Bit.Trip Runner Review
Micah Seff
May 18, 2010, 7:31 pm


More like Bit.Trip Bummer.
The Power is On

As I booted up Gaijin Game’s latest, Bit.Trip Runner, for the first time and was greeted by the lilting melodies of hipster-geek gods Anamanaguchi, I knew I was in for a treat.  I was certainly intrigued by the developer’s attempt to merge rhythm gameplay with something resembling a platformer, and the bleepy bloops were enough to lull me into submission from the outset. Unfortunately, the more I delved into this game, the more I realized that Gaijin Games had seriously slipped up with this title. Instead of creating something that effectively merged two beloved genres, Gaijin managed to hobble together the most unintuitive rhythm game of all time contained within one of the most infuriating platformers I have ever played.
Bit.Trip Runner starts off as a beautiful, almost Zen-like experience. Commander Video (the elusive star of the Bit.Trip series) takes a more active role this time around. The Commander is the centerpiece of this game, and at first it’s quite pleasant to control him. He has several different moves at his disposal, all of which are easy enough to pull off. As he dashes inexorably forward, never changing course, it’s your job to time your button presses so that he can escape danger and help the level’s song come together.
As I worked my way through the first zone’s twelve levels, the game felt like pure bliss. The difficulty curve was just right, the move selection felt perfectly responsive, the levels were a fun length, and the way the music and visuals came together was quite enchanting. I very much enjoyed this time with the game, although looking back now, I can hardly remember the good moments as they were so horribly overshadowed by the negative ones soon to appear.
A Hard Day's Night
This brings me to the main error made with this title, the difficulty curve. The game only has a total of 40 or so levels, and the majority of them go by so fast, you won’t even remember that you played them a few seconds after achieving victory. On the other hand, some of the harder levels I found myself stuck on for hours at a time. To me, that’s a huge oversight with this title, because success and failure are so binary in the game, either I found myself cruising right through a level without looking back, or I found myself smashing my face against the floor as I restarted a challenge for the 350th time. This was a huge glaring flaw in the Bit.Trip Runner experience. The vast majority of the levels posed no challenge whatsoever, whereas the harder ones could leave me crumpled up on the floor whimpering for hours at a time.
This problem with difficulty seems likely due to one majorly myopic design decision: hitting anything sends you back to the beginning of a level. Imagine for a moment, Super Mario Bros, except you can never get big, you have no control over your momentum, and touching absolutely anything kills you. Sure, you have infinite lives, but it hardly matters when the slightest flub will cause instant failure regardless of anything else. Because of this decision, the game is never allowed to succeed as either a rhythm game or a platformer.
These failures became more and more apparent the longer I spent with the game, although it wasn’t really until the introduction of the shield mechanic that I felt that the game had really lost track of what it was trying to achieve. Since every single “move” in the game really equates to nothing more than a timed button press, I was pretty happy with the initial selection of moves at Commander Video’s disposal. The Commander can jump, slide, kick, and bounce. All of these moves were taught to me over the course of the first zone, and became almost second nature after a period of adjustment. Why then did the devs feel the need to add yet another move into the game, especially at such a late point? Not only does the shield feel unnecessary, but it also messed me up more times than I’d care to admit. You activate it by pressing forward on the d-pad, which is just slightly too close to how you slide (by pressing down). Since you can’t do both simultaneously, I would find myself shielding when I should be sliding or vice versa. This wouldn’t really matter if you could shield against all projectiles, but you can’t. You can only block the ones that are colored the exact same goddamn color as the main collectible in the game (gold bars).  I can’t even begin to describe the number of times I neglected to shield myself from a projectile because I was 100% certain it was a gold bar.
All That Glitters...

