I first discovered the Bit.trip series, often stylishly written BIT.TRIP, through its main character Commander Video, but not in one of his game. He was indeed a guest-star in another game called Super Meat Boy (of which I intend to write an article as well, in a distant future) and this is where I found him, in a secret warp zone, as an unlockable character. This simplistic black-and-white character and his multicolored cape intrigued me, so I decided to do some research about him and his original game. Surprisingly I discovered that he was in more than one game. In fact, BIT.TRIP was currently composed of six games. I wondered for a little bit how such a franchise was absolutely unknown to me. I easily accept to miss one game, among the multitude, but a whole franchise composed of six games? That was weird. So there I was, trying to select which one of the six episodes would be my introduction to the franchise, but a friend chose for me instead and gifted me RUNNER. Today I honestly say ‘thank you’ to her, for I became addicted to this little Commander. Here’s why.
Talking about BIT.TRIP RUNNER, and BIT.TRIP series in general is kind of narrowing. The whole franchise is so unique that any text or article trying to describe it is far from giving any decent tribute to this weird trip. It is typically the kind of games that must be directly played in order to immerse yourself, and not simply watched. The visual experience which is received, along with the astounding sound environment is not complete without you behind the controllers (or the keyboard) trying so hard to make Commander Video run freely. Unfortunately, I did not play the other BIT.TRIP games yet, so I do not have a full view on this franchise (but be assured, I intend to play the other games as soon as possible). Therefore this text will deal with RUNNER as a unique game that is not embedded into the BIT.TRIP series. If I’m not mistaken, it is not necessary to play the other BIT.TRIP games in order to appreciate RUNNER, as they are all distinct, even though they are fundamentally based on a simple genre, which is the rhythm-based game.
Back to the Past
The very first time I played BIT.TRIP RUNNER (which I will simply call RUNNER for the rest of the article) I was amazingly surprised, to the point of doing almost the whole first zone in a single segment. I couldn’t simply quit the game. The experience was so unique and refreshing that it was impossible not to continue and discover what was after every new level. Technically speaking, the game is described by its editor Gaijin Games as an arcade-style rhythm-based platformer. Such a long description for RUNNER. Fear not, however, for the game is actually extraordinarily simple: you interact with Commander Video, a simplistic black-and-white character who automatically runs from left to right in a flat 3D world which looks like a 2D traditional side-scroller. I would not say that you control this enigmatic little guy, as there is no way you can modify his speed or stop him, unless you hit something. Your goal is to help him reach the finish line, without hitting anything on the way. And that’s it! RUNNER is about running. To help Commander Video avoid obstacles, you can make him slide under things, jump to the sky, kick right in the face or shield himself. Now, those abilities are not only efficient, but they are mandatory, since RUNNER is about running without hitting anything. And by anything, I mean literally anything: enemies, surrounding environment, projectiles, holes in the ground, piled boxes, flying fireballs, etc. As soon as Commander Video hits something, the whole level rewinds back to the very beginning and you have to try again. Now you may wonder why I repeat so often the idea of avoiding any hit. Simply because it is the whole purpose of the game, and it is absolutely tremendous, yet extremely challenging and frustrating.
First, the tremendous part. Seeing Commander Video run and dodge and jump and kick thanks to your actions is somewhat thrilling and addicting. Little by little, you learn the full movement sets that will help you reaching the finish line. As said before, you have 4 moves which are jumping, springing, sliding and kicking. Nothing more, nothing less. As Commander automatically runs in straight line, you just have to concentrate on the upcoming obstacles that he may encounter. It’s up to you to make the well-timed move, otherwise the run abruptly stops and you are brought back to the beginning. There is no exception and no mercy: every level has to be completed in one brilliant attempt, from the starting point to the finish line. Bosses are slightly different in the form, but if you are hit, you also have to restart the battle.
Seeing Commander run and move in rhythm with the music is wonderful. Although you cannot completely control him, that is to say you will never be able to make him run slower or faster, he perfectly obeys to all your commands. The jump-and-dodge sequences, when perfectly executed, bring a feeling of satisfactory which is enhanced by the cosmic music following you. The timings are precise, and not deceiving. The gameplay is clean: it is only your fault if Commander stopped running. You made him hit that meteor ball or fall into this hole in the ground. There is no way you can blame the game as it is technically flawless. No glitch whatsoever. To be honest, the hit box collision is tough and tight, especially with some elements such as the series of jumping little red and blue balls, but you are definitely responsible for every failure. RUNNER puts the player in front of his own responsibility.
Next is the challenging and frustrating part. Although the first levels are easy and make you smile as you discover the strange combination of automatic side-scroller, evolving rhythm-based chiptune music and psychedelic environment, the game becomes harder and is rapidly synonym of retro-gaming, back in a period where nobody took your hand and helped you completing games. Here, missteps are just not permitted. I personally enjoy difficulty and challenge and don’t mind them in a game (on the contrary I expect to find them) but I understand people complaining about the back-to-the-beginning thing in RUNNER. I often found myself grinding my teeth a little bit sometimes, in some of the last levels of the third zone, where any level lasts more than 3 minutes each. Going back to the starting point because of a bad reflex or a miscalculated jump is punitive, and there is no way you can avoid this severe sentence unless you violently decide to ragequit the game. The length of the last levels may be a negative point: if it’s ok to start again after only 15 seconds into the level, it is not the same than going back after more than 3 minutes of effort and concentration. In those very advanced levels, you may encounter one sequence particularly difficult; unfortunately it is impossible for you to practice on this sequence unless you reach it from the very beginning. And if you miss them, you have to start over and over. The progression by failure is inherent to RUNNER, and reminds of the classic games such as Ghost and Goblins, where one sequence could block you forever, until you can’t deal with it anymore.
