Saturday, November 3, 2012


Prerequisite: check out this video of an individual demonstrating their mastery of the game/toy Bop It.  It's best if you watch the whole thing, but I understand if you become impatient and bail early. BIT.TRIP RUNNER is a video game version of Bop It.  No, it's not an official tie-in, but the mechanics are transferred nearly verbatim.  In RUNNER you control a character who must dodge obstacles as the environment force-scrolls past.  Directional buttons trigger block, kick, slide, and vault actions while the spacebar executes a jump.  These moves are sort-of tied in to the accompanying music score, but mostly you rely on visual discernment to time and select your actions.  Like Bop It, one false move while playing will stop you in your tracks and force you to try again from the beginning.  Also like Bop It, you can beat and master RUNNER, but doing so is like learning to play a song that no one wants to listen to on an instrument that doesn't really exist.

When it came time for me to decide what I wanted to play in my grade school band, I chose percussion.  Drumming seemed more fun than brass or woodwinds, but I was also more confident in my ability to keep a beat over maintaining melody.  My sister took piano lessons, which I was encouraged to take as well, but never did.  We got a programmable electric piano at home eventually, and rather than actually play conventional music, I'd setup the percussion kit that assigned individual drums and cymbals to specific keys and make all sorts of noise.  There was also a neat trick you could do by pressing two low-octave "square lead" keys at the same time, producing some pretty satisfying bass rumbles.  I own a MPC drum machine, though it's been sorely underused.  I adore Rez and was a die-hard DDR player for several years.  In short, though I would not call myself a musician of any kind, I know my way around button/key-based beat making.  On its surface, I should love BIT.TRIP RUNNER.

Unfortunately for me, RUNNER plays how I always feared piano lessons would go: demanding, unforgiving, and with a slavish dedication to someone else's creativity rather than my own. In RUNNER, you can't study notes on a page to prepare, you must react in real time and memorize the level's patterns through failure.  At most, you have a full second to recognize what object is heading your way and tap the appropriate key to evade or deflect.  Each time you screw up, it's like the piano instructor wraps your knuckles with a ruler and points to the first note on the sheet.  If you play a piano piece correctly, you enjoy the satisfaction of hard-earned accomplishment along with the joy of hearing a song that you presumably like.  In RUNNER, you just earn arbitrary points and the music you've produced only occasionally sounds like a song.  There is no level editor or any way of really getting hands-on with the mechanics beyond the prescribed courses.

People have compared RUNNER to mobile games like Canabalt and Temple Run for their similar, forced running perspectives.  Both Canabalt and Temple Run use randomized obstacles and challenge players to get farther than their previous attempt, but as far as I'm aware, neither has endpoints.  RUNNER is broken up into 36 preset levels, and withholds progression until you complete the stage prior.  The big difference between RUNNER and something like Canabalt is how you feel after triggering a fail state.  With Canabalt it feels like the game playfully dares you to try it again.  You know losing is inevitable, but it's fun to try and get farther than last time.  In fact, "losing" isn't really "losing," it's just the end of the round.  Retries in RUNNER are instantaneous.  If you forget to kick a box on cue, the game zips you back to the start of the stage, and after a brief moment you're back on your way again.  I applaud Gaijin Games for making the process so snappy, but subsequent runs feel more like a matter of survival than heartfelt attempts on the part of the player. You're trapped in the gameplay loop until you either win or cry "uncle" and quit.

There are collectable gold bars throughout RUNNER that encourage a more daring style of play, but the game doesn't offer rewards that merit the effort required to snatch them all.  If you do collect every gold bar in a level you can play a bonus Pitfall-styled area, which is neat a couple times, but not 30+.  You only get one try at the bonus levels per completion of a regular stage, which means you may have spent a half hour trying to get a perfect run, only for your "prize" to last a fleeting handful of seconds.  The numerous retries on regular levels pushed me to ignore the gold bars as much as I could, eliminating several tricky maneuvers from my regimen, but also rendering the music more spartan, lacking the distinctive chimes emitted by grabbing the bars.  You could interpret the game as an incisive metaphor for the daily, 9-5 grind perpetuated by an uncompromising capitalist economy, but that's an unearned credit.  Instead, playing BIT.TRIP RUNNER feels like a really difficult motor skills exam – something for the sport stacking set.

I'm being pretty hard on RUNNER, but it does have its merits.  Visually, the game renders Atari 2600 graphics as 3D cubic blocks to grinning, stylistic effect.  If you collect enough point multipliers in a level, an old-school Activision rainbow will tail behind the titular runner as it goes – RUNNER's incentivization at its most effective.  Mechanically, the game is as sharp as it gets.  Though it asks for tight precision, failure is never the result of ambiguous design.  I could knock the effectiveness of RUNNER's musical implementation, but having listened to the soundtrack outside of the game, their track selection is appropriate and catchy.  Lastly, I began this review by comparing RUNNER to Bop It, but I should point out that I actually like Bop It.  It's a party icebreaker game that asks players to focus their attention, likely in a social situation that requires otherwise – a humorous juxtaposition.  As an unfortunate point of contrast, there just isn't much to laugh about in RUNNER.

Still, there are clearly a lot of people who dig what BIT.TRIP RUNNER brings to the table, and far be it from me to say not to like something people seem to enjoy, but the game feels masochistic for nostalgia's sake.  There's no denying its style, but you'd be hard pressed to locate any real substance here.  And if you choose to play BIT.TRIP RUNNER, make no mistake, you will be pressed...hard.

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