals to this brave new world. Crafting new 3D looks, characters and elements while pacing it with a soundtrack created by new team members is a testament to their vision and planning. I didn't encounter a single bug in my playthrough, the game did however tax my 2 year-old MacBook Pro pretty severely. On My PC I was able to play equally well on the keyboard and an Xbox 360 controller. Gaijin says the game was meant to use with a controller but assigning a finger to a particular task is easier on a keyboard in my opinion. Playing Runner 2 makes me smile as Unkle Dill does his best impression of a Silly Walk. The energy of each dynamic song resonates in my ears and through my fingers warming my heart. Well worth the time & money.