Gaijin Games drop the 8-bit style for HD pizazz in Bit.Trip Presents…RUNNER 2 Future Legend of Rhythm Alien. Should they have stuck to their roots for the rhythm platformer sequel, or is this modern approach a new beginning for the Bit.Trip studio?
Just how many ways can you run from left to right? What is it about that so simplest of goals that has kept it in the gaming consciousness since, well, forever? Mario and Sonic have been doing it for years, and when one of them tried to go all 3D on us they stumbled into a pit so deep they’ve only just managed to start clawing out of it again. Perhaps, for some, it just works. More importantly, though, you can build upon it in so many ways: Braid added puzzles, Contra added dudes to shoot, and Canabalt just decided it didn’t want end.
Bit.Trip Presents… RUNNER 2 Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (from now on to be referred to as Runner 2 because I’m no longer writing essays and don’t need to pad the word count) makes an affection nod to the core idea again, but also manages to go in its own direction to further build upon the mix of rhythm game and platformer it established itself as in the punishing original.
Rather than an old 8-bit game from the Commodore era, this time Commander Video’s marathon of leaps and bounds is framed as a Saturday morning cartoon, complete with TV adverts for bizarre products and a dramatic narrator – performed with some style by Charles Martinet. The game’s five worlds are distinct and gorgeous, from the heavenly platforms of The Welkin Wonderland to the greenery of The Supernature, each with their own musical variation to sprint to.
A piece begins quietly and minimalist, but builds as you progress and collect “mode up” power ups dotted throughout until a complete backing track plays alongside your platforming. You’re perpetually moving forward, so all you have to concentrate on is dealing with whatever stands in your path. There are little critters you have to jump over, hovering ones to slide under, barricades to kick through, flying bricks to block, wire beams to skate across and more. All of which are slowly introduced across levels, smartly mixed about every now and then or subtly reworked in end of stage boss battles to keep things varied.
Run Boy Run
Each of your moves to bypass them has its own associated sound effect, which plays along with the background music: the jump a tinny beep, the slide a short string of boops and the loop the loop a series of snare hits or cymbal crashes, for example. It’s much like Rock Band or Guitar Hero in that regard, but where those two series are about recreating as realistic a musical performance as you possibly can with clackey plastic drum pads and multi-coloured frets, Runner 2 turns to gaming iconography for its instruments.
Each button press for a jump, slide or kick throws in another note of your composition; each crash or fall echoing the twang of a missed one. As such, making your way through a level feels more like you’re sprinting along a piece of sheet music viewed through virtual reality goggles in the year 3000, writing a chirpy chiptune piece as you go, instead of simply avoiding obstacles. The plinky-plonky beats get you tapping your feet and nodding along to the rhythm, which makes weaving your way through a particularly difficult set of obstructions all the more grin-inducing when you finish a complex refrain without error.
Having said that, Runner 2 is rarely difficult – mainly because it’s far more forgiving than the first. A single mistake in the original was often more infuriating than it should be, given that some stages were so long you could pull off an elongated shriek of “no!” to rival Darth Vader as you helplessly watched Commander Video hurled back to the start. Checkpoints have been added to prevent such controller crushing instances, although, gutsy runners can avoid them for huge bonus points too.
Outside of aiming for high scores there are lots of treasures to collect in the form of new characters and costumes, including a pickle and a sprinter with a cheeseburger for a head (I’m not making this up). Retro-styled bonus levels are also hidden throughout stages and are much like the ones in Super Meat Boy (who you’ll also spot in the game’s opening). With painfully large hitboxes, limited lives and the other niggles perfectly replicated from that era of games they turn out to be Runner 2’s greatest challenges.
But the main reason you’ll stick with Runner 2 is how it can make you feel like the world’s greatest conductor with a controller. It’s a mash up of the music rhythm game and the platformer that takes some of the fascinating ideas presented in the original and develops them into a characterful and fully-formed sequel. It’s that difficult second album, but Gaijin have pulled off to perfection. Or, to stretch the musical analogy to breaking point, it’s the work of a maestro.
Bit.Trip Presents…RUNNER 2 Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, by Aksys Games and Gaijin Games, is available now on PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii U.