Musical muscle memory: PAR plays Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien
BIT.TRIP Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien
- Wii U
Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien can feel like being put into the human equivalent of auto-pilot.
Ever had that moment playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero where your eyes stop reading the screen, lose focus, and put you into a trance, almost like you’re staring at a Magic Eye book, yet your fingers and feet still keep the rhythm? That’s the feeling.
The running man
The Bit.Trip series of video games, developed by Gaijin Games, were designed to evoke an ‘80s retro aesthetic, while twisting the formula of classic-era games and adding in rhythm-based game play. So Pong became Bit.Trip Beat, while Bit.Trip Core was a top-down shooter in the style of Space Invaders or Galaxian.
The standout hit of the series, however, was Bit.Trip Runner, a 2D platformer that had series hero Commander Video running his way through levels, dodging, jumping over enemies, and collecting gold bars.
Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien is not a part of the Bit.Trip series. Fans of the retro graphics, chiptune soundtrack, and minimalist presentation may feel at odds with Runner 2, as it adds crisply-rendered 3D models and animations, a more complex soundtrack, even cut-scenes with voice acting from Charles Martinet – you know, the voice of Mario.
It’s a significant departure, one that will no doubt be off-putting to some, but game play has remained intact.
We don’t need no steenking checkpoints
One of the reasons Bit.Trip Runner was so popular was its extremely challenging difficulty. Make one mistake in a level and you’re sent back to the start, all dreams of a perfect score crushed. Runner 2 is much more forgiving, and slow-going in the early stages.
You’ll learn one or two actions at a time, and have plenty of practice on a handful of warm-up stages before you’re asked to combine them in the later, more grueling stages. The level which introduces bullseye trampolines, for example, asks you to bounce from one to the next, free of danger, before throwing spikes, enemies, and pitfalls in your path.
There are a total of 120 levels, and the difficulty ramps up appropriately from one to the next. It’s not often you play a game that handles a learning curve so well that it’s noteworthy, but Runner 2 does a good job of starting out easy, and ending up maddeningly hard.
Runner 2 also introduces checkpoints, but those yearning for a challenge can jump over them. Jumping over a checkpoint not only skips it, forcing you to completely restart at the beginning if you hit an enemy or fall down a hole, but also nets you a hefty bonus of points.
The checkpoints feel like they make the game a little too easy at times, though. If you run through a checkpoint and fail, you’ll return to it and start running again, with not only your life and progress, but score intact. In other words, you can fail as often as you like with almost no penalty.
I exploited the checkpoint system to keep retrying a particularly difficult jump so that I could collect all the level’s gold bars. I must have died half a dozen times before I got it, but when I crossed the finish line, I was told my run was “perfect.” When I followed up that run with one that actually was perfect – no checkpoints, no fails – it felt a little cheaper, even though it was marked with a plus sign.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty that’s worthwhile. Later levels can be treacherous, secret paths can be unlocked, as can levels featuring retro graphics, and there is a leaderboard for scores, so there’s plenty to push you to try your best.
The look of music
The Bit.Trip series of games emphasized rhythm and music, with plenty of catchy chiptunes to nod your head to. While Runner 2 ditches the simple 8-bit music for music that’s more complex – you can pick out drums, synths, strings, and plenty of other instruments as they fade in and out – it’s just as good as before. This is music you could listen to on your mp3 player and be happy showing friends, or just relaxing to at home.
There’s good variety here as well; each world has a different sound to it to reflect the mood of its setting. There are five worlds in Runner 2, and they range the gamut in terms of visual design. You’ll be sprinting through a cloud dimension where giant faces on the sides of mountains puff away on pipes, a forest full of lively trees and giant bugs, a world of lava and smoke-spewing factories, and more.
There’s not a ton happening in the background, but there are nice details and set pieces to keep things interesting, and they’re often funny. I giggle a little every time I see an ad for Burger Mouth. That’s just good branding.
You’ll wish you could stop Commander Video from running just so you can watch the planes fly by, or cranes moving shipyard crates, or the various creatures and enemies move about their world. These aren’t the overblown crumbling buildings and Michael Bay explosions, but they’re fun nonetheless, and they’re made possible by Runner 2‘s new visual direction. Runner 2 may be the answer to Ben’s question about what game’s experience can be made better by improved graphics.
Runner 2 feels almost like more of an homage than a true sequel thanks to its more forgiving nature, leap in graphics fidelity, and musical evolution. But even if that’s true, it’s a very good homage, and produces a hypnotic effect that’s hard to shake.
How do you get better at a musical instrument? You practice, practice, practice. You repeat that chord progression until you nail it, and you work on your fingerings until they’re just right. You repeat the same sections over and over until you can perform it by heart, and it starts to feel right. Runner 2 is much the same.
Run, run, jump, slide, run, run, jump, jump, slide, all to the beat and rhythm of the game’s toe-tapping soundtrack. You will fail, multiple times, but each time you do, you rewind and start tapping out the beat again, start pressing the buttons in-time again. Run, run, jump, slide, run, run, jump, jump, slide.
Is it muscle memory or rhythm that takes over your brain and your fingers? Runner 2 blends both, and it’s available now for PC and Wii U, tomorrow for Xbox 360, and March 5 for PS3.