Back in eighth grade, a scheduling error stuck me in concert band when my trumpet and I should have rightly been down with the dozers in intermediate. Rather than cut through the red tape and rearrange, the band teacher—who, as I recall, had a disturbing predilection for pink plaid blazers–stuck a baritone horn in my hands and told me to try to keep up. Let’s just say there were some interesting moments involving a Sousa march and the theme from “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Playing Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien feels a lot like the first three weeks of that eighth grade band class. And I mean that in the most positive—and also the most frustrating—way. Like mastering a difficult piece of music, mastering the jumps, dives, spins and twirls required to make it from point A to point B requires some serious practice. And some even more serious patience.
If you had to categorize this game, you’d toss it in the endless runner pigeonhole—and you’d miss the point entirely. Like the first Bit.Trip game, the action consists of our old pal Commander Video running quickly across the screen, dodging increasingly difficult and speedy obstacles. While the first Bit.Trip game was a big wet kiss to the era of the Atari 2600, Runner 2 embraces both a full-on 3D presentation and the Famicom era, including unlockable levels that seem like they were lifted right off the old-console screen. For old-schoolers, that’s worth the price of admission alone.
But even if the nostalgia’s lost on you, you’d be hard pressed not to be impressed by the presentation here. That is, assuming you can appreciate the detailed level environments that are speeding past while you’re gearing up to nail the timing on the triple-jump that’s hitting in the next half-second. Every object you jump, slide or duck to pick up adds musical notes to a growing soundtrack, so every time you successfully pull it off, you’re adding to the feeling that you’re building something tuneful and beautiful. Kinda like mastering the guitar solo in Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow,” but with better graphics and no Eddie Vedder scowl.
Even though everything’s moving like a grocery-store checkout belt jacked to fifth gear, Runner 2 actually introduces its difficulty curve gradually, so all the jumps, slides and loop-de-loops don’t cause you to spontaneously combust before the first five levels have passed. By the time you’ve survived the forest and reached the volcanoes and lava world, you’ll be using most of your controller’s buttons and sticks in an almost zen-like state, reacting instinctively, like some kind of platforming pinball wizard.
Or, more likely, you’ll be repeating yourself—a lot. Even the “quite easy” difficulty level in Runner 2 can be quite frustrating. Unlike other non-runner rhythm games (think Rock Band), a single mistake yanks you back to the last checkpoint—and checkpoints are few and far between. On the one hand, this can be primal-scream inducing, particularly when you blow an easy step-jump with the finish line in plain sight. On the other, the feeling of personal satisfaction when you finally—FINALLY–ace a perfect run is sweeter than the rush other games offer for task completion.
To offset the intensity, Runner 2 deploys a wicked-fun sense of humor, evidenced by the cutscene narration delivered by none other than the droll Charles Martinet, the guy who also voices Mario. Thankfully, the commercials for dopey products like Mouth Burgers aren’t served up in a high-pitched Italian accent.
The old adage claims that practice makes perfect. In serving up a game whose alternate (and shorter) title could easily be Try, Try Again, Gaijin Games has created a practice exercise that plays out just about perfectly.
+ Gradual learning curve
+ Hilarious voice-overs and cutscenes
+ Homage levels to the 8-bit era rock
+ Completing each level feels like a major accomplishment
– Being yanked back to the start of the level for a single mistake is scream-inducing
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox Live Arcade, also available on PSN, Steam and Wii U eShop
Publisher: Aksys Games / Gaijin Games
Developer: Gaijin Games
Release Date: 2/26/2013
ESRB Rating: Teen