Wiiware has been an interesting experiment. While it isn’t the first time Nintendo has offered downloadable content (the uninformed should google "satellaview") it represents their first serious attempt at selling non physical games.
While much of the content offered on WiiWare can be considered pretty generic, there is a sizable proportion of it that is worthwhile investigating – some of it without an equivalent on the PS3 or 360.
The Bit.Trip series has to be considered one of these and it is a success – critically if not commercially. This is a series of six games released individually on the WiiWare service over a year or so that share a highly stylised look and soundtrack - each centred around a different core old school game mechanic. Bit.Trip Complete is a disc-borne re-release of all six titles slickly presented and accompanied by extras at the right price that could tempt even those who have already bought most or all of the titles in the series.
The first game, Bit.Trip Beat consists of the player having to intercept “beats” that look like old Pong balls with a paddle. It plays like a version of Breakout or Arkanoid set on its side and the control could only be realised on the Wii at the time of release. The Wii remote is held horizontally in one hand and then twisted clockwise or anti-clockwise by the other – moving the paddle up and down the screen to prevent any beats getting by. Beats bounce off the bat and it’s the player’s job to prevent any getting by. The control scheme is a delight and provides a real alternative to old school paddle controllers found on dedicated Pong consoles and the Atari 2600.
It is a pity that this hasn’t been used further by other development houses – old paddle game classics such as Warlords and Kaboom could now be done justice – playing these with an analogue or dpad just doesn’t cut it. It beggars belief that another WiiWare offering – Arkanoid Plus! which was released later doesn’t use this scheme.
Anyone thinking that this is just another bat and ball game would be mistaken however. Each entry in this series of games is in actual fact a loose crossover between simple action games and rhythm/music games like the more esoteric titles such as Rez or Vib Ribbon.
Beats move across the screen from right to left and while it all starts out like a pretty simple affair you are soon assaulted by hordes of beats moving in patterns and tight or loose clusters at varying speeds making the selection of which one to block at any one time quite a hair raising experience. The soundtrack is integrated with the sounds generated by blocked beats and you very quickly feel the rhythm of the music and then of the level itself - the player starts to feel the emerging patterns in the beats – it is an extremely compulsive, enjoyable and unique experience.
Like all the other games in this series this also has the age old greed/combo building mechanic. The bigger your chain of non-misses the greater your score multiplier gets – but also – the more compelling and extravagant the visuals and sounds become. These games all feature plateaus – the lowest having the most basic black and white graphics with basic beeps through to the highest that has the most glorious sights and sounds that look like what a supercharged Atari 2600 console would generate back in the late 70s.
The whole series has this high tech retro feel. The graphics are deliberately blocky but have a colour palette and range of effects that 2600 developers couldn’t even have dreamed about and the sounds are deliberately old school electronic "chiptunes" but with have a sophisticated modern sound. It is another aspect of the series that makes them unique and really interesting to play.
The player moves up through plateaus by building long chains and moves down by repeatedly missing beats – missing enough at the lowest plateau results in game over. The game, like all entries in the series, is quite short (betraying its low cost WiiWare origins) – there are only 3 levels but they are long, very tough and each features a boss battle at the end.
The second game called Bit.Trip Core keeps the idea of intercepting beats on the screen but changes the gameplay mechanic. This time beats move vertically and horizontally and the player controls a cross shaped device at the centre of the screen that shoots beams in one of four directions – the beams capturing the beats. The player is required to hold the Wii remote in its NES controller configuration selecting the direction using the dpad and then pressing the fire button at the right time to capture the beats in line with the beam at that time. The gameplay is reminiscent of the old 2600 game Cosmic Ark that has the player controlling a ship in the centre of the screen shooting asteroids coming from 4 different directions.
Again the mechanic of plateaus reached by building combos and missing beats is present as is the ascending/descending quality in the sounds and visuals which makes use of the most gorgeous hues. This game seems to be much tougher than its predecessor - the patterns and speeds of the beats on-screen become almost overwhelming very quickly and it is harder to get into a rhythm but ultimately it has the same enjoyable sense of rhythm integrated with the soundtrack once you get it.
The third game, Bit.Trip Void sees development in the gameplay mechanic to the use of the nunchuck to move a black void around the screen. The aim of this game is to absorb black beats and to avoid the white ones. The greed mechanic is in full force here as your void grows with each black beat absorbed. At any time you can cash in what you have absorbed for a big bonus which also returns you to the starting size but if you hit a white beat you return to original size and lose the bonus. Your void can also take on a temporary repulsing ability that pushes the white beats away.
Bit.Trip Runner is the fourth game in the installment and is by far the least abstract in the series. Gameplay has now progressed to classic left to right platforming very reminiscent of the game Pitfall except the running man moves automatically and the player has to time the jumps, slides, kicks and other moves in order to negotiate the obstacles. Each level has to be perfected - one mistake and you are returned to the beginning. You have infinite lives - the game's challenge is simply to complete all of the levels spread over three zones each ending with a boss battle.
