With what is easily the best implementation of music the series has seen thus far, excellent Canabalt-style platforming, and of course the tough but fair level of challenge, Bit.Trip Runner proves to be yet another fine stop on this incredibly challenging Bit.Trip.
In this installment, you're placed in the shoes of the ever mysterious, and series protagonist, CommanderVideo as he runs, jumps and kicks his way through a myriad of marathons in a hunt for gold. The action takes the form of an on-rails platformer, which for the uninitiated means that the character moves on his own while providing a limited level of control over the character (in this case, jumping, sliding, kicking, etc.). CommanderVideo's gold hunt takes him through numerous obstacle courses across three different zones -- a planetoid in space, a mining site in the wilderness, and the streets and sewers of a city -- each progressively more challenging than the last.
Just like past entries, this challenge stems from the element of trial-and-error, and is accentuated by Runner's breakneck pace, since most obstacles require very precise timing to successfully avoid. Runner isn't generous, however, so failure becomes a common occurrence during your first attempts at a given level. This is primarily a result of obstacles being deviously placed and that they come at you far too quickly to properly judge how to avoid them, especially since they're placed in complex patterns. It doesn't help either that once you get past one troublesome spot, usually another, more challenging one soon arises.
If that sounds frustrating, it is. Being a few steps from the end of a nearly perfect run, for example, only to fail by hitting the jump button half a second too early, forcing you back to the start, is devastating, discouraging even. As difficult as it is, though, the experience still retains its fun. Dashing along the gritty cityscape successfully jumping over toppled trash cans, sliding under pipes, is exhilarating and satisfying, even when met with failure. The trick behind that is in how it constantly awards you for a good performance.
This being a rhythm game at its core, music plays something of a pivotal role in Runner. The incorporation of music is handled by working it directly into the gameplay. In this case, that means each and every action you take produce a new note that contributes to the underlying theme for each zone. You're therefore charged with the role of composition essentially, albeit only partially, since the groundwork has already been laid -- you're just hitting the keys, so to speak. It's a befitting and inventive form of implementation, one that complements the gameplay design nicely.
Another pivotal role of the series is score hunting. Gold is the awarding item here, and just like in reality, it doesn't come easy. I've said that the obstacles are what provides most of the challenge; well, that remaining portion is provided by the irresistible temptation of points. What I mean by that is that they're placed in spots containing very high risks, such as situating them in the air a few steps from a pitfall, when it comes to obtaining them. This predictably results in more failure for the first few attempts or so, but that only makes the drive for the coveted "Perfect Score" that much more enticing.
Gold collection also serves another important purpose: initiating bonus levels. Whenever you collect all the gold with a level, you are sent to a separate, slightly harder Pitfall! inspired (at least in the visual style) level to collect more gold in. The increase in challenge comes from two things: the higher number of gold (there's typically around 80 piles of gold per bonus level), and the higher degree of action required from you. The two play into each other of course (the latter is a result of the former), with the gold piles serving as a replacement of sorts for the standard obstacles with their deliberately vicious placements that force you to be more nimble in regards to your actions. The extra challenge is most certainly welcome, though, as it adds to the replayability factor some.
The reward for conquering those levels is additional points. Of course, they don't mean much in the long run seeing as there are still no leaderboards. Their exclusion is understandable of course -- the inclusion of "Perfect Scores" makes that an impossibility because they put a limit on how high one's score may climb -- but it's still a bit of a detriment toward Runner's longevity.
That said, Bit.Trip Runner is easily the longest installment in the series thus far, at least as far as the amount of levels go. Where previous Bit.Trips had only three levels tops, Runner ups the total to 36. The catch, however, is that they're shorter than those found in previous installments, which acts as double-edged sword of sorts. On one hand, the shorter levels cut their punishing nature slightly since there isn't so much to memorize; but on the other hand, it means the challenge is upped much sooner than in previous installments. No longer can you find solace in the brief intervals between level phases, as now it transitions straight from one level to another upon completion. This continues until you eventually reach the final level of a zone, which are always boss battles. These battles are basically standard levels with a big, menacing foe dispensing obstacles for you to dodge in between the occasional instance for attack. They aren't much harder than the usual levels either, making them nothing but a nice diversion.
In the visual department, Runner's as good as ever. The series' stylish 8-bit visuals are still in effect here, albeit with tons more 3D thrown in. The two go together well, however, with the three-dimensional elements taking on a very simple, flat look to 'em that compliments the pixelated elements nicely. Moreover, the chiptune soundtrack composed by Anamanaguchi is excellent and, as per usual for Bit.Trip, provides plenty of catchy tunes to listen to.
Overall, Bit.Trip Runner proves to be another fine installment in this most excellent series. The chemistry between the gameplay and audio is beautifully executed and creates a very satisfying aural experience, and the challenge again delivers on creating a tough but fair environment. At only 800 Wii Points ($8), Bit.Trip Runner is a marathon well worth participating in.