The first Bit.Trip Runner is as infuriating as it is entertaining. Although it has great music and a whimsical presentation, it also has unforgiving challenges that require stubborn patience (and in truth, not much skill) to overcome.
The sequel, Runner2, is much better at posing challenges that are suitable for a wider range of players.
The first game does indeed have a story, albeit one that was simplistic. CommanderVideo, the protagonist, is fighting the good fight against an extradimensional villain with a forgettable name; he does the fighting by running past the obstacles that the villain has placed in his way. All that running eventually culminated in even more running, except that he runs over switches and into other devices to somehow drive away said villain.
(According to the more ardent fans of the Bit.Trip franchise and the words of the game-maker, these are metaphors. Of course, they won’t mean a thing to players who are more concerned with gameplay.)
Before CommanderVideo and his friends could land a decisive blow on the villain, they were hit by the villain’s “un-fusion beam”. CommanderVideo took the brunt of the attack, and was somehow transported to another dimension – where he of course does more running again to do whatever that has to be done to save himself and the universe.
RUNNING & RUNNING SOME MORE:
As to be expected, running is the name of the game as much as it is in its name. CommanderVideo or whichever other player character is always in a hurry, whether the player likes it or not; yet, literally hitting hurdles sends him/her/it back to earlier points in a level, so that he/she/it can run some more until the player has memorized the layout of a level and figured out how to get through them.
However, there is more to do than just running from one end of a level to another. This will be described in later sections.
One of the gameplay-affecting differences that the second Runner has compared to the first game is the presence of checkpoints in the sequel. If the player character comes into contact with the checkpoints, the player’s progress through the level before the checkpoint is saved. If the player character gets bonked, the player character returns to the checkpoint instead of the start of the level.
Interestingly, the use of the checkpoints is optional. The player can choose to have the player character jump over them, thus bypassing their use; the player’s reward for forgoing this convenience is a considerable boost to the score.
The checkpoints also happen to be the shops of most of the unlockable characters (or simply where they hang around, in the case of the last two unlockable characters). Amusingly, if the player chooses to play as any of them, they won’t appear at the checkpoints. They also have very entertaining animations that can be seen if the player chooses to forgo the convenience of checkpoints.
Like in the previous game, one of the player’s secondary objectives is to collect gold bars that are simply floating around in the levels. They are not needed to complete the level, but they are needed in order to unlock some levels, which in turn lead to opportunities to unlock other things like costumes for the player characters.
Some gold bars are practically guaranteed to be collected, because they are floating close to obstacles that the player character has to avoid. Some others are out of the way, and can complicate the player’s sequence of inputs.
TEMPO POWER-UPS / SCORE MULTIPLIERS:
Like the previous Runner entry in the Bit.Trip franchise, there are red polyhedrons that have side profiles that resemble cross-shaped tetrominoes. When collected, these increase the points that the player gets from collecting other things or overcoming obstacles. They also change the tempo of the music, and subtly increase the running speed of the player character.
Most of them require little effort to get; in fact, the score multipliers are easier to collect than gold bars. Some of them are even guaranteed to be collected, simply because they are in paths that the player character must take.
Prior to attempting any level, the player can set its difficulty rating. This primarily determines the density of obstacles in the level; other things such as the locations of gold bars, pits and walls are unchanged.
This means that levels that depend on the complexity of level geometries can be tough, even on the lowest setting. For example, there is a level with a staircase of narrow steps. If the player is too slow in entering jump inputs, the player character would eventually hit the vertical face of a step; if the player is too fast, the player character would just land on the same step that he/she had jumped off from, and then hit the vertical face of the next step.
Cramming a level with more obstacles does make it more difficult anyway. At the highest difficulty setting, there are clusters of enemies that require the player to make a series of different control inputs over a short time, which can be daunting. (Of course, they are still something that can be overcome with determination and muscle memory.)
Throughout the levels, there are loop-like structures that the player character would run into, assuming that the player does not circumvent them by having the player character jump over their entry points.
For better or worse, these are the Runner sub-series’ take on quick-time events (QTEs). When the player character enters one of these structures, control input prompts pop up; the player enters them to score more points. They are mostly optional, but there are gold bars and score multipliers that are at the top of these structures.
In the previous Runner, scoring points for the purpose of leaderboard racing is a matter of circumventing/overcoming obstacles and collecting things. In Runner2, there are additional options; one of these, the QTE wheels, has been mentioned.
Another option becomes available later, and it can be accessed with the press of a button: dancing. There are stretches within each (non-retro) level where there are not a lot of obstacles; during these moments, the player can have the player character dance away, gaining points with each initiated dance animation.