The levels are filled with what look like bars of gold (another nod to Pitfall) and these are used to score and so to ultimately tempt the player into difficult sequences of jumps in order to collect them all - each level displays how many there are to collect. Interspersed with bars of gold are collectables that increase the players plateau which ups the graphical look slightly and also enriches the soundtrack as before. At the highest plateau, the player leaves behind a rainbow stream - just like the artwork on old Activision Atari game boxes that implied movement on the cover art.
Collecting all of the gold sees the player tackling a "retro challenge" bonus level with the same gameplay and goal but the imagery is now a fully remixed copy of Pitfall (it even has a quiet background hiss of a partially mistuned Atari console) for more points which gives the player a "double perfect" target to aim for on each level. This game is perhaps a high point in the game series and would be considered more approachable to more people (indeed this one got a release on Steam) despite the unforgiving oldstyle gameplay of one mistake and your dead. This "trial and error" and "learn-by-rote" style of play may frustrate modern gamers who have no warm memory of the sights and experiences on offer in this game.
Again your jumps and kicks etc. add to the soundtrack and this helps get you into a rhythm of the music and the level which can actually help you defeat the tougher levels.
Bit.Trip Fate is the next in the series and we have progressed to the shmup game mechanic. The nunchuck is reintroduced and it is used to partially control the figure from the previous game who is attached to a horizontal waving line "sine wave style" path. The stick is used to move the figure back and forth along this path and the remote is used to aim/point and shoot. Despite the old style gameplay this title actually has more modern shmup features such as the idea of a collision box. The figure can be hit without taking damage unless a hit is registered at a small area in the chest of the figure (his heart?) which allows for great skill in threading through swarms of enemies while not taking damage. This isn't an old-school "one hit and you're dead" shooter either - you have an energy bar that results in life loss when depleted through repeated hits.
The final game in the series Bit.Trip Flux brings us back to the gameplay of the first game but with some differences. This time the beats move left to right and there are new beats to be avoided. The challenge seems to have been stepped up from the first game and the graphics and colours and even more attractive and that same great paddle control scheme is used.
All of the games in the series apart from Runner provide some sort of co-operative multi-player support for 2 and in some cases up to 4 players.
Played in sequence these games take the player through a cycle of gamestyles - arriving back at the first that is similar but slightly different - almost as if it has picked something up along the way and if you get this compilation and read the letters from the developers (just one of the extras explained below) you will learn that the series of games reflects the life of the character in the Bit.Trip Runner game called Commander Video - from creation in the void to birth, life, challenge, and death - rejoining the void but somehow being enriched from the experience.
This all might sound a bit contrived to some but the developers of this series really seem to have approached this as a work of - dare I say it - art?
For those who have bought into some or all of these games already there are several extras on the disc (which in itself may provide some comfort to those who are wondering if we will be able to transfer our digital games onto the Wii U). There is a library of unlockable art, music, videos and the aforementioned letters from the developers explaining each of the games and the games series as a whole which provides concise but interesting reading. The disc is also accompanied by a 2nd bonus soundtrack disc which is always a nice thing to have for collectors.
Gameplay wise, there is a new easier difficulty level and more comprehensive online highscore support - but the main new feature is the 20 new challenges each game in the series has - tough highly focussed levels that require perfection in order to defeat. They unlock in batches as the player progresses and provide a hefty challenge to those who have completed the main game levels.
Overall this is a very attractive package but probably cannot be recommended unconditionally. These games are highly stylised and are based around simple old-school unforgiving gameplay with a pretty high degree of challenge. There are precious little in the way of checkpoints or savepoints here - although they are to found to keep even the more determined gamer sane. This is a love letter to the Atari 2600 and its game library as well and this may well be lost on many gamers who didn't live through that era - but it is a delight to older folk who lived through it and still remember it fondly.
"Are games art?" is almost a joke question on jaded videogame forums. "What is hardcore?" is another met with scorn when posted by a bright eyed enthusiastic forum newcomer. Rez has come and gone, as has Ico and Shadow of the Collossus - all poster boys for the game/art sympathisers but here's a title that just might provide an answer to both those questions - "this is."
Gameplay 7 : while its really old mechanics it is still very addictive. A 7 is probably the most a title like this can get given the marginal appeal it will have.
Graphics 9 : not for number of polygons or pixels – but for the design and sheer guts required to release something looking like this
Sound 10 : brilliant soundtrack which merges with the gameplay and level design.
Value 7 : even with the extras the content might feel light to some but the replayability for those with the right frame of mind is massive
Overall 8 : simple gameplay but with a new polish and sheen and really clever design, mixed with immaculate presentation.