Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien is a mouthful, but Gaijin Games are nothing if not self-aware: Nonsensical subtitles have long been the purview of Die Hard movies and badly localized Japanese games.
The most telling piece of marketing for the game was designed to call attention to, and preemptively deflect criticism of, Runner 2’s art direction: “Imagine a world where everything is 8-bit, where your greatest retro dreams come true. Well, fuck that place.” The game gives players helpful tips during loading screens, one of which is, “Believe it or not, not all games have to be brown.” And there’s no denying or maneuvering around it: Runner 2 has shed the pixelated aesthetic of the previous Bit.Trip games in favor of lush, colorful, fleshy visuals.
Runner 2 is ostensibly a rhythm game, nestled inside an auto-running platformer. Commando Video moves inexorably forward, jumping, sliding and kicking to meet the demands of the the game’s hundred-odd levels. Every pile of gold, score multiplier, spiked enemy and giant gherkin is fully animated, bopping, gyrating and wiggling in time to Disasterpeace’s score. Each level’s background seems to extend infinitely deeply, hinting at worlds unexplored. Runner 2’s bright colors and fluid animation give life to a game with the thinnest of premises, and each unlockable character’s dancing and idling animations are full of charm.
As in all Bit.Trip games to date, Runner 2’s action and soundtrack have a reciprocal relationship. Finding each track’s beat can inform players of the timing and patterns necessary to clear a particular section, while each successfully hurdled enemy or collected coin creates an extra note to flesh out the melody. The result can be thrillingly synesthetic, but Runner 2 also hinges on teaching players automatic, Pavlovian responses to visual information: fireballs that need to be ducked under, for example, look different than enemies that can be kicked over.
Because “auto-running rhythm-based platformer” is a fairly restrictive genre, players have a fairly limited number of moves in their repertoire. Thankfully Gaijin are efficient teachers. The short levels and the mechanics’ limited scope breed repetition, and high-level Runner 2 play is a function of intense muscle memory that requires a level of physical commitment unheard of in other types of games. Like shooting free throws or hitting in a batting cage, playing well feels right. I always know immediately when I botch a jump, before my avatar even has time to crash into whichever wall or pixelated crab brings my run to an end.
When the game clicks, a sort of narrowing happens: I no longer look at Commander Video—or my personal favorite, the Reverse Merman with the Mecha-Trout costume—but at the space just in front of him, my fingers reacting preternaturally to each oncoming threat. (There’s a level in the last hub-world called the “Supraliminal Slide.” The joke is that every level should be called this.) It’s here, though, in the midst of that tunnel-visioned trance, that the game’s aesthetic threatens to tip from vibrant to overly busy. Enemies, ledges and inexplicable holes in the ground sometimes blend into the background, swallowed up by the wiggling trees or bobbing machinery. When Runner 2 grinds to a halt, it does so with an audible clang, and the built-up tension is released unsatisfactorily. It doesn’t happen often, to be fair, but a more restrained hand and cleaner level design could have smoothed a few particular sections.
Still, Runner 2 can be a fiendishly difficult game, even on its default setting: My deaths caused by bad timing far outnumber the ones caused by the game’s art. The addition of mid-level checkpoints—the lack of which made the original Bit.Trip Runner prohibitively punishing—is a smart addition, as are the different difficulty levels. In fact, there are no penalties at all for dying often, kicking the difficulty down, or avoiding the optional, more difficult alternate courses for each level. On the whole, Runner 2 is an inviting, uplifting game: There’s no need to be ashamed of failure when the game makes it so easy to dust yourself off and try again.
To this end, Runner 2 takes cues from Super Meat Boy (the protagonist of which makes a cameo, incidentally): There are no Game Over screens or life counters to contend with. Should your avatar hurdle to his digital death, the game simply plants him at the most recent checkpoint, and it’s off to the races again. “Masocore” games are characterized by their difficulty and bite-sized levels, but the term is better-suited to Team Meat’s gruesome pulp than to Runner2’s cheery whimsy. The second hub-world, the Emerald Brine, is beach-themed, and the vaguely Caribbean schtick makes Runner 2 feel downright relaxing.
Its approachable design and aesthetic notwithstanding, Gaijin Games haven’t totally shaken Bit.Trip’s legacy: The last world is a hyper-stylized send up the previous games’ 8-bit style, and there are two-dozen hidden “retro” challenge levels. Like so much of Runner 2—which got its “T” rating by including a character named Whetfahrt Cheesebörger—the retro levels feel like an elaborate gag: The controls aren’t as precise, and you only have three chances to beat the level before its game over. I get the joke—that Runner 2 has modernized the Bit.Trip series and is better for it—but I still have to sit through the loading screens each time.
Runner 2 also has the types of social hooks we’ve come to expect from modern video games, but none of them are particularly important. There’s an elaborate scoring system, online leaderboards and achievements or trophies for your platform of choice, but they pale in comparison the purity of a well-executed run. Playing Runner 2 is like a series of minute-long fugue states: When everything pulses in concert, the eyes widen, the pupils dilate, and the breathing slows, and time only starts to flow normally again when the level ends.
Joseph Leray is a freelance writer from Nashville. He’s written for BitCreature, Destructoid, and TouchArcade and has a personal blog. He tweets, too.