However, the dance animation cannot be cancelled out of; crashing into something while trying to do the silly dances can be amusingly embarrassing. Nevertheless, the player can still attempt to insert some dances into some stretches of levels, if only to maximize scores.
Halfway into the game, the player is introduced to rail-grinding. This is quite different from regular running. Firstly, the player character automatically grindz any rail that he/she/it comes into contact with, regardless of the angle of the rail; in other words, rails do not pose any collision hazard.
Furthermore, the player character can grind the top of the rails, or hang from them while grinding them. Of course, the player needs to have the player character shift from being on top of a rail to being below it in order to avoid obstacles.
Shifting is not an instantaneous process; it takes around a second, thus complicating the sequence of control inputs. Considering that almost any other control input results in a near-immediate response, this can be unpleasant to learn first-hand. Fortunately, like every other control input, shifting can be learned through determination.
There may be a problem with rail-grinding, however. Jumping off rails, especially the ones with upwards slopes, can be frustrating because the reach of the jumps is not easily predictable. Compared to other elements of gameplay, experimenting and learning about the reach of jumps made from rails can take a bit longer than other gameplay elements.
OBSTACLES AND HAZARDS:
There are two types of obstacles: those posed by level geometries, and the enemies that try to bar the way of the player character. The former are understandably static, but the latter are practically static too, even if they seem to be moving. This is because their movement patterns are scripted to be always on the same path, regardless of how many times the player has retried a level.
That is not to say that these obstacles can be overcome with the same sequence of control inputs every time (which is often the case in the previous Runner). Some of them can be circumvented in ways that may not be immediately obvious. For example, an obstacle that is usually dealt with by sliding under it might be overcome by jumping over it.
CommanderVideo’s nemesis has stationed his none-too-bright underlings across the levels. They could do little more than just drift or stand in the player character’s way.
The floating electrical drone and the drone with oversized spiked helmets were in the previous game, and they are in this one too. The barriers that can be kicked away are also in this one. These have become the staples of the Runner series, so much so that the retro levels have variations of these. (There will be more on the retro levels later.)
The minions are also the most animated of the obstacles. They prance around, at least until the player character comes close enough that they stop whatever they were doing to look at the player character. Bumping into them also evokes a reaction, such as the amusing startled look that the helmeted ones express when the player character collides with them. The barrier minions deploy themselves into position when the player character draws near, which is a visual improvement over their relatively static model in the previous game.
Speaking of which, there might be a problem with the barrier minions. When the player character kicks them away, their octagonal signs fly away towards the direction of the viewer. They can be an undesirable visual obstruction. (Of course, the counter-argument against this is that the player character is generally always at a certain position relative to the view of the player’s camera.)
Runner2 introduces a new minion that is unique to the rail-grinding sequences. These are spherical robots with appendages ending in boxing gloves; obviously, they intend to bar the player character’s way with fisticuffs. Watching them flurrying punches in frustration at having been bypassed is entertaining.
There are obstacles that do not appear to be sapient things, at least with just a glance. There are suspended spiked balls that have to be slid under. There are also mobile bounce pads that are meant to be jumped onto, but also double as collision hazards.
Beat-blocks are the Runner series’ take on the beat bits in the Bit.Trip franchise, so that they are in Runner2 is not a surprise. Like in the previous game, the player character can deflect these away by holding up a shield, either while running or jumping. Incidentally, this is also the most efficient way to score points from overcoming beat blocks. (Alternatively, the player character can also slide under most beat blocks, but this does not grant a lot of points, if at all.)
The later levels often mix beat-blocks together with other obstacles in order to trip up the unobservant player. Of course, the player could just hold down the input for raising the shield; there are no bonus points to be had from timing the raising of the shield to the approach of the beat-blocks; there are indeed some levels where the player could just do that from start to finish.
However, raising the shield cannot be done together with other actions, namely kicking and sliding. The later levels often have the player alternating between raising the shield and actions that prevent it.
Bounce pads were fun in the previous Runner, and they are just as fun in this game. Of course, some of the complaints about them remain, such as that using them is more often than not mandatory. However, there are more levels in Runner2 in which the player can choose to avoid using them, usually in order to take another path; there will be more explanation on paths later.
SOME CONTROL INPUTS/ANIMATIONS NOT AVAILABLE UNTIL LATER:
Initially, at the beginning of a fresh playthrough, the player character can only run and jump. The game introduces more control inputs as the player makes progress. However, prior to the introduction of these inputs, the player character cannot do anything that is associated with any of these inputs, e.g. before the introduction of kicking down barriers, the player character cannot perform any kicks at all.
