Thinking about it, there aren’t that many games that focus on sheer joy. Most entertain through spectacle or satisfaction or sheer escapist fantasy; you can save the world from aliens/Nazis/terrorists, you can score the winning goal in a World Cup final; you can place first in a high-powered street race. But joy? Other than Peggle, which was presumably designed by scientists who spent far too much time planting electrodes into the pleasure centres of the brain while ingesting LSD, there aren’t too many games which exist solely to make you feel good about everything.
Bit.Trip Runner 2 (or Bit.Trip Presents… Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, to give its proper, awe-inspiring title) can comfortably sit alongside Peggle on that front.
In case you missed the original game, Bit.Trip Runner has close DNA links to things like Canabalt. Our protagonist – in this case, a black-clad… thing… called Commander Video – runs constantly from the left of the screen to the right, and it’s up to you to make sure he makes it to the end of each level without dying by making him jump, duck, block, bounce from springboards, and kick. That’s it.
No, really. Your task is basically to press the right button at the right time. If there’s a low obstacle, you need to leap over it; if there’s a bullet screaming across the screen, you need to block it. Sometimes you’ll need to press combinations – duck and kick, say, to knock down a barrier while sliding under something – but for the most part, you’re just responding as fast as possible to the threats on screen.
This probably sounds very dull if you haven’t played Canabalt or any of the myriad other endless runner games that have taken off on smartphones, but the auto-runner genre is remarkably compelling. Success and failure come down not just to reflexes and your ability to touch a button at the right moment – which, naturally, is tense and requires concentration – but also in your ability to get into the game’s flow, which is as indistinct as air, but equally present and important.
Where Runner 2 differs from, say, Canabalt, is that it isn’t endless. It has set levels, and those levels aren’t random. Although “not random” doesn’t really sum it up, because these levels are as precise and intricate as a hand-crafted watch.
This is because Runner 2 is also a rhythm-action game. Pretty much every action you take has a musical cue or sound effect associated; grabbing a piece of gold will result in a musical note ringing out, and that note will fit perfectly with the background music. Certain items dotted around the level also introduce more background instruments or change the music’s tempo, creating more of a resonance between your actions and what you hear.
The aesthetics in general are bang-on. The music is fitting, to the extent that clearing a level perfectly – dodging every obstacle, grabbing every piece of gold and every Extra item – feels fantastic and reconfigures my brain into a organ that dispenses pure joy, and hearing the tune rewind when you hit an obstacle and revert back to the last checkpoint is horrible simply because your mistake has interrupted the wonderful flow of the game. The menus and (truly ridiculous) cutscenes are plummily and cheerily narrated by Charles Martinet, better known as the voice of Mario. And the graphics themselves are bright, crisp, inviting, and fast-moving, to the extent that it’s worth finishing it just to see the last area.
But behind this cheery, joyous exterior lies the cold, beating hard of a merciless bastard. Runner 2 can be really, really hard. Almost everything in the game is capable of killing you, including the scenery; if you jump too late and hit a wall then it’s back to the last checkpoint with you. You will repeat certain sections a few dozen times before nailing them. Nature of the beast, I’m afraid, although there are a few points where a spring bounces you to an unexpected point – resulting in death from an unexpected source – or when there’s very little way to anticipate the problem you’re about to hit, and these deaths are unfairly frustrating.
Making this more bearable are two things. First, there are three difficulty modes, and not only is the lowest easy enough that most people could probably finish the game with a bit of practice, but you can change the difficulty prior to every level. Secondly, the levels themselves have multiple paths, which are handily signposted as to which is easier and which is harder, with the more difficult earning you more points. The game is only as hard as you want it to be, and despite occasional frustrations it’s nowhere near as cruel as past Bit.Trip titles.
And it’s gloriously replayable. Other than aiming to get a Perfect+ rating on every level (achieved by grabbing every pickup on the level and hitting a bullseye in a little post-level minigame), there are scores of bonus levels, hidden characters, and extra costumes to grab, many of which will require you to find hidden areas or alternate routes on levels you’ve already beaten. Again, these levels are exquisitely designed.
It’s also a fantastic game for score-chasers, thanks to one element that really ties everything together: the Dance button. This does absolutely nothing useful. It won’t block shots, or leap you over low-flying objects. It just makes your chosen character burst into a dancing animation for a full second, and this animation can’t be cancelled.
Oh. And it gives you bonus points.
This adds a wonderful technical element to a finely-honed rhythm game. If you press the Dance button, you’d better be certain the animation has time to finish before you next need to jump/slide/block, because otherwise you’re going back to the last checkpoint. If you want to compete on the leaderboards, you’re going to have to press it whenever there’s a second’s pause in a level, and you’ll have to time it just right – which is made a little easier thanks to everything in the game being tied to the rhythm of the audio.
Then again, if you’re not fussed about score, you never have to touch it and you won’t be missing out on anything. Either way, this one little button adds a surprising wealth of depth and extra timing to what’s otherwise a fairly simple game – and it’s completely optional.
Runner 2‘s biggest real problem is also its most noticeable change, and that’s that the oh-so-pretty new visuals can make the screen incredibly busy. The backgrounds are animated, and smashing down a barricade will often obscure most of the screen with debris for just long enough that you can smack into something unseen. For a game so focused on pressing the right button at the right time, it’s not a good thing that threats can often be hard to spot. Again, this is slightly mitigated by the wonderful synthesis between audio and visuals – if you can feel the rhythm and flow of the level and you know there’s an upcoming obstacle that needs jumping, you can often time it right just by listening.
Runner 2 is a bit of a one-trick pony, but it’s a trick that’s done so flawlessly and with such variation that I don’t mind seeing it again and again. It merges audio and visuals better than pretty much anything else on the market. It’s accessible. It’s got more content than you’d think. It’s one of the best auto-runners on the market, and one of the best games for creating a Zen state of playing and reacting without thinking. It has infected my brain. Jump jump duck dance jump block dance JOYSPLOSION.