Game-makers may find that there may be some hype and appeal to be had from combining gameplay elements from different genres and then loudly proclaiming the results to be something that had not been done many times before, or if they are so bold, that is pioneering.
However, wiser game consumers know that such hybridization can result in problems, especially those that gives the impression of having an identity crisis; players cannot decide which of the parent genres that the game is closest to, or worst of all, takes neither of the parent genres' strengths but kept their weaknesses, to name a few examples.
Bit.Trip Runner is not completely the latter, fortunately, but is a lot of the former, and the confusion from which is also laced with frustration too.
Bit.Trip Runner's premise is bizarre, to use the kindest word. The earlier cutscenes in the game suggests that the protagonist is now some kind of vanguard or scout, having landed on a foreign planet with industries and cultures that are oriented around the extraction and utilization of music that exists in this game universe as actual substances instead of being abstracts. The protagonist appears to be in a hurry to explore said world as quickly as possible, collecting some of the choicest bits of these musical substances (which conveniently look like gold bars) along the way.
That is of course the excuse used for the hectic platforming gameplay.
The game does not mention the protagonist by name, but he appears to be CommanderVideo, a fictional character that was created by the game makers in late 2008 for use in a viral marketing campaign to build up hype for the first of the games in the Bit.Trip franchise. CommanderVideo eventually appeared in his own game – this one – after some time since the debut of the franchise, though he has appeared in the cutscenes of the previous games, doing profound things that defy understanding.
As he had appeared in the viral marketing campaign, he resembles a humanoid but with completely black exterior, sprightly limbs and a single rectangular white eye. His presence in the game certainly did build up hype for this game, and would certainly entertain players who have fond memories of the viral marketing campaigns or the cutscenes in previous Bit.Trip games. However, to those who are not already familiar with the Bit.Trip franchise, he would be just as bewildering as the rest of the game is.
On its own, the platforming would have been rather run-of-the-mill (pun not intended). The game has obstacle and platform designs found in so many other platforming games: there are stairs and steps that have to be hopped over, floating platforms to jump onto, narrow tunnels that have to be slid under, etc.
Yet, the game distinguishes itself by having the protagonist running forward all the time: there is simply no control input for any directional movement, for every input has CommanderVideo doing something except move elsewhere.
This is where rhythm game elements come into play. As he moves all the time, the player has to time CommanderVideo's actions according to the obstacles that he is approaching. Every obstacle in his path will emit a chime when they are destroyed, repelled or evaded, indicating that they had been successfully overcome. Each type of obstacle tends to emit a chime that is different from the others, and there may even be variations in the chime when obstacles of the same type are circumvented.
The obstacles include the aforementioned steps and stairs, but thanks to the otherworldly premise of the game and its connection to earlier Bit.Trip games, there are others to be had: there are formations of seemingly sentient crystals to be crashed through, rocks to be hopped over and trampolines that have to be jumped on, to mention a few.
Yet, while some obstacles may look different from the rest, especially from zone to zone (more on zones later), they can be lumped under categories according to the solutions that the player needs to overcome them. These solutions are in turn dependent on the control inputs that the player needs to use. There are obstacles that have to be jumped over (and these are the most numerous, to the detriment of the game; there will be more elaboration on this later), obstructions that have to be kicked through, elevations that are too high to be simply jumped onto or pits that are too vast to be simply leapt across and have to be circumvented by activating pink jump pads, low tunnels that have to be slid under and, late into the game, incoming "beats" or yellow pellets that have to be repelled with a shield
(The shield is inactive in the earlier parts of the game, and there appears to be no explanation as to how CommanderVideo gains it, other than the fact that the shield resembles the paddle used to repel beats in earlier Bit.Trip games and may have been part of CommanderVideo all along.)
The game gradually introduces the use of the inputs, starting with the introduction of jumping over obstacles. It makes use of flat, open stretches in the starting regions of levels that debut these input to insert in a large message panel informing the player of what an input does; this occurs right before an obstacle that can only be circumvented with that input comes into view. There is no more hand-holding than this, but it should be adequate enough for the average player to associate the solution to said obstacle with this input.
