Beaten down by Bit.Trip Runner


— 11:41 PM on March 29, 2011

I'd like to think that I'm pretty good at playing video games. However, every so often I'm handed a beatdown that makes me question the decades I've spent clutching a keyboard, mouse, and controller. Sometimes, the drubbing comes at the hands of pimply teenagers with youthful reflexes and the free time to spend all day honing their aim in online multiplayer shooters. Their juvenile trash talking inevitably stings, but I can't complain about losing to the better man—or boy. Due to a combination of age and neglect, my mad skillz simply aren't what they used to be.

Of course, there are also times that I'm bludgeoned into submission by the game itself. Humiliation at the hands of a machine is somehow harder to swallow than losing to another person. I mean, it's not like I'm taking on Watson or Deep Blue. I'm going head to head with a standard PC, and sometimes it's not even a particularly powerful one.

Such is the case with Bit.Trip Runner, a seemingly delightful, retro-inspired indie title from the same studio behind Bit.Trip Beat, a game I quite enjoy. Beat is a rhythm-infused respin of classic Breakout gameplay turned on its ear. Runner brings a similar rhythm component to 8-bit parkour platforming that feels like a marriage of Super Mario Bros, Excitebike, and Mirror's Edge.

At first glance, the game looks simple. The world scrolls by at a constant speed, while one jumps, slides, blocks, and kicks to negotiate a series of obstacles, enemies, and gold bars. Timing is important, but the levels are tightly synchronized with the music, whose beat provides a cue for each button press. Really, how hard could it be?

As it turns out, really @#$%ing hard. Steam tells me that I've spent more than three hours with the game, and I'm not even a quarter of the way through. Heck, I haven't even encountered a boss battle or been introduced to the game's blocking move.

Bit.Trip Beat is certainly challenging, so I didn't expect Runner to be walk in the park. However, it's unusually abusive for something that was first released on the Nintendo Wii, a console whose audience seems to be dominated by small children and senior citizens. The core problem is the game's lack of tolerance for anything short of perfection. Mis-time a jump, hit slide when you meant to kick, or otherwise let your focus lapse for a second, and you're booted back to the start of the level. There's no margin for error. No checkpoints.

After being brutalized by the game's first few levels, I wondered if perhaps I was playing it wrong—with an Xbox 360 controller hooked up to the home-theater PC in my living room. Switching to a keyboard and mouse didn't help, and neither did moving to the desktop in my office. Apparently, the pressure associated with a steep penalty for failure makes me even more prone to mistakes, after which I want to pitch the keyboard through my monitor.

In Bit.Trip Beat, you build up a virtual health bar that provides an allowance for mistakes. Make too many, and the game plunges into black and white, giving players one last shot at redemption before slamming the door. Runner has no time for second chances. Collecting power-ups, which are deceptively shaped like 3D red crosses, won't increase your health. Instead, they jazz up the music and sprinkle a little more eye candy on the game's funky visuals. Even the difficulty settings have no real bearing on how easy it is to get through a level—they're seemingly there just to dictate how many gold bars are available for collection. Those bars are only good for increasing your score and gaining access to special bonus levels that are even more difficult than the standard ones.

Perhaps the most frustrating element of Runner is the fact that the game is quite fun when you're doing well. The well-implemented rhythm component makes it easy to get sucked into each level, however briefly. I'm also quite fond of the old-school art style and imaginative backdrops that surely were created with the aid of industrial-strength hallucinogens. Of course, I've seen most of Runner's environments through screenshots published by the developer rather than in the game itself. I haven't made it far enough to encounter much in the way of diversity, and I probably won't.

As enjoyable as Runner can be at times, the frustration associated with being kicked back to the start of the level for the smallest infraction is enough to sour me on the whole experience. Even when I manage to string together a perfect sequence of moves to complete a level, I feel more relief than elation or accomplishment. Really, there's nothing to brag about. At that point, all I've managed to do is master a relatively short sequence of keystrokes, prompted by both visual and audio aids—and it's taken me an embarrassingly long time to do so.

I enjoy games that are challenging, but Bit.Trip Runner feels malicious and unnecessarily cruel. Rather than feeling motivated to master it, I'm eager to move onto something with a softer touch... like getting my ass handed to me in Counter-Strike by someone half my age.

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