BIT.TRIP – Quest for Tires?
In the last few years the gaming industry seems to have finally realized gamers are aging, and these adult gamers tend to appreciate some nostalgia from their childhood gaming days. So new games – especially indie games – are being released fast and furious to appeal to this retro market. This movement has produced some frankly awesome games, such as my favorite game of 2010 – Super Meat Boy.
Unfortunately, sometimes developers who mean well, dig up traits from old games that are best left buried in the past. Case in point: Gaijin Games’ BIT.TRIP RUNNER. RUNNER seems to cherry-pick the most frustrating of all retrogaming tropes, while introducing modern music/rhythm-game elements that are the definition of half-baked. That sucks, because the concept of RUNNER shows so much promise! Did I mention the game looks really cool too?
First, some background on the BIT.TRIP series. If you haven’t heard of it before, that’s not a big surprise because all 6 games initially appeared on as downloadable titles on Nintendo’s WiiWare service. RUNNER was released in 2010, and then subsequently made the jump to Steam on PC early in 2011. I myself picked up RUNNER in an indie game bundle – but don’t ask me which please!
The premise of RUNNER reminds me most of a game from my own retro-gaming childhood called B.C Quest for Tires, for the Colecovision. Basically its a constantly side-scrolling avoidance game, where you need to quickly react to oncoming hazards in order to survive. Where RUNNER differs from the earlier game is that Gaijin Games adds in a rhythm-game component. While its possible to play the game with audio completely off, every movement (supposedly) corresponds to the beat of the music. So by focusing in on the musical timing you can hone in your platforming skills. Or at least that’s the idea in theory…
The Wall of Difficulty
Before I get back to the rhythm-game components, let’s just talk about the general gameplay. This game is diabolically hard. Its frustrating in a way that will prompt many to give up far before they see the ending credits roll. Nevermind that, according to Steam less than 13% of gamers finished the first 11 (of 50) levels! That is because Gaijin Games has delved back into the past to retrieve a truly evil relic of retro game design – the extreme difficulty curve.
In the early 80s it was typical for a game to start out fairly easy before smashing the player ruthlessly – often in the first five minutes. This made sense back then, as arcade gaming ruled the day and of course harsh difficulty = more quarters! Console and computer gaming were hugely influenced by this for years, since arcade ports were so very important to the home games industry. After awhile, developers began to tune their games for longer playtimes that fit the home market better. It seems like this started happening with the NES. Certainly even the first Super Mario Bros. – though far from easy – featured a more elegant and gradual difficulty curve throughout its many worlds.
In contrast, RUNNER takes you from complete ease, to the absolute depths of gaming despair within 15 minutes. The first 9 levels are short and very easy. At the 10th level, all hell breaks loose. This level is much longer and much more difficult than all the previous levels. This is compounded because if you get hit once, you better get your ass back to the very beginning of the level mister! I probably spent about 30 minutes on this level, retrying again and again in an attempt to memorize the entire level structure. Yup, you heard right – break out your mnemonics because at its heart RUNNER is more of a upscale game of Simon Says than a rhythm game. I suppose, in a sense you could call learning to play a song on a real instrument a memory game, but in that case you are actually creating audio (as you’ll read below, your influence on the music is minimal) and there is room for creativity. There is no room for improvisation or creativity in RUNNER – its like a high school band class where one improvised note forces the entire band to start the song from scratch. Didn’t Pink Floyd write an album about living in a world like that?
After the 10th level, I wasn’t expecting it to get any easier. I was right. The 11th level is called Odyssey and its from this level that I got the 13% stat I mentioned earlier. You get an achievement for finishing this level, and by looking at the Steam achievement stats for this game you can see that 12.7% of owners got this achievement. The reason why is that Odyssey is bullshit. Take the difficult 10th level of the game. Ok, now make it much harder and multiply the length by 4x. All done! Its not so much the added difficulty that hurts but the length – each time you die you must repeat the entire level, and the first 50% of the level is quite easy. So you must trudge through this early 50% just to see what the hell is coming next, before dying and trying all over again. Its a terrible level with bad pacing inside a game with horrible pacing as well. We are talking groundbreakingly bad meta-pacing here, folks.