The game designers make clever use of the placement of these obstacles to create tunes (of sorts) that play when the player overcomes sequences of obstacles. The tunes can be a bit distracting, but are otherwise somewhat aurally satisfying rewards. Speaking of rewards, certain obstacles contribute to the player's score when they are overcome, namely those that have to be destroyed or repelled.
Unfortunately, the pacing of the sequences of the obstacles can be all over the place. There are rather punishing sequences with only a couple of seconds of rest given to the player before the next one, or there may be relatively more leisurely sequences. The game generally becomes more difficult as the player advances in the series of levels (grouped into "Zones" according to their visual themes and background music), but there are aberrations, such as a terrifically difficult level among the first dozen and a couple of relatively easy ones in the final zone.
The punishing ones can be infuriating, maybe even to veterans of rhythm games. Where some other more lenient rhythm games would have long and complicated rhythm sequences followed by more than a few seconds of rest or preceded by a foreboding calm before the storm, the difficult tracks in Bit.Trip Runner often have little respite in between them. It is either that, or the game wedges easier sequences in between tough ones but without any moment for rest at all.
Of course, a long-time fan of rhythm games can say that the difficult tracks in Bit.Trip Runner would be much welcome. However, it would be hard for him/her to refute that an associated design problem compounded the difficulty in an artificial manner.
Whereas other rhythm and platforming games at the time often just punish the player with lost chances for points (for the former sort of games) or lost health (in the case of the latter) if the player fumbles, Bit.Trip Runner adopts the harsh penalty that was once infamously prevalent in old platforming games of yore: it simply bumps the player character back to the start of the level, simultaneously resetting the level.
A nostalgic observer can point out that this is a long-time convention of platforming games and thus is not really a fault, but considering Bit.Trip Runner as a platformer would be a mistake. Where platforming games tend to allow players to go around obstacles or enemies in more than one manner, Bit.Trip Runner simply doesn't; an obstacle can only ever be circumvented in one way, and nothing else.
Of course, again, dissent can be voiced out here that Bit.Trip Runner is also a rhythm game, so this rigidity should not be a problem, but that would mean that one convention of the rhythm game genre has superseded one of the conventions of the platforming genre, not to mention that being booted back to the start of the track is not a common characteristic for rhythm games and certainly not the predecessors of this game in the Bit.Trip series.
This is never a good thing for a hybrid of a game, which is supposed to ideally combine the strengths of both its parents to overcome weaknesses - and not introduce more weaknesses. There are also other flaws in the game that can be tied to this issue.
Rhythm games often have tracks with sequences where the player has to jam down on a single input or mash it to produce long notes or repeat a beat for some time, respectively. Bit.Trip Runner is not an exception; such sequences tend to be distributed across all possible inputs, so as to reduce their monotony.
Unfortunately, Bit.Trip Runner's use of platforming elements does not allow for this. The only input that the player can jam down and execute all the time is CommanderVideo's sliding, while the only input that can be repeatedly mashed to overcome a dense series of obstacles is jumping.
Kicking only has CommanderVideo doing the kicking animation for a few seconds, af ter which there is a cool-down period before he can "kick" again. Triggering launch-pads sends Commander Video into the air for a few to several seconds, making this input unsuitable for either kind of repetitive-input sequence.
The official tracks appear to have little in the way of long stretches of narrow tunnels, which is understandable, considering that such segments would be very boring. This means that sequences that require long stretches of input are predominantly jumping sequences, and there are enough of such sequences that only the most ardent of Bit.Trip fans would still consider them to be fun.
It should be noted here that the time, distance and arc of CommanderVideo's unaided jumping animations are the same regardless of how strongly the player jams on the input for jumping, and that as soon as he has touched the ground, he can jump again; therefore, a player that has no qualms about resorting to expedient solutions would discover that it is easier to just mash away at the jump button when a sequence of obstacles that have to be jumped over. There are some sequences where there are some gaps in between series of obstacles that would require some timing, but the player would merely be timing when to start and stop mashing.
