Bit.Trip Runner instantly brought back flashbacks of NES-era simplicity, a steep learning curve and a true sense of accomplishment. In a culture where it is common to hear “bigger equals better”, it is nice to see that a small team like Gaijin Games and their Bit.Trip series can co-exist.
The premise for the gameplay in Bit.Trip Runner will be instantly familiar to anyone who has come into contact with the Mario or Sonic series and is also used to those games’ type of aesthetic. You take control of Commander Video, using his abilities to jump, kick, slide, and block any of the obstacles that get in your way while running to the finish line. While the object of the game is to simply get to the end of a level, there is also an emphasis placed on collecting gold and score multipliers.
While playing constantly in the background, the soundtrack to Bit.Trip Runner can be manipulated once you learn new moves and continue to collect score multipliers. Initially all you can do is jump, and the remaining buttons will just output simple keyboard strokes. However, once you use moves correctly, unlock the remaining move set, and obtain said multipliers, you seem to have a control over what you are hearing. This complement of audio manipulation seems to counter the sense of control Gaijin Games wants that you to assume you have.
A major difference between the aforementioned 2D platformers and Bit.Trip Runner is the way that the world is navigated. Normal platformers usually distribute a set move list, allowing for a type of controlled freedom, in order to accomplish your goal of reaching the end of a level, but in Bit.Trip Runner, the level runs at you, forcing you to conform to their definition of the right way to play the game. Of course, you can finish a level without getting all the gold and the multipliers but there are consequences for those actions. If you truly want to see the whole game and the developers intentions ,you will have to memorize the world coming at you, using trial and error, in order to reveal the full soundtrack as they intended it to be heard and also unlocking levels of the game that could easily go unseen.
There are a total of three areas, each with eleven levels, including a boss at the end. Each of these levels, if completed as intended, will unlock a special retro level. The way that you unlock these levels is by collecting all the gold in the current level, thus conforming to the developers view of the soundtrack output as well as when and how to use your set move list. The unlocked levels are another form of nostalgic reference that you either will recognize or not, but curiously there is an absence of music in these areas. The 8-bit techno romp in previous levels has been stripped with by simplifying to basic sound effects. Each of these levels includes gold to add to your overall score, but they also include a new sense of accomplishment, which adds to the difficulty of the game.
Make no mistake; Bit.Trip Runner will give you moments of pure, swear inducing frustration. These moments reminded me of the first time that I picked up Guitar Hero and attempted to get a perfect score. When reaching the close of a song, your heart starts to flutter in anticipation of obtaining that perfection or because you know that you will screw it up somehow. Bit.Trip Runner has the same type of feel because each of the obstacles in your way represents a key stroke on that guitar that needs the correct input in order to complete the level/song correctly. Guitar Hero, on the other hand, is a lot more forgiving when you can’t complete the song. When Commander Video runs into an obstacle and doesn’t complete the level correctly, he is sent back to the beginning. There are no checkpoints and no concessions. You either complete the song or you start over. The retro levels are even more challenging because they won’t even let you start over; you just get booted out of the level, meaning that you have to perfect the previous level in order to have a chance at it again.
We never get a reason that seems to explain why exactly Commander Video is running to begin with. Other games in the same vein, such as Mario, didn’t have such controlled outcomes as Bit.Trip Runner or such ambiguous reasons for going to the next castle. A damsel was in distress, and it is our ability to navigate Mario through the levels that determines if she will ever be free again. Commander Video’s only goal seems to be collecting gold and our reward isn’t a princess at the end but a retro level devoid of some of the emotional tension/exhilaration that the audio brought us. The world is coming after us constantly, in some way or another, and without the ability to learn and adapt, we won’t be able to accomplish our goals. At the end of the game, Video finds his reason to stop running and it isn’t for anything he can hold or touch. The journey comes to an end because he has found his “princess”, something money (gold) can’t buy.
It has been a long time since a game has taken control of and destroyed my internal clock, leaving me in total shock once I actually get around to checking the time, but Bit.Trip Runner had that type of control over me. Yes, it is frustrating but that never seems to be because of the game. Once you understand the mechanics that you have at your disposal, it is up to you to see it through to the end, and there isn’t much more satisfaction that can be obtained than completing that perfect run and getting that perfect score.