The BIT.TRIP series, from indie developer Gaijin Games, is fondly remembered for bringing a retro aesthetic and nostalgic gameplay style to modern-day players. The series' conclusion looked to be the last players would see of its hero, Commander Video, but you can't keep a good mascot down. Commander Video is back, surprisingly leaving behind the series' hallmark visual style. This change turns out to be for the best, as BIT.TRIP Presents Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien pushes the series forward, while retaining the mechanics that made the original BIT.TRIP Runner so much fun.
The basic idea for Runner2 is the same as its predecessor. Commander Video treks across 2D courses in an autorunner setting. Players must avoid obstacles by jumping, sliding, and kicking their way through, often to the beat of the background music, until they reach the end goal. Hitting an obstacle takes players back to the previous checkpoint for them to start again, with no lives system in place. It's as simple to pick up and play as the first game, though this is where the similarities end.
Anyone that has played the original will immediately notice that the production values for Runner2 are far beyond what they were before. There's a narrative, albeit a minimal one, that plays out through cutscenes reminiscent of classic cartoons. There's even a narrator, as Charles Martinet steps out of his Mario role and reels off the story of Commander Video sounding like someone trying out for Rocky & Bullwinkle. It's a joy to listen to, thanks to the infectious enthusiasm that Martinet brings to the table.
While the cutscenes are a reminder of the past, the aesthetic of the game's individual stages are fully modernized. Gone is the pixelated art style of the first game and in its place is a modernized 3D world. Characters, enemies, and backgrounds are fully rendered, making Commander Video look less like an Atari character and more like a Pixar creation. The chiptune soundtrack has been replaced with a more modern style, as pianos and jazz riffs make up the bulk of the game's music. None of these changes diminish the gameplay, but rather give the feeling that the series has moved forward.
The improved visuals also allow for new gameplay mechanics that would not have been possible with the old art style, all in the name of scoring. For example, loop-de-loops prompt players to shine a light on Commander Video using the right analog stick for higher scores, while cornered loops have players tap face buttons to the beat. Other additions include rails, in which players pop themselves above or hang below in order to avoid enemies. These are ideas that not only look smooth, thanks to the new visuals, but also feel like they fit the overall tone of the game.
That's not to say the new modern style is perfect. The minimalist presentation of the first Runner allowed players to focus on the beat and on upcoming obstacles. Runner2's animated backgrounds sometimes work to its detriment. For example, I played through a stage in the third world ("The Supernature") that featured a giant Bigfoot emerge in the background to run simultaneously with Commander Video. It was a clever addition, but proved to be distracting, as my split-focus would send me barreling into a wall. Runner2's visuals are gorgeous, but can sometimes lead to players taking their eye off the ball.
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Runner2's level design has also undergone a modernization. Linear progression has been replaced with a world map, featuring several unlockable levels that contain bonuses, like outfits and new characters. The requirements for opening these new stages do not feel overly challenging, so they're ones that often feel worth aiming for. Individual stages also contain branching paths, where players will need to decide on-the-spot which way to turn. Those decisions can lead to more difficult paths, alternate exits, or cartridges that warp players to the old-school Pitfall-style stages that were such a big hit in the first Runner. As players progress through each world, they'll also find a giant key that will open special chests laying about in certain stages. This adds a new incentive to revisit many of Runner2's stages, adding replay value that goes beyond simply trying to beat your highest score.
If the first BIT.TRIP Runner was a confectionery treat, then Runner2 is simply the same treat with a different flavor. Both play similarly, but Runner2 takes everything about the first game that worked and added modern ideas without compromising what made it so much fun in the first place. Beginners and BIT.TRIP fans alike will have a lot to love about this bold new step for the series.
This BIT.TRIP Runner2 review was based on a digital PC version of the game provided by the developer. The game will also be available on PS3, PS Vita, Xbox 360, Wii U, OS X, and Linux. A description of the differences between platform versions can be found here.