If you do manage to finish Odyssey you have not finished the first world yet. Welcome to the first boss-fight in RUNNER. Basically a lunar crystal-powered flying machine drops varying obstacles in front of you, with very little time to react. In fact, in certain situations in this fight there is literally no time to react to what the game is throwing at you on your first try. You’ll learn through trial and error, starting from the very beginning each time of course. That type of game design wasn’t much fun in the 80s, and is borderline insulting in the modern era. Apparently most gamers thought so too – because only 9% beat this boss and finished the first world. Congrats Gaijin Games! You’re officially hardcore… Was that what you’re going for?
Here is the final punchline in this cruel joke of a difficulty curve: the first half-dozen levels of the second world are incredibly short and easy!
As a rhythm-game RUNNER unfortunately comes up way short as well. The absolute first concern of any rhythm game is that the music is good. Trouble is, RUNNER’s music is not good. The title and credits are done by the extremely talented Anamanaguchi, but the ingame stuff was done in-house. Its not so much that the music is terrible, its that you will have heard each song dozens of times before you complete a level – and you’ll probably never want to hear it again. The other factor is that the in-game tracks unfold, revealing new elements as you pick up certain powerups. This means until you get your first powerup later in the level, you’ll hear an extremely short, sparse and minimal loop. On the difficult levels the first powerup is often some distance away – and remember you’ll repeat the first 50% of the difficult stages tons of times – so its likely you’ll spend a massive amount of time listening to this short and crappy minimal loop before you finally finish the level.
The second element that is really important to a good rhythm game is feedback. If you are off-beat, the game should communicate this to you somehow so you can fine-tune your rhythmic technique. In Guitar Hero you get visual feedback on a missed note, as well as the audio ‘clang’ of a wrong note played. In RUNNER, many moves are designed to be made off-beat (not following any musical rhythm value), which doesn’t make sense to begin with. Those that are meant to be on-beat, don’t need to be exact – ie. you can often survive a jump/duck that was slightly late or early. That’s good that there is some room for error, but there is no feedback to let you know you were off. If your timing isn’t quite right, the only feedback you get is death. Have fun!
I know its a lot to ask, but please be patient as I vent on one more rhythm-game shortcoming of RUNNER. Everytime you make a move, whether that’s a jump, kick, duck, slide or a bounce you will trigger musical notes. They are triggered randomly, from the musical scale the song is played in. Sound familiar? It reminds me of the awesome action/rhythm-game pioneer Rez – and the notes that were played each time you hit the enemy. I actually remember really liking that effect in Rez, but I absolutely hate it in RUNNER. Aside from me maybe just being older and grumpier, I think its because Rez’s techno score suited this type of ‘random melody’ much better than the chiptunes of RUNNER. Chiptunes are an extremely melodic form of music, and throwing in random notes triggered by the player adds nothing useful to them. Further, Rez was released back in 2001! This is a whole decade later, and Gaijin Games did not innovate on this formula whatsoever. In short, don’t be deceived that you are ‘creating’ the music in RUNNER. You are triggering annoying randomly-generated notes. Let’s hope some indie developer truly innovates in this sector of rhythm games eventually because RUNNER is still playing catch-up to a Dreamcast game.
RUNNER is a game that tries to fuse together retro gameplay and aesthetics with modern rhythm-game elements. The trouble is, Gaijin Games failed on both levels. Speaking as someone who has nearly A+’d the entire difficult Dark World in Super Meat Boy – RUNNER’s gameplay is crafted for only the most masochistic and hardcore retrogamers. Further, the musical-side of the game is derivative, repetitive and adds nothing significant to the experience. What’s most amusing and frankly amazing about Gaijin Games’ RUNNER is that they originally released it on Wii. I cannot think of a game style more unsuited to the Wii audience than this broken mix of extreme-difficulty-rhythm-platfomer. I’m sure on PC there will be quite a few more hardcores looking for extra nerd cred that will plod their way through RUNNER for the achievements – and then tell all who will listen that RUNNER is the most under-rated retro game out there. These cheevo-fueled gamers might also say that “They just don’t make games like this anymore.” Yup. And there is a reason why. Games like RUNNER aren’t any fun.Tags: bc quest for tires, bit.trip, gaijin games, retro, runner