Bit.Trip Runner on Nintendo's WiiWare download service was a weird experiment, an amalgamation of games, a chemically engineered fusion of platform and rhythm, mixed with a healthy serving of neon-lit, mind bending visuals. It rode in on the rising indie wave, and featured pseudo-8 bit graphics and some sick waveform synth music. The formula proved popular enough to launch Gaijin on its way to several more titles in the Bit.Trip series, all of them featuring takes on popular genres of yesteryear, from Pong-likes to shoot 'em-up clones.
Well, Runner has made the jump to next-gen, and with that jump comes a new art style. Gone are the pseudo 8-bit graphics, minimalist textures and mostly squared-off edges, and in come highly stylized models and levels, fully textured, with a more organic, rounded look. Lead character, Commander Video, has gone from a true sprite with two-frame animations to a fully polygonal model.
From a purely visual perspective, the change works. It's hard to argue that the series should have stayed completely retro when looking at something like the beautiful island scenery found in the second world. The main characters are also more likable in their higher detailed forms, dancing and jumping around. When they hit a piece of scenery and get thrown back to a check point, their little legs wiggle around like noodles. In short, the new style looks nice.
However, the change does incur a cost. Runner and Runner 2 are games that ask for significant player skill, requiring split-second timing and reactions. As busy as some stages are, the visual splendor can occlude the action. This is most prevalent in worlds 4 and 5. World 4 is completely red tinted, which makes it difficult to distinguish objects from characters. World 5 is similar in that Commander Video is difficult to distinguish from the background. Granted, different characters and costumes can be used to work around this issue, however even then there are a handful of instances where busy visuals can detract from decision making. All in all, though, this occurs only a few times and does not significantly affect enjoyment of the game.
Audio is another area Runner 2 departs from its humbler origins. The entire Bit.Trip series was an orgy of sonic 8-bit madness, in our humble estimation. Completely waveform synth, with the sort of repetitive-but-brilliant melodies and driving beat lines that made the tunes from Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda such classics. Runner 2 still sounds "synthy," yet it's moved into Redbook Audio territory, with more realistic sound samples.
Again, it's a change that's hard to argue with. While the original Bit.Trip soundtracks were full of raw retro goodness, the new audio style drops into the ears just fine. Additionally, all of the original's tricks are still there: old school melodies on top of old school baselines, notes that interplay with the stage music when the player jumps over obstacles or collects gold bars, and four red cross power-ups per stage that each increase the music's intensity and complexity in that stage.
Gameplay-wise, this really is Runner, part two. As in the first game, players will be running forward full-speed nonstop, jumping over obstacles, kicking down walls, sliding under fireballs, knocking down dots, collecting gold bars and red crosses, and hopefully crossing the finish line. Add to that dash plates, roller wheels that require swirling the control stick, and box wheels that need timed button presses, and what is apparent is that this is indeed the true sequel to Runner.
The biggest change as far as gameplay is concerned is not in the mechanics of runnering; it's in level design and level selection. Stages now have multiple alternate and hidden exits, and alternate paths. Players will be playing most stages more than once if they want to unlock everything. That's not a bad thing, as the alternate paths provide different play-through experiences. Similar to this is a change in how retro stages are unlocked. Unlike Runner where levels needed to be perfected and then there was only one shot at the retro stage, now they can be unlocked by finding gold cartridges hidden in the stage, which can then be accessed at any time.
All of this takes place on a branched overworld map, which allows for stages to be selected as the player sees fit. With 125 stages, that is not an insignificant change, and results in a game that feels more fully-realized than its predecessor. This is all without even talking about the new story, cut-scenes, Charles Martinet's amazing voice over work, the slick user interface, user selectable alternate characters, user selectable difficulty, numerous optional gameplay challenges, online leader-boards and friend high score integration, and more. Suffice to say that Bit.Trip Presents…Runner 2 is a complete package - a great game with excellent gameplay, visuals, and music.