The gold-colored projectiles weren’t the only thing causing my untimely death, as much as I wish that were the case. Since any random little thing is lethal in this game, I’d find myself messing up on sections that I had literally crossed successfully hundreds of times before. And here another major (but almost indetectable) problem became apparent: the distance you jump differs based on how long you hold down the button. This was barely noticeable in the earlier stages of the game, and in fact did not even come to light until I got to the third from last level. At this point, though the whole game just seemed to fall apart completely. I constantly found myself failing to make jumps that had given me absolutely no trouble in the past just because I wasn’t holding jump down the right amount of time. Realistically, though, there was just no way to tell how or why I failed, merely that I did. It was starting to become clear that Bit.Trip Runner did not hinge on “Trial and Error” gameplay, but rather just “Succeed or Fail.” Because the cause of failure was so obfuscated at all times, it was impossible to encounter a situation, fail, and then realize the correct course of action. In fact, for the vast majority of challenges in the game, I found myself breezing through without even really noticing. Unfortunately, Gaijin Games has seen fit to curse the lot of us with a handful of challenges that were so hard, I don’t even really know how I got through them.
I’ve already touched on the reasons why this game fails miserably as a platformer, and I can already hear some of you groaning about the fact that I’m missing the point, that Bit.Trip Runner is more of a Rhythm game than anything else. Regrettably, Bit.Trip Runner is only superficially a rhythm game. It’s something that I didn’t really notice until I found myself stuck on Level 3-9 for several parsecs. I was never actually pressing the buttons in time with any rhythm. Sure, there was a song being made that went along with some of the actions of the Commander, but those sounds didn’t necessarily correspond to the buttons I was pressing, and often times felt like they lacked any real rhythm at all.
Most rhythm games are all about timing. You wait for the appropriate note to find it’s way to the right place, and then you hit it. This simplicity in always knowing exactly when to press which button has allowed for developers to make some ridiculously complex challenges because players always know how or why they failed. Now, imagine for a moment if Guitar Hero, instead of having the clean little marker for when to hit the notes, just had a big vague area of indeterminate size, and it was up to you to fit the note in at the right point. Now imagine if you had to start the song over every time you didn’t manage to guess exactly when and for how long to hit the note. That’s what the harder levels in Bit.Trip Runner feel like. There is no indication of precisely when any action should be done, and absolutely no method of determining exactly what you did wrong should you fail.
A Comedy of Errors

All of this is too bad, honestly, because it feels like there is a rock solid foundation in place with this game. The first several levels are thrilling, the music is awesome, and the visuals are unbelievably charming. It’s just such a shame that none of that matters when faced with the crippling unplayability of the harder levels. If this had been a true rhythm game, the challenge would have come not through simply completing the levels, but striving to perfect them. Because simply beating a level becomes such a chore, I could hardly imagine ever going back to try and do better on anything I had already beaten.
Bit.Trip Runner was an absolutely abysmal experience for me.  The first several levels were totally awesome, and I found myself having a great time with them. Unfortunately, I spent probably 40 minutes total with the easier 35 levels in the game, and then seven or eight hours with the other five.  This was hardly a fun experience, despite the fact that there was fun to be had in this game. In fact, the fun moments in this game are so fleeting that it seemed like maybe 2% of the time I was enjoying myself compared to the other 98% of the time I spent cursing my own existence. I’m hardly a violent person, but Bit.Trip Runner left me so hurt and angry that I don’t know if I could control myself if I happened to meet someone from Gaijin Games in a deserted alley. I definitely like what the company was striving for, I just feel like they missed the mark completely and ended up making the exact opposite of the game that I wanted. I’m sure there are a few incredibly talented gamers out there who will have no problem breezing through this game, but for the rest of us mere mortals, this game will leave you in a quivering heap upon the floor (and not in a good way).
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Background Check: Micah
I have never played a Bit.Trip game before. Both Bit.Trip Beat and Bit.Trip Core looked too simplistic for my tastes (both in terms of art design and gameplay). I did however get the chance to go hands-on with the Bit.Trip Runner demo at GDC, and I was definitely stoked for the final game after trying it out. I love offbeat music games like Rez or even quirky Rhythm Games like Parappa the Rapper or Rhythm Tengoku, so I figured that I would love the hell out of Bit.Trip Runner.

Bit.Trip Runner GDC Demo Loved it
Rez - Loved it
Parappa the Rapper - Like it
Rhythm Tengoku Loved it