US: Mar 2009
Music games are continuing to come out of the indie scene because of their relatively simple execution. Much like a garage band relying on basic equipment to record their music, this slowly growing genre does not rely on advanced graphics or complex game design. Everyday Shooter is a Robotron variation. Rez is a rail shooter. Instead all you need is a musician and a Herculean attention to detail to organize thousands of randomly generated noises into something remotely coherent. Bit.Trip Beat accomplishes this task by relying on a clever variation of Pong while still succumbing to the same problems other music games suffer from.
The game consists of bouncing pixels launched at you. Bounce enough pixels and you move up a layer of music. Missing pixels will result in your bar depleting and eventually being pulled down a layer. The bottom layer, ‘Nether’, is black & white and has almost no sound. The next layer has a basic beat and the pixels when bounced produce very simple notes. Move up to the topmost layer and the song again becomes more complex and the notes more rich when hit. The visuals reflect this as well by relying on distortion to increase the difficulty at the higher layer so that seeing the pixels becomes more difficult depending on where you are in the music.
The dots themselves will move differently depending on both color and the way that the level has introduced you to them. The first few waves will consist of a learning phase where most of the dots are very slow and the player is introduced to that particular level’s mechanics. Once you progress far enough, though, the game ramps it up a notch and starts throwing them at you more quickly. In this way, each song is its own independent level. Learning a level is somewhat similar to learning to play a song via an instrument. The spinning row of dots has to be attempted a few times before you learn just how to hit all the notes. Dots typically sound in a repeating scale, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, then repeat. Certain dots will have sounds outside this scale or their own unique tone so that the way the music is generated is by hitting all of the dots properly. When coordinated, the music is much more coherent than Everyday Shooter while still feeling organic like Rez. A scoring system encourages all of this in conjunction with the health system; miss too many dots and the song becomes drab. It sounds the richest and fullest for the player who has the most skill.
This is the basic premise of all music games: teach the player a basic skill and then create a large enough difficulty spike that each level must be individually practiced until mastered. The idea is to be just like an instrument. If you know how to play guitar (or piano, etc) then you still have to practice an individual song before you become proficient at it. A music game works the same way. The basic skill is typically very easy: mashing buttons in Guitar Hero is fairly manageable, Everyday Shooter is easy to start playing, and Pong certainly doesn’t take much work to comprehend. It’s learning the nuance of each individual level where the work actually comes in by learning when to pace yourself and when you’re going to have a lot of insanity thrown at you. It’s the individual levels that have to be gauged with these kinds of games, not the core mechanics. It’s here that Bit. Trip Beat begins to have problems.
Out of the three levels that come with the game, the first is manageable while the other two could best be described as “brick wall” difficult. There are several insta-lose situations where if you miss a power-up pixel you won’t have a double paddle and will immediately miss enough dots to drop out of the level entirely. Later levels ramp up the distortion enough while throwing erratic dots at you so much so that it starts to require a large amount of skill just to survive. What’s curious about the game is its choices on how to curb this difficulty. Unlike Everyday Shooter’s option to let you buy more lives or practice individual levels, the game instead lets you add more players. You can have up to four people play the game with you and plow through each level, though anything more than two will result in the individual paddles shrinking and becoming hard to use. This solution is both clever because of the obvious perk co-op adds to most games, but it also tends to leave the single-player experience wanting. You can’t really change the levels to have more dots since that would break up the music, so the game instead just makes the levels that much harder. Combine this with the fact that each level is fairly long and you create a game that few players will be able to beat alone.
This is problematic because the easier solution to curbing single-player difficulty—letting me choose how big the paddle is—would have solved the whole problem. Making the game require a friend is not necessarily a bad thing considering that the game is designed for the Wii. The only other problem is that there is no travel mode (optional invulnerability), which in my personal opinion is criminal for any game that is selling itself as a way to generate music. The tension in music games is always going to be between the urge to generate the music and the desire to simply listen to it. Being able to do both is essential.
If this is about the music, which it should be since the music in Bit.Trip Beat is great, then the player needs to have more input on how they are going to be producing it. Rez is still the gold standard in this regard: travel mode unlocks once you beat a level and the gameplay makes generating the music fairly easy while still providing ways to challenge yourself. In a music game, it is the act of creating music that must come first while the challenge remains optional. Otherwise, why not just devote that time to learning how to play a real instrument?