Generally, this is not an issue, because the obstacles that have to be overcome with these actions only appear after their associated control inputs have been introduced. Nevertheless, there is the hard version of a certain level early in the playthrough; in this one, the first few obstacles are most efficiently overcome by slide-jumping. However, slide-jumping is only officially introduced one entire world/stage later.
(However, the gameplay coding for slide-jumping, namely the alteration of the player character’s hitbox, is already activated right from the start of the playthrough. The animation of slide-jumping is not visible until after slide-jumping has been introduced.)
At the end of every “world/stage” (i.e. a collection of levels with the same visual themes), the player character has to outrun and outwit a physical form of CommanderVideo’s nemesis. In practice, these levels require the player to overcome a barrage of obstacles and hazards that are much denser than those in previous levels in the same world. To compensate for the drastic difference in challenge, there is more than one checkpoint in these levels; incidentally, the checkpoints occur after the player character has managed to trick the (very stupid) enemy into colliding with something, or kick some fragile part of its body.
PERFECT RATINGS, BRANCHING PATHS, SIGNPOSTS & ATERNATIVE EXITS:
Like the previous Runner, Runner2 considers that a ‘perfect’ performance in a level is achieved if the player character has collected all gold bars and score multipliers that can be possibly collected. Score thresholds are not utilized in the performance measurement.
Every level has ratings for ‘perfect’ performance regarding the collection of gold bars and score multipliers. In actuality, there are more gold bars and multipliers than the ratings suggest. This is to accommodate the inclusion of branching paths.
Speaking of which, every level has at least one point where its initial stretch branches off into two segments. A signpost appears before this point to indicate that the junction is ahead. The signage is typically composed of two arrow signs with different colours and additional symbols. One of these arrows is usually green, which indicate the path that is easier than the other; this is of more use to players who just want to achieve the collection ratings.
The other arrow can be one of a few types, depending on what ‘secrets’ the level contains. This might be a red arrow with a skull symbol, which indicate the path that is more difficult. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the difficult path contains the other kinds of collectibles.
The other arrow might be blue instead, with a question mark symbol. This indicates the path that leads to an “alternative exit”. Taking these exits reveals hidden levels, of which each world has at least one. These hidden levels unlock one of the other player characters to play with.
SOMETIMES AMBIGUOUS ARROW SIGNAGE:
Usually, the arrow signages are concise in in conveying their message, e.g. if a green arrow is pointing ahead and downwards, the lower branching path is the easier one.
However, there are some later levels in which the signage is unclear. For example, there is a level in which the more difficult path is located above the easier one. The signage indicate that it is below; in this case, the signage is actually pointing at a launch pad that would hurl the player character onto the more difficult path.
For better or worse, there is another additional grade beyond ‘perfect’, simply called “perfect-plus’. After having collected all gold bars and score multipliers, the player character runs and jumps into a comical cannon instead of disappearing off-screen. The cannon then rotates on its own axel; it is up to the player to decide when to launch the player character out of the cannon and into a massive target board.
This is obviously different from memorizing the layout of levels and developing the muscle memory/rhythmic familiarity to clear them. The player could eventually learn when to fire the cannon, but that would also mean that the player has to repeat levels and achieve ‘perfect’ ratings just to reattempt the firing of the cannon if he/she goofed.
Some levels have floating golden objects that resemble Famicom/NES cartridges; they are often just out of sight, and they can be in any of the paths. Of course, this is an excuse to have the completionist player retrying levels just to take different paths in order to search for these cartridges (assuming that the player does not resort to looking at guides).
Having the player character touching a cartridge for the first time unlocks the retro level that it is associated with. Afterwards, the player can attempt the retro level at any time from the level select screen without having to find the cartridge again.
The retro levels look very much like what one would expect from anything with “retro” in its name; pixelated 2D sprites move across semi-static backgrounds with no parallax effects whatsoever.
Some of the things which appear in the retro levels might be references to ages-old classic video games. The barely animated scorpions, in particular, are recognizable references to Pitfall. Some other things, such as the comically sentient barriers, are merely retro versions of the things that appeared in the Runner series. The background is likely a reference to generic side-scrolling platformers that are set in forests.
Anyway, retro levels always provide stiff challenges. The variety of control inputs that the player has to make in order to get past a platforming sequence is particularly dense. Furthermore, there are no checkpoints whatsoever in the retro levels; this also makes the player’s extra lives completely useless. Nevertheless, the physics-scripting for the player character is the same as it is for the regular levels, so there should be little problem in adjusting to the gameplay in the retro levels.
