Developer: Gaijin Games
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: February 26, 2013
The constant march of progress in video games has brought us all the way from the mechanical simplicity of Pong to the mind-boggling breadth of Halo, but that very same immense scope provides a challenge for any game that wishes to compete with the constant flood of blockbuster titles. Gaijin Games’ latest release, BIT.TRIP Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien proves that a unique idea with a laser-focused implementation can still deliver the most valuable commodity in gaming: fun.
The indomitably titled game (hereafter referred to as simply “Runner2″, for the sake of your sanity and mine) is a distillation of platforming and rhythm mechanics to their most basic and satisfying forms. Your character runs endlessly, but you’re in charge of dodging obstacles, destroying enemies, and leaping over gaps, each action lending its own musical cue to the score. BIT.TRIP veteran Commander Video returns as your primary avatar, along with friends both old and new.
It’s easiest to think of each stage in Runner2 as a visualized soundtrack, a clean slate for you to lay down bleeps, bloops, and symphonic swells with your character’s actions. Each perfectly timed jump or kick you perform adds a satisfying flourish to the game’s already great soundtrack, and collecting the four cores on each level changes the music entirely, adding layer after layer until the cathartic breakdown when you grab the final core.
These player-initiated musical cues are key to Runner2’s experience, making it just as much a rhythm game as something like Rock Band or Guitar Hero. In fact, it oftentimes works better than those genre standouts because the gameplay is truly about the music and not about dexterity. Though some of the later levels can get absolutely devilish, the simple control scheme leaves the challenge on the screen where it belongs, not in your hands. Each stage is challenging but fair, and failing is never frustrating thanks to quick restarts and mid-level checkpoints.
Though the music is the most evident creative component in Runner2, its whimsical visuals add an important layer to its overall presentation. The chiptunes of the first Runner have taken on new life here as orchestral arrangements, and the graphical elements have evolved in new ways as well. Each stage is rendered in a new cartoonish style that fits perfectly with the wink-and-nudge humor of the game’s cut scenes and voiceover by Mario voice actor Charles Martinet.
Runner2’s slow burn learning curve is nothing short of perfect. From start to finish, every few levels has you learning new skills that eventually coalesce into a vast repertoire presented so elegantly that you’ll forget it exists and just play. The joy of challenge in those final levels continues even when you go back and visit earlier stages, but here it’s the joy of nostalgia and appreciation for your own progress.
Unless you’re a savant, completing Runner2’s main game will take you about eight hours, plenty for its budget price. That initial run is barely the tip of the iceberg, though: each stage has three difficulty levels with their own independent scores. Getting a Triple Perfect+ on each of the game’s 100 levels could easily take you dozens of hours, and even then you might have to further perfect your pathing and performance if you want to compete with the top scores on the game’s global leaderboards.
While all of this might sound familiar if you’ve played the first Runner, there’s plenty here to love for fans of the first game. Unlike the first game’s binary pass-or-fail states, Runner2 offer some new obstacles with variable scoring that still feel perfectly at home in the rhythmic gameplay, and the impressive additions to its predecessor’s limited framework add enough to keep players coming back to Runner2 over and over again.
I could write all the words in the world about Runner2’s polish and presentation, but it’s worth stating again just how impossibly fun it is. There’s something here that draws you in and urges you to keep going, level after level. Even after beating the game and completing most of its challenges on the PC, I started it up on the Xbox 360 and just couldn’t stop. It’s the type of experience that’s simple and incredibly complex all at the same time, delivering the kind of sensory high that might as well be injected directly into your brain.
In what is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence, Runner2 is the perfect execution of what it sets out to accomplish. It knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn’t reach for any goal that it can’t excel at. The gameplay is solid and incredibly satisfying, and every element of the new package it’s presented in makes returning to the rhythmic button tapping fun and worthwhile. And while its core mechanics don’t deviate much from its predecessor, Runner2 left me with only one question: why fix what isn’t broken?