If there is any wise design to be seen from this portion of the game, it is that the jump button is at least mapped to a different part of the gamepad or keyboard than the other inputs, especially considering that there is no way to change the mapping of the inputs within the game (at least without mucking around with the game files).
Speaking of game files, Bit.Trip Runner for Steam appears to launch in a crude manner. The executable for the Windows version of the game appears to have to re-deploy the game's files every time it is launched. This in turn gives the impression that the game has not been skilfully ported over from its Xbox 360 origins, if the inability to re-map inputs in-game does not suggest so already.
To complete any level (other than boss levels; more on these later), the player only needs to do the minimum of getting from the starting point of the level to the finishing point (which is, amusingly enough, demarcated with a finishing line).To get better scores and unlock certain other rewards in the form of bonus levels and alternate cutscenes (more on these later), the player has to retrieve the collectibles that are distributed throughout the levels.
Collectibles include the aforementioned gold bars, which emit chimes that are unique to those for obstacles and add considerable amounts of points to the player's score; they also happen to enrich the tunes that the player gets when negotiating sequences of obstacles, though it has to be said here that the tunes become even more potentially distracting. That is not saying that the player should play without the music though. Without it, the game can be rather bland, as the bonus levels would emphasize; this will be elaborated later.
However, the most lucrative of the collectibles, which is a pink polygon of the triacontahedron family but with all of its faces perpendicular to each other (or simply a "3-D cross"), does not only offer the best contribution to the player's score, but also the tempo of the background music; an announcer with a very deep electronic baritone would announce this each time one of this is collected. Eventually, the final level of the tempo is an altogether different track, often an enchanting electronic tune, and it also happens to disable the chimes from overcoming obstacles and collecting gold bars. This may seem off-putting at first, but the player would notice that the last tempo-increasing collectible is situated not far away from the finish line.
Racking up high scores does not end with just the main levels. If the player succeeds in collecting all available gold bars in a main level – and this is often much more difficult than just trying to finish the level – he/she gets a chance to collect even more gold bars in bonus levels, which happen to resemble the levels in the original Pitfall game (made by the original incarnation of Activision). There isn't any music whatsoever in these bonus levels. While this is an apparent tribute to Pitfall, a player that has been expecting more upbeat and exciting electronic tunes such as those heard in the main levels would be disappointed. These bonus levels would have been even better tributes to Pitfall if the player character can move about more freely, but CommanderVideo is still very much in a hurry to get to the finish line.
These bonus levels are generally even more difficult than those in the main levels, but offer potentially more score rewards by having more gold bars. As for the rewards, they come typically in the form of a place in the leaderboards – Steam's, in the case of the computer version.
Unfortunately, like so many other Steam games with leaderboards, the game is vulnerable to score fudging. However, there is a "perfect" score rating that can be achieved for any level (including its bonus portion), or more precisely, a score that cannot be improved if the player had already retrieved every collectible in the level (and its bonus portion) and repelled/destroyed/otherwise-interacted-with every obstacle that can grant score contributions; the game will visually confirm a perfect score if the player has achieved it. This makes it easier to detect cheaters, though only completionists can do so.
To finish a zone, a player has to beat its last level, which happens to be a "boss" level of sorts. The player faces off with a boss that is harassing CommanderVideo and stymieing his inexplicable marathon, and has to defeat it by observing its patterns and exploiting them like in platforming games – or at least it would seem so.
An observant player would eventually notice that the boss fight is not essentially different from the other levels; the boss may seem to drop hazards and fire off projectiles, but it will always fire them off in the same arrangement, regardless of how many times the player replays the level. In other words, the boss fight is just a particularly difficult sequence of obstacles to be circumvented. This not only reduces the excitement of boss fights, but also detract from the characterization of these bosses, making them seem little more than predictable automatons.
