Tuesday, 12 February 2013

MODERN RETRO CLASSICS - Bit.Trip Runner (PC, Wii, 3DS)

Gotta Keep Running

Now that the hotly anticipated sequel is almost upon us (less than 2 weeks away apparently), I thought it high time I paid tribute to Commander Video's first on-foot adventure, Bit.Trip Runner. A rhythm based platformer that combines great visuals and a catchy chiptune soundtrack  with some of the most hair-pullingly difficult, yet addictive gameplay around. It is a game that epitomises the tag of 'modern retro' game, and a title that easily deserves classic status.

Bit.Trip Runner is the fourth of six Bit.Trip games and is, in my opinion, by far the best of the series. The fact that it is getting a fully fledged sequel would indicate that I am not alone in feeling this way. While the other titles offered some fun, rhythm based arcade action, they never really gripped me as Runner did. Essentially a 2D infinite runner, much like Canabalt or Temple Run, the game puts you in the speedy shoes of a strange spaceman named Commander Video. He is clearly in a hurry since as soon as you start a stage he begins to run right. Your task is to make him jump over, slide under, kick, deflect and avoid all pitfalls, projectiles and other gubbins that comes your way on route to the finish line. No mean feat considering the treacherous landscape he has to navigate. Hitting anything is an automatic fail which sees you zipped back to the start for another attempt, making Runner as much a memory exercise as a test of your reflexes. This is a twitch platformer that will require the hand to eye coordination of a ninja on amphetamines.

The graphics are glorious. Bright, colourful and simply oozing charm. It's a dazzling example of a retro look modernised to great effect. The backgrounds are teeming with life, from swaying trees and bouncing creatures, to windmills and huge machines, they make the levels seemingly burst from the screen. The amount of animated goings-on in the background can lead to some visual confusion at times, but I believe this is intentional, added to increase the already substantial challenge. This is made even more evident by the contrast with the amazing bonus stages which resemble an Atari 2600 game, right down to the blurry CRT TV screen. Due to the simplistic visuals of these stages, with no parallax scrolling or animated background, they are easier on the eye and thus simpler to play (though still extremely challenging).

The music of Bit.Trip Runner is as important to the experience as the striking visuals. Chiptune band Anamanaguchi are on duty to provide the soundtrack, a collection of insanely catchy melodies guaranteed to stick in your head for months to come. The music is in sync with your running avatar, with each collected piece of gold, or cleared obstacle, producing a chime in time with the music. Special red cross items can be collected that add layers to the music; new synths, chords, percussion and effects are added with every cross collected, building up to a full and lively song (complete with rainbow trails appearing from your character as he runs).

The gameplay is what really shines as it is just so damn addictive and challenging that it will keep you glued to the screen for a long time. The first world eases you in gently, introducing new abilities and obstacles as you progress, but after that the gloves are off, and it is no more Mr. Nice Guy. Indeed, the difficulty level can be infuriatingly high but you always make progress with practice. Upon collision with an obstacle the stage restarts almost instantly, throwing you straight back into the action  (much like Super Meat Boy) and allowing you little time to get irritated. It is tremendously satisfying when you finally nail a level that has been giving you shit for the last 30 minutes, even more so if you manage to nab every gold piece and get transported to the wonderful Atari 2600 bonus stage I mentioned previously. Each of the three worlds conclude with a boss battle that will really put your skills to the test. Believe me when I say these encounters will hand you your ass repeatedly before you manage to memorise and master the patterns required to emerge victorious. Bit.Trip Runner's difficulty may be far too intense for many gamers, and the lack of any checkpoints during stages may drive many of you insane, but if you are up for a challenge then it will provide you some of the most enjoyable and rewarding back-to-basics platforming action you can find.

Here's hoping that the sequel, entitled 'Runner 2 : Future Legend of Rhythm Alien', will be able to capture the same magic contained here, and even improve upon it. From what I have seen so far it is looking to do just that. In the meantime I will continue to enjoy Commander Video's first foray into platforming, as I have done since the day I got my hands on it in WiiWare form back in 2010. If you haven't discovered the magic yet then I urge you to seek it out as it is truly a timeless classic.

Bit.Trip Runner is available on PC, Mac and WiiWare as a digital download, or as a retail package on the Nintendo Wii and 3DS (named Bit.Trip Complete and Bit.Trip Saga respectively).

The Good

  • Fantastic retro meets modern visual style
  • Catchy chiptune soundtrack that is nicely linked to the gameplay
  • Simple, yet highly addictive gameplay
  • Challenging and rewarding
  • Excellent Atari 2600 style bonus stages

The Bad

  • Later levels are ridiculously hard
  • Can sometimes be visually confusing

Developer : Gaijin Games
Availability : PC, Mac, Wii, 3DS
Price : £6.99 download. Wii and 3DS Retail version (Bit.Trip Complete / Bit.Trip Saga)