Punishingly difficult, short on content, but with undeniable allure.
While comparing this game to Pong is obvious enough to feel like a cop-out, it's the best place to start. The player controls a paddle on the left side of the screen which is moved up and down with the mouse. I'll mention that gamepad support is included, but you don't want to do that. The mouse is easily the better control option, so much so that if you enable gamepad control, the game actually warns you that you might be making a mistake. Similar also to the appropriately retro Breakout, the object of the game is to deflect "beats" that arrive from the right of the screen. These beats are pixels of varying size and color, and each plays a note that compliments the music accompanying the experience.
The three stages of increasing difficulty, Transition, Descent, and Growth, come in the form of songs with only Transition accessible from the start. The following stages are each unlocked by completing the one before it. Through these, you're gonna see a whole lot of beats in a whole lot of forms. Yeah, there are your basic beats that fly gently across the screen as stoic pixels, but then there's everything else. Some will fly quickly across the screen in arching spans. Others will bounce off of the paddle, turn around, and come right back at it. Some beats will stop and stutter before continuing, and there are those that will actually disappear for fleeting moments just to tweak you out a bit. It gets a bit dizzying, but in a good way.
There are two meters extending the length of the screen that you'll want to pay attention to. At the top is the Mega meter which fills gradually with each successfully blocked beat. When it fills completely, you enter Mega mode, where crazy trippy visuals appear in the background and the music gets busier and more hectic while yielding higher scores. But at the bottom exists the Nether meter which fills a bit as each beat gets past your paddle through to the left of the screen. If you're in Mega mode, letting the Nether meter fill up will bring you back to square one. However, if you have yet to fill the Mega meter and the Nether meter fills up first, you'll enter a dark, lonely, desolate place that is black and white and devoid of music where the beats sound more like a heart monitor ticking your life away. While in this desperate mode, filling the top meter will bring you back to the land of color and sound. But allowing the bottom meter to fill results in the big old GAME OVER.
Also aiding in the retro theme, not only is the object of the game to simply survive the stages, but it is also to rack up ludicrously high score totals. Once you fill your Mega meter, each time you fill it again without filling the Nether meter will result in cascading score multipliers. If you master the stages, there is some replay value here for score junkies.
While the game mechanics offer a healthy dose of good old-fashioned fun, there are some factors working against it. For one, this game is hard. I mean, it's really hard. Even the Easy mode is hard. The beats come at so many angles and at so many speeds that it's extremely difficult to cover them all, particularly when seeing them for the first time. Make sure the pads on your mouse are clean and that you have a particularly large surface to slide it around on because you don't want to have to think about resetting it. You'll also want to make sure that you're playing this game on a display with as little lag as possible, so your big-screen 1080p TV might not be the best choice.
But a healthy difficulty should lend itself to a serious replay factor as long as the game is fun, right? Normally, yes, but not necessarily in this case. That's not to say that BIT.TRIP BEAT is not fun, because it is. The problem is that the three stages present are each nearly fifteen minutes long. No checkpoints or mid-level saves exist to bail you out, either. It reflects the worst part of more traditional rhythm games: there might only be one line in a Guitar Hero song that messes you up, but you'll have to play through the same three minutes prior to that line every time just to try again. But in BIT.TRIP BEAT, now you're talking about songs that are almost fifteen minutes long. If you lose at minute twelve only to try again and lose at the same place, that's rage quit material right there. A save system isn't necessarily the solution, but splitting these three stages up into six stages of half the length each would have gone a really long way to make the whole experience much more enjoyable.
But just when you're ready to throw your mouse at the wall in frustration, this game charms the crap out of you. Visually, BIT.TRIP BEAT is a lot like what you might get from mixing Pong with Ecstasy. Entering Mega mode reveals backdrops of sprawling depth and smooth animation. You won't really have a chance to fixate on them, but they're noticeable enough to appreciate. In fact, they're almost too noticeable. Whether it's intentional or not, sometimes the busy backdrops double as distractions. Beats are often easy to lose in the ultra-bright comets as they fly by, as if the game isn't hard enough as it is.
The music provided by Petrified Productions is also one of this game's strongest points. The biggest reward to mastering BIT.TRIP BEAT's stages is actually being able to enjoy them in their entirety. Mega mode shows off the music in its best form, and it's awesome to play an active part in its playback through deflecting beats. It's all part of the gloriously retro package.
Score junkies rejoice: There are leaderboards. Perhaps more useful, these leaderboards can also be restricted to your Steam friends. If you have a buddy who's playing this game too, it can be a lot of fun to go back and forth trying to out-do each other. There are some nifty social networking tie-ins as well; enter your Facebook and Twitter account information and you can report your progress and scores to your network of choice upon stage completions. And the presence of Steam achievements provides for some satisfying icing on the cake.
Since the recent release of Portal 2, there's also a fourth stage included in the package called Test that serves as a tribute to Valve's hit puzzler. While the gameplay mechanics are unchanged in this new stage, many of the retro elements are foregone, instead opting for the ever-intimidating GlaDOS monitoring your every move. It does provide another cool song to play to, and it ups the value of the game these days as the $9.99 price tag did not increase as a result of the additional content.
BIT.TRIP BEAT is a retro-style action game that is both punishingly difficult and short on content. These factors would cripple most titles into obscurity, but there's an undeniable attraction to the old-school visual style and catchy-as-heck soundtrack. No matter if you end up playing it for twenty hours or twenty minutes, this game begs to be played on merit of its presentation alone. While it's often too frustrating to be fun, few games offer a similar experience. Consequently, BIT.TRIP BEAT is recommendable to anyone who has a soft spot for retro flair, but it might be worth waiting for the occasional Steam sale if you're unsure.