Beat trippin'


— 9:26 AM on November 12, 2010

Pong wasn't the first video game, but it might be the earliest one that really mattered. The black-and-white, two-dimensional take on table tennis made its debut in an arcade cabinet back in 1972. Before long, you could buy standalone Pong consoles that plugged into standard televisions. My parents had one, and it marked my first encounter with electronic gaming. The rest, as they say, is history.

Even though I last saw the machine more than two decades ago, I remember it vividly. The console was cast in exactly the shade of brown you'd expect from the era. Rather than controlling your paddle with a directional pad, joystick, or buttons, the console offered a single knob bearing a striking resemblance to the dimmer switch in our dining room at the time. Pong's graphics were basic to say the least, but the gameplay was fun, and I remember spending hours watching that little white "ball" bounce back and forth.

My, we've come a long way since. Modern gaming systems bear little resemblance to the console that one could argue started it all. Games have improved by leaps and bounds as developers fueled by massive budgets exploit hardware that only becomes more powerful with each new generation. In some ways, though, we've also come full circle. Retro-inspired titles are in, driven largely by indie developers offering inexpensive games that might be classified as casual but have hard-core arcade sensibilities.

I've grown particularly fond of this genre over the last couple of years, in part because the games are easily digested in the small doses I can squeeze into my real life. High-end hardware isn't required to play this new breed of arcade titles, making it easy to indulge on my laptop and home-theater PC, both of which are saddled with integrated graphics processors that choke on big-name releases.

The latest retro remix to catch my eye is Bit.Trip Beat, which recently hit the PC and Mac for just $10 on Steam. Beat is the first in a six-part series developed by Gaijin Games. Parts one through four are already available for the Nintendo Wii, making the PC fashionably late to this particular party.

As its name suggests, Bit.Trip Beat fuses old-school gameplay with modern rhythm elements. Imagine Pong and Breakout hooking up on the dance floor with 8-bit chiptune music pounding in the background. Also, you're at a rave, and you popped one of those innocuous-looking candies they were handing out at the door. Or, have a gander at the gameplay video I've embedded below. The action starts at the 38-second mark.

Those giant pixels careening toward your paddle are called beats, and there are 20 different flavors. Each has its own unique behavior which, when combined with the sheer volume thrown at the player, makes for some pretty frantic and challenging gameplay. The more beats you return, the higher your score. Hit enough of them, and you'll level up to a "mega" mode that peppers the playing field with heavily stylized low-fi graphical effects and injects some additional depth into the music. Miss too many beats, and the game plunges into a stark "nether" mode that loses the soundtrack entirely.

This nether mode actually makes things a little easier by cutting out the seizure-inducing distractions that permeate the game's more colorful modes. But it also puts you just a few misses away from death, and the lack of music can be a handicap. The beats match the rhythm, and I found far more success when I consciously paid more attention to the soundtrack and less to the technicolor visuals.

Old-school video game music tends to grate on me after a while, but the tunes that accompany Bit.Trip Beat are quite a bit more evolved and engaging. Perhaps because the music is such an integral part of the game, I caught myself head-nodding on more than one occasion. The soundtrack was so well received that CD Baby is selling each of the 10 tracks for $1 a pop.

While I'm not enough of a fan of the music to pay extra for the stand-alone soundtrack, I've definitely gotten my $10 worth out of the game. Difficult as it may be—even on easy—Bit.Trip Beat is a heck of a lot of fun. The game has an addictive quality, too. If Beat were stuck in an arcade cabinet, I'd be out a lot of quarters.

Thankfully, I can play on my desktop and notebook with ease. I'll have to wait to get it up and running on my home-theater PC, though. The game is locked at a 720p resolution, so it doesn't get along with the 1024x768 plasma hooked up to my HTPC. Switching to full-screen mode will scale things up on displays with higher pixel densities, but there's no low-res option, an omission the developer is working to resolve. There are other annoyances, too, like a main menu that requires users to hit a beat each time they make a selection. The effect is cute at first, but it adds about five seconds of effective latency to each click on the main menu, which gets annoying pretty quickly.

Despite its retro roots, Beat offers a few surprisingly modern conveniences, such as Facebook and Twitter integration. Nothing says nerdy like sharing a high score with your social network. More intriguing is the built-in support for Razer's upcoming Sixense motion controller, which seems like a natural fit given Bit.Trip's Wii origins. Gaijin recommends you play with that Sixense controller or a mouse, although gamepad and keyboard input are both supported. The game even has sensitivity sliders for each of its controller options.

The Sixense controller has been on my radar since last year's Consumer Electronics Show, so it's nice to have another excuse to pick one up. Like personal favorites Geometry Wars and AudioSurf, Bit.Trip Beat the kind of game I can see myself playing a lot from the couch—not necessarily in one sitting, but certainly over time. This is a game that's easy to love, and I have to give Gaijin props for paying homage to its inspirations; the second boss battle is right out of Breakout, and the third puts Pong at center stage. Beat takes the best of both and mixes in a dose of modern rhythm and eye candy to produce an experience that truly is greater than the sum of its parts. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to see if I can handle the normal difficulty level.

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