Bit.Trip Running

Beware of low hanging buzzsaws.
Beware of low hanging buzzsaws.

The first Bit.Trip Runner game is an abomination. It is almost excellent, for the first ten levels. It has you learning to leap, kick and duck to avoid obstacles, running at speed through a pink-and-purple tinted robotic landscape. The blocky, retro graphics are chunkily beautiful, but the sound is what makes the game. Each gold you get, each jump you make, each obstacle you navigate or ignore contributes a tone to the ambient music: each element is perfectly placed to fit with a broader rhythm. Play means mastering a complex pattern, pushing the right buttons at the right time to navigate increasingly complicated landscapes: the process of mastering those patterns, and the moments when they work well, are both gloriously satisfying.

But at the eleventh level it goes wrong. Odyssey is too long. It isn’t that it’s too challenging – but that it requires more concentration and a much longer stretch without error than any other level in the game up to that point. The joy of Runner is about mastering the patterns in each level, fine tuning to the point where you can not only play the piece note-perfect, but add your own elements on top: a trill here, a crescendo there, an extra jump to get the last gold for a perfect run. Odyssey does not give you chance to master the later patterns, because they are two minutes’ hard concentration away from where you start out. It is too long. It’s been an insurmountable barrier to my playing further: I can see the elegance, the joy in the early levels, but that one defeats me. It’s not worth the effort it takes to surpass.

On your side

Bit.Trip presents… Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, henceforth referred to as BTp.R2FLoRA, expands on the first game and fixes the faults that make Odyssey such an iron bar on the train tracks. I picked it up in the Steam sale expecting to find it a flawed but interesting play – as I do most of the other Bit.Trip games – but instead I find myself turning to it frequently in spare moments, being sucked in to play dozens of levels, hours at a time.

As with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, music is both the purpose and the punishment for the Runner games. Failure – falling to your death, or crashing into an obstacle – makes the music stop playing. In the first game, these failures reset you right back to the start of the level, collapsing the musical landscape back to a very simple, straightforward beat. But the second offers checkpoints – in its own version of Odyssey, multiple checkpoints. As the difficulty ramps up in later levels they’re not generous, and every checkpoint is skippable if you want a harder challenge. But their presence is crucial – they turn an experience of severe frustration into one where you are certain if you just try it again, one more time, you’re sure you can do it right this time. Unlike Runner, BTp.R2FLoRA is on your side.

Dazzling leaps

This time all three difficulty levels are worth playing, because all three have gold to collect. You can play on Quite Easy to pick up collectibles and learn the level structure, then switch through Just Right to Rather Hard for a proper, teeth-grinding challenge. All three play differently – Easy is a thrilling, speedy rush of music, rarely interrupted, while Hard can be determinedly repetitive, a slow push to get a little further each time. After a Hard level, playing on a lower difficulty feels like drinking a cold glass of lemonade on a hot day: refreshing, dazzling, thrilling.

Even within levels the pacing is elegant. Tricky series of jumps and slides that must be timed to perfection and embellished for a perfect score are followed by dazzling leaps in which gold is handed to you by virtue of your trajectory. Moments where you lean forward, snapping buttons in perfect time and deep concentration, are tempered by these sudden, exuberant periods where you have nothing to do but luxuriate in your achievement. You leap joyfully across the screen, which glitters and gleams and rewards you with visual extravagance as you relax for all of about three seconds. These moments are water breaks, waypoints in your race. They are a substantial part of the game’s excellence.

And again, as with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the beat always acts to ground your actions, the way a metronome does when you are playing music. It’s tyrannical too, the way a metronome is when you don’t yet know the notes, or when you can’t move your fingers fast enough over the piano keys to sound the tune correctly. The music acts both to make your experience more difficult and easier; sometimes both by turns, as you learn to master each track. Missing a note, missing one of the optional obsctales or choosing a less complex route, or avoiding a power-up that gives you both a score multiplier and a tonal shift to the background music: these aren’t punishments, but they are moments you could improve, if you played better. You could jump faster. You could hit the Bit.Trip equivalent of all the meedly-meedly notes. But if you don’t, that’s OK. The music still plays.

Dance button

I still haven’t played Hotline Miami. This is an admission of failure on my part, because I know I will love it, once I get past the violence. It’s about understanding a complex landscape and the patterns within it, moving very quickly and improvising based on what you know, learning the levels and mastering them. It’s a game of mastery, and those games are like catnip to me. But the violence is a barrier. I get home from a hard day and I want to relax in a way that doesn’t mean beating someone’s head off a pixelated floor. I don’t want to shoot dogs or see my avatar’s guts spilled, even with hypnotic pulsing music and vibrant psychadelic graphics and a story that’s meant to say something interesting about the violence. I want joy.