Finishing every zone lets the player view cutscenes that do little more than visually introduce the next zone to the player. There are some playful or otherwise oddball attempts at emphasizing that CommanderVideo is an individual that is in a hurry (if this is not obvious earlier already), but there does not appear to be much of anything else that is of significance to the story. However, it has to be noted here that the cutscenes in Bit.Trip Runner are a lot less profound than those in the previous Bit.Trip games, which were simply bewildering.
If he/she can collect every gold bar in the game, excluding the ones in the bonus levels, the player also gets access to a special cutscene that could not otherwise be viewed. This one is actually more substantial to the story, but to describe it here would be to mention spoilers. It should suffice that it may be setting up the premise for the next Bit.Trip game (which at this time of writing has been described as a successor to Runner).
The game developers appear to make a lot of references to other indie games (including the earlier ones in the Bit.Trip franchise), especially in the titles of the levels and the names of its achievements; it even features one particular character from another indie game, whose creators happen to be comrades with Gaijin Games (having reciprocated this by including CommanderVideo in their own game, but that is for another review). However, if the player is not well aware of the existence of these other indie games, the references wouldn't make any sense and may even seem awkward.
Therefore, one can say that the game would appeal best to fans of indie games, or "garage game" development, the precursor to indie games. On the other hand, to these fans, the writing would be plenty amusing though. Phrases like "Bonus GET!", "Ultra" and "Extra" would evoke memories of old games, when the phrases used were much simpler (and are often pixel art instead of actual text) due to technological limitations.
The visuals of the game are rather simple and even primitive. The 3-D objects in this game are composed of very simple polygons, the most common being cubes, while everything else, including CommanderVideo, is a sprite whose surface is perpendicular to the screen. The colour palette used also appears to be rather limited, and textures have very simple patterns and mappings onto surfaces.
Of course, such graphical designs can be said to be consistent with the visual themes of the earlier games in the Bit.Trip franchise, but the previous games have the excuse of being much more abstract in appearance and thus do not need any high fidelity in graphics. Bit.Trip Runner's levels and environments appear to suggest the substantial presence of actual worlds instead of the out-of-this-world (no pun intended) visuals of levels seen in previous games, and these worlds do seem terribly bland as a result of the game's simple graphics.
The blandness seems even more apparent when the player notices that levels in this game tend to repeat certain features, especially those of the first zone. For example, the player may come across the face of some gigantic creature with its mouth wide open in the background; gameplay-wise, it is often associated with an incoming launchpad trigger. While it conveniently forewarns the player of an incoming launchpad, sequences of several launchpads coming one after another would have the same creature seemingly appearing in the background just as many times in a row, which can seem very weird.
Perhaps the best designed aspect of this game is its music. While the indie chiptune band Amanaguchi supplied some of their copyrighted soundtracks, such as the track for the main menu, the music is mostly composed from Gaijin Games' own efforts, which is no less entertaining than the contributors'. Most of the tracks are fusions of 8-bit music with electronic and even techno, and would seem surprisingly enchanting and upbeat to many players.
More importantly, they appear to be bolstered by the player's performance in the levels. A good performance creates tunes that embellish the music; an average performance gives tunes that are less exciting but otherwise do not clash with the background music. The game's insistence on booting the player back to the start of the level whenever he/she screws up gives an excuse for the game to reset the background music, so the music and the player's performance would never seem to mismatch; however, this does not mean that said punishment is any less aggravating.
(It is worth mentioning here that the game's soundtracks have since been featured on Bandcamp, and the ones on Bandcamp appear to sound subtly different from those in the game.)
In conclusion, Bit.Trip Runner tries to do what even its predecessors in the Bit.Trip have not done, which is combining platforming with the series' rhythm-oriented gameplay. However, the result is platforming gameplay and visuals that are less than satisfying, giving the impression that it is little more than a rhythm game in the guise of a platformer. Like the previous games, there is great music to be had, but it could not compensate for the frustration that this game's way of punishing fumbling players causes and its loss of abstract themes that once disguised the series' use of primitive graphics.