By Geoffrey Bunting
Bit.Trip Runner represents a kind of amalgamation of a range of play-styles. It’s a simple runner along the lines of Temple Run, a 2-D platformer like Mario, with a set of sound effects that wouldn’t be out of place in an old style Zelda game, all wrapped up in the shell of an indie pixel-art game. Taking its cues from these styles of game, it is fast-paced, fun, and extremely frustrating. With a precise set of mechanisms and a punishing death system that will see you launched to the start of a level if you mess up, it can get pretty tense.
But the appeal of Bit.Trip Runner isn’t in its old school mechanisms; it’s in its music. Not just from an incredibly fun soundtrack but rather from its composing elements. You see Bit.Trip is really a rhythm game along the lines of Donkey Konga or Guitar Hero. Yet, rather than taking your rhythmical cues from coloured notations on the screen, your cues are taken from the obstacles you need to avoid to progress; assembling growing layers of different tones as you make progressive jumps, dodge or destroy obstacles, and obtain gold. All these, along with obtainable blocks that add increasing layers to the back track, pull together to, by the end of levels, create the impression that you’ve had a hand in composing the soundtrack.
Whereas many platformers rely on a system of a player memorising courses to run through as quickly as possible, Bit.Trip adds an extra layer by allowing the player to memorise sound cues and anticipate where the next note needs to go in order to guess where the next obstacle might be appearing. This is important when a cacophony of fast movement means that you might not always be able to follow what is happening on screen.
You might think this sounds like it could create some hideous moments, but this is where the ingenuity of placing the game on a constant rail comes in. It means that, if you make your jumps, a note will never fall out of place as you are moving at the song’s rhythm. A missed note isn’t a dropped note, it’s just death. Few sounds hurt as much as the jarring crash of hitting an obstacle that interrupts your burgeoning digital symphony, especially as you progress later into a level and the music is really flowing.
While adding another level of gameplay to the process, the rhythm elements of Bit.Trip Runner also adds a new layer of difficulty. In trying to keep its musical track running and in trying to anticipate obstacles, it is easy to lose focus on the present. Looking too far into what is to come, thinking you have an obstacle covered, more often than not leads to a pit fall. Similarly, the gold – the staple collectable of platformers through the years – is similarly deceiving. While it allows access to the bonus stages of the games – fashioned in the retro NES style – it is also there to lead less-skilled players into the obstacles they are trying to avoid. A piece placed too close to a pile of rubble or placed for the player to jump to, only to fall into a wall. It is a measure of the game’s good design that everything is placed carefully and with a purpose, good or ill, and always with the composition in mind.
In playing Bit.Trip Runner, you are more or less watching the counter of a musical track move across the screen in interactive real-time. Much as we spoke about in our In Favour of the Old Ways article, Bit.Trip calls on its 80s and 90s predecessors for inspiration while adding elements from modern Temple Run style games. But it also adds novel rhythm elements to its platformer façade to stave off the monotony that accompanies Temple Runners. The result is a simple game that might otherwise have been fairly tedious, exalted above other similar experiences through the use of one thing: music.