BTp.R2FLoRA lets you dance.

Not enough games have a dance button. You aren’t told about it until a fair few levels have passed beneath your constantly running feet, but there it is: you can dance. Dancing can happen at any time, on a flat surface; the animation lasts a fixed length of time, and can’t be interrupted to slide or jump, so it has to be timed well to avoid dancing to your death. Each of the characters you find – there are seven in total, with five found by completing optional levels – has several different dance animations. They are joyous.

They aren’t only joy. Fully completing the game’s extra achievements requires dancing an astounding amount, dancing for an hour when each dance is a second or so. It means dancing as much as you possibly can, treating dancing as a necessary embellishment. It adds a further layer of difficulty to the game: suddenly, Easy mode is no longer a lean-back gentle play with few button presses, but a trickily-timed endurance mode full of single-button improvisation. Hard mode becomes essentially impossible. You learn to read the road, using the beat to guide you: that spiky mushroom dude is coming up there, if I dance here and jump now I can clear it and get the gold to the right of it without dying.

Digital mandala

It is never so carefully thought through as that, of course. Like every excellent game in which speed and mastery are at the core of play, you play better in a slightly distracted reverie. Super Hexagon is one of the games at the pinnacle of this genre: despite having only two buttons, left and right, it is a rich and engaging challenge to learn the game’s patterns well enough to anticipate them, to almost be already moving by the time it becomes clear which direction you should move in. Time slows as you play, relying on what you’ve learned to guide you – relying on instincts faster than conscious thought. On harder levels, thought itself is too slow to guide you. By the time you’ve actualised what’s happening in your head, you should have already reacted. Distracting yourself is key to the top levels of play; using it like a sort of digital mandala, I play best when I am furious, or extremely stressed.

BTp.R2FLoRA never quite reaches those heights of instinctive reflexes, but it begins to come close. It proves this to you beautifully at the very end, which I won’t spoil here. There is a boss fight at the end of each world, in which you must run, dodge, jump and kick against a moving enemy that works against you. The final boss is a glorious reversal of everything you’ve spent the rest of the game learning, and playing it is proof positive that you have learned far more than you’ve realised over the preceding levels. It is gleefully self-assured, a moment that could feel like a betrayal if it weren’t for the game’s excellent mechanics, elegant implementation and perfectly judged difficulty curve. Instead, it has you feeling as though you have discovered a whole new skill that the game’s been hiding from you all along. It has you jumping for joy.

Eulogy: old friend Xbox

Today I am in mourning for my xbox 360. After 4 years of long service it finally red ringed last night while I was trying to play my first proper sidequest on Mass Effect 2.

I feel a need to mark its passing somehow. I bought it way back in spring 2006 if memory serves – it was a first generation machine, obnoxiously noisy, occasionally buggy, and lacking an HDMI port.

While other people swapped broken consoles constantly thanks to Microsoft’s poor performance – I have friends who went through 4 360s in a year thanks to the dreaded red ring – mine soldiered on quite cheerfully. It survived 6 house moves – including going from Newcastle to Norwich wrapped in T-shirts in a suitcase on the train. It saw me through relationships ending, through graduation and a career change and my NCTJ prelims. It saw me married.

When thinking about major time periods in my life, I can link them still to the games I was playing at the time. All, or almost all, Xbox. Second year of university, wrapped up in work and writing constantly – Oblivion. Applying for jobs after uni – Guitar Hero 2. Breaking up with a long-term partner – Assassin’s Creed. NCTJ course – Portal, Braid, Fallout 3.

And looking back it’s striking how often I played out the conflicts and themes in meatspace life through gaming. In periods of intense factual learning I gravitated towards puzzle games with neat solutions; when I felt I couldn’t get anything right I retreated to conquerable, affirming rhythm games; at times of uncertainty and doubt I repeatedly threw myself off tall buildings.

Gaming has been self-care and healing, escapism, social interaction, fun, exploration, achievement and space where achievement no longer matters. It won’t end here – I have every intention of going out today to pick up a replacement. But this does feel very much like the end of an era. The next one won’t be the same.

I wonder if this is how I’ll feel if my iPhone ever dies.