The retro levels do have a tedious annoyance, however. When the player has lost all extra lives, he/she is automatically booted to the level select screen and has to go through the level start animations again upon reattempting a retro level.
CHESTS, KEYS, VAULTS & LOCKS:
The player characters start with their default models, but additional ones can be unlocked by finding treasure chests that are floating about in some levels. If a level has a chest, it will be indicated in its description with an appropriate symbol.
However, the level description may also have a key symbol, which indicates that the chest is located in a path that the player cannot initially choose to take. The beginning of that path is barred by a giant bronze padlock, which counts as a collision hazard until the player character has collected the key for it.
The key for the padlock happens to occur earlier in the level. It is quite tricky to collect, often requiring well-controlled and –gauged jumps. Afterwards, the padlock can be removed by simply running into them.
For better or worse, there is another requirement that is stacked on top of this; for the keys to appear, the player has to work the levels in the world up to the key vault level, unlock the level with an alternate exit and then complete the level. This can seem tedious.
Where the previous game utilized 2D layers and parallax to make its visuals possible, Runner2 utilizes 3D environments and models; the camera sometimes shift about to make certain that this is obvious, especially in particularly triumphant moments.
The textures and lighting used are not cutting-edge and the number of polygons used for models are quite low, but the game compensates by having plenty of animations for them. The backgrounds of some levels, in particular those of the Supernature world, are especially animated, perhaps even to the point of distraction.
Perhaps the most pressing issue with the game’s visual designs is the dissatisfactory colour contrast between the levels and the costumes of some of the player characters. For example, many levels have pink in them, which makes playing with CommanderGirlVideo’s default model a bit more difficult. Of course, there is the certainty that the player character is always at a specific location relative to the camera, but having adequate colour contrast would have been even more helpful.
The player starts with CommanderGirlVideo and CommanderVideo available for selection. The other player characters are unlocked by reaching the alternate exit on one of the levels in the worlds that are associated with the player characters, and then completing the level that is unlocked by the alternate exit.
All of the player characters function the same way, gameplay-wise. Their main appeal (or source of revulsion) is their looks. Some of them look satisfactorily amusing, such as the goofily curvaceous CommanderGirlVideo (who is generally considered the distaff counterpart of the protagonist) and the wonderfully animated mascot/owner of the Burger Mouth franchise. (Watching the layers of ingredients that make up its burger-for-a-head come apart is hilarious.)
Some others just look so silly to the point of being ‘lame’. Unkle Dill is an anthropomorphic pickle whose main gimmick is looking stupid. Reverse Merman’s main trait is obvious, but the game’s artists has decided that it needs a couple, even more obvious traits that happen to have gratuitous physics-scripting.
Nevertheless, the costumes of the player characters are stronger excuses to keep playing the game than score leaderboard races and completionist tendencies could ever be.
(Interestingly, all of the player characters might not be canonical, since the story is implied to only occur in CommanderVideo’s psyche.)
Charles Martinet, the voice-actor for Mario in the latter-day Mario games, is the narrator for the game’s story, much of which is nonsensical. He chose a slightly cockney accent for this game, perhaps deliberately so if only for the sake of not sounding like a faux Italian. For better or worse, he does not have a lot of lines to deliver.
Petrified Productions provides most of the sound effects for Runner2. Many of them are associated with the platforming gameplay, such as the peculiar warble that sounds whenever the player character bumps into something (or “bonks” into something, to use the game’s own words in its tutorial).
The sound effects that contribute the most to the gameplay are the short tunes that play whenever the player character overcomes obstacles. They are compatible with the soundtracks, so the player could use his/her familiarity with rhythmic beats to complement his/her muscle memory and hand-and-eye coordination.
Where the previous game’s music was partially composed by indie composer Amanoguchi, the sequel secured the services of another indie composer, Disasterpeace, for almost all of its soundtracks.
Although there are more than a handful of tracks, they are few in comparison to the hundred or so levels in the game. They eventually become repetitive, especially if the player is gunning for 100% completion.
Nonetheless, the signature appeal of the music in the Runner series is still there, specifically the change in the tempo of the music as the player collects more score multipliers and the sense of triumph when a level is completed with a ‘perfect’ rating.
Ultimately, like the previous game, Runner2 has the player memorizing level layouts and developing the muscle memory to make a sequence of control inputs to get past levels. In other words, Runner2 is the kind of game that can be beaten through just sheer determination.
On the other hand, the gameplay has been tuned for more variety in its level of challenge, making it much easier to get into than its predecessor was. Furthermore, the main appeal of the Runner series, namely the music, is still there, and it has been augmented further with entertainingly whimsical animations that were made possible by its venture into 3D graphics.