A weird trip, if you ask me!
Visually speaking, RUNNER is both unique and gradually disappointing. The first world is absolutely gorgeous. Commander Video lands on an alien planet, with what seems to be Earth in the background, big rotating thing. There are also some sorts of satellites, fling saucers and technological devices. Sometimes satellite receivers are struck by bolt of lightnings. Commander Video slides under giant black worms and kicks purple crystal blocks. The setting is very SF-oriented, and reinforces the feeling that the character is definitely from another planet. I mean, look at him: Commander is a black pixelized human being, very compact, except for his legs and arms. Instead of having a face, he displays a white window on the top of his body. Eventually he reminded me of ATARI 2600 games: his running animation is simple, almost unfinished. I am pretty sure they could have made it smoother, but it is part of the retro-classic atmosphere.
The second zone is even better, in my opinion. In lieu of the SF-oriented universe, we have now a totally unexpected countryside environment, full of colors. The feeling of surprise is overwhelming: here and there, you can see giant fishes jumping out of the river, STOP signs, dancing trees wearing glasses or meteor fireball. The music is catchy and surreal. It is probably my favorite zone out of the three available, for it is unique, bright and delightful. In fact, BIT.TRIP RUNNER is extremely refreshing in its graphical orientation. The mix between 2D side-scroller and 3D background, which looks like retro-arcade polished graphics, is stunning at first glance and rather surprising. Because of the scrolling and the constant concentration required in order to complete each level, the background may be skipped. At first, I did not pay attention to what was going on behind. Then, as I was more comfortable with the game, I took the time to observe and realized all the little things that were around. The colors of the second zone lean towards a mixture of orange and green which reminds of a sunset over the campaign. Nevertheless, the latter is little by little urbanized, as Commander slides under bridge and road works. This brings modernity into the game, introducing the third and last zone.
To be honest, I disliked the whole last zone a little. The environment is less original and more conventional. Commander runs through a modern city: the background is made of buildings and metallic structures. I guess that the enormous amount of projectiles and actions which are in every level justifies somehow the neutral environment, in order to keep some visibility. The levels become longer and harder, to the point where completing only one is a matter of perseverance. No wonder why the last zone is called Triumph. Nevertheless, I was quite disappointed by the end of RUNNER. While the 2 first bosses are great, stressful and challenging, the last one is underwhelming and fade. On the other hand, I understand that it may be difficult to end properly a weird trip like this one. Plus, the game is part of the BIT.TRIP series, which means that every ending is not a true ending per se, but rather the epilogue of the episode, as one waits for the next installment in the BIT.TRIP universe.
I talked a little about the music. Like the universe and the gameplay, it is very retro-oriented. The chiptune aspect is either awesome or terrible, whether you appreciate this kind of 8-bit tune. Nevertheless, the evolution of the rhythm according to the little plus symbols you harvest through the level is excellent, there is no debate about it. The music, in the beginning of each level, is simple and basic. As you jump and run, you will find 3 power-ups (starting with HYPER, and then MEGA, SUPER, ULTRA, EXTRA) which will enhance the rhythm and add more depth to the sound effects. It will also increase the multiplier score, although the latter is very negligible, unless you want to perfectly and meticulously complete the game. Last but not least, every power-ups builds little by little Commander’s multicolored cape, until its completion. At this point, the game is amazingly breathtaking, as you see Commander running with a rainbow trail behind him and the music is surreal, almost emotional. Ultimately, you are not forced to enhance the music if you like a particular state. You may as well skip one power-up and keep the music in SUPER mode for example, if you prefer this tune. If you misstep and go back to the beginning, the abrupt music downgrade is harsh, but it gives you a motif to go further and reach the highest level again, which is EXTRA.
I like gold!
I already talked about the difficulty of the game which is not insane, but definitely challenging and not friendly. To add some replay value, RUNNER has 3 levels of difficulty, based on a simple principle which is common to most side-scroller: collect all the things! In RUNNER, the collectibles are gold bars and is the replay value guarantee. In easy mode, they are not implemented. All you have to do is complete the levels. In normal mode, gold bars are optional. Upon collecting all the bricks in the level, you have a bonus stage in ATARI 2600 style, where you have to collect even more gold. Finally, in perfect difficulty, the level is immediately failed if you miss any gold, whether through normal and bonus levels. However, while you have unlimited attempts to complete normal levels, bonus one only allow you to try once. If you want to do it again, you have to go through the normal level before. If it is easy in the first zone, the last normal levels of zone 3 are really hard to do perfectly at every attempt. No need to say that RUNNER relies on this ultimate challenge to last a bit longer. Depending on your degree of perfectionism, the game can last a while.
Verdict: Love it or Hate it. Play it from time to time.
Overall, BIT.TRIP RUNNER was a huge surprise for me. I saw some trailers and wondered what it could possibly be. I enjoyed playing the majority of the game. Everything was so refreshing, whether it was the jump-and-dodge gameplay, the rhythm, the catchy chiptune music. I only regret the ending, which was very underwhelming. I expected more for the end, especially after a second zone so entertaining and original. The challenge is decent, at least for me, and I was satisfied upon completing every new level which was harder, longer, better. I understand nevertheless that RUNNER, and BIT.TRIP in general I think (even though I haven’t played the other episodes yet) is a very special game which may seem boring or uninteresting for some people. The difficulty is clearly an obstacle for most of the people nowadays, accustomed to hand-holding games. The retro-oriented graphics is also a determining factor. As for me, I clearly loved this game and intend to play the other episodes of the BIT.TRIP series.
Developed by: Gaijin Games
Published by: Aksys Games