Ah, runners – those distinctive semi-automated platformers omnipresent across our mobile devices. They are usually endless, often require simplistic input, and are only engage for as long you’re willing to tolerate their repetitive nature. It’s weird that these games aren’t often tailored to the console space. I would think the opportunity to employ a proper interface, integrate your friends competently, enjoy giant screen, and of course use tactile buttons would present an attractive medium for runners. The folks at Gaijin Games happened to embrace many of these ideas with Bit.Trip Runner in 2010, and, wouldn’t you know it, upped their internal ante with a sequel, Bit.Trip Presents…Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien for 2013.
Runner2 layers its mechanics piece by piece. Jumping over stuff, seemingly the simplest of input, is quite a challenge given its relatively short arc. Soon, holding down to slide, holding right to block projectiles, hitting another button to kick wooden traps, and pressing up to employ jump pads becomes second nature. More abstract challenges like rotating the right stick around loop-de-loops, sequentially inputting face buttons around other loops, and freelance dancing whenever there’s a break in the action aren’t required, but exist to boost your end-level score. Over the course of its one hundred (and twenty five retro) levels, Runner2 offers a sustained injection of either fresh mechanics or previously unused ways to use said mechanics. Jump sliding through the middle of two spike monster things and ever so briefly popping up to snag gold before returning to your slide, for example, soon transitions from a one-off instance into a required motion. In fact, assuming you’re going for 100% completion (as god intended), the transition between implementation and required mastery is noticeably short. Runner2, if you allow it, will challenge you at every instance.
Runner2 is jam-packed with ways to challenge its audience. Three levels of difficulty are standard, but how each level might be consumed is up to the player. Collecting all of the gold pieces scattered about each level not only builds toward earning a recognized perfect run, but accumulates in a world-encompassing total and can be used to access otherwise locked levels. Likewise, electing to take alternate paths can lead to treasure chests for different costumes or alternate exists to completely different levels. In fact, a level can only be truly perfected if you can manage to shoot your character out of a canon and bulls eye a target, a challenge which only exists if you manage to get all of the loot inside each level. Hell, if you’re opting to earn every PSN trophy this is intensified further by requiring the player to triple perfect (read: achieve perfect on each difficulty) every level. Spread over the course of 100 levels, that’s a metric ton of content.
Golden tapes, usually in obscured areas, represent one of Runner2’s more interesting pick-ups; access to one of its twenty five retro levels. The visual presentation is bumped back to the original Runner’s 8-bit aesthetic and complimented with a wickedly addicting chiptune soundtrack. Honestly after years of retro-revivals I was sort of over chiptune-style music, but pieces attached to each retro level are surprisingly addictive, unusually menacing, and seemingly tiny pieces of a grand track. From a gameplay standpoint the retro levels play exactly like the normal levels, but, since the landmarks look a bit different, are slightly more difficult to digest. You also only get three stabs at completing each one, and none have the mid-level check points found in normal levels.
Runner2 specializes in creating sequences where I discovered I hadn’t been breathing for the previous thirty seconds. This isn’t uncommon, everything from Ms. Splosion Man to Super Meat Boy have offered similar moments of ephemeral intensity, but, more often than not, Runner2 earned its tension genuinely. It shies away from memorizing sequences learned exclusively through repeated failure into a defined series of recognizable obstacles meant to be dealt with on the fly. Roughly translated, Runner2 prefers pure reaction over trial and error memorization, setting it apart from most of its platforming peers.
You might not even realize it, but Runner2 is also a rhythm game of sorts. As it turns out, collecting all of the red + thingies and other assorted loot builds each levels soundtrack, completely incorporating the bleeps and bloops of picking up items right into each level. Ironically, I had no idea this was function part of Runner2 until I was in another room (writing this) and listening to someone else play. I was so intensely focused on mechanical perfection that I had completely blocked the relation between player input and each level’s music. The Supernature’s set of levels, for example, feature this jazzy, totally relaxing collection of smooth electronic tracks. Unexpected instances of drum and bass nicely compliment plucky guitar strums and work as either oddly soothing writing music or an antidote to the unchecked rage potentially induced through Runner2’s difficulty. Runner2’s entire suite of tunes are both delightful and engaging, which is a weird though appreciated contrast for a game seemingly born to evoke constant streams of four letter words.
If its hilariously protracted title hasn’t clued you in, Runner2 is intimately aware of its ridiculous premise. Commander Video, Runner’s objective protagonist, is supported by a cast of mechanically identical but aesthetically insane unlockable characters and costumes. Unkle Dill, for example, is an anthropomorphic pickle whose only default piece of clothing is a pair of boots. When he takes damage and resets to a checkpoint his hose arms flail in a windmill type motion and his pupils rotate in opposite circles like your favorite cartoon crazy person. Likewise, Reverse Merman features a fish tail near his torso that, when he runs, looks suspiciously like a giant wobbling scrotum. Use your imagination to figure out what kind of guy Whetfahrt Cheesebörger might be, but in every case Runner2’s demented cast oozes Adult Swim scented charm from every gaping orifice.
Visually speaking, the rest of Runner2 favors charm of technical prowess. It’s newly polygonal style is very simplistic but nevertheless evocative in its goofiness. The seemingly deliberate absence of animation when your character transitions to a slide is as effective as it is hilarious. Likewise, each character’s dance animation is thoroughly ridiculous, and Whetfahrt’s casual slide and showboating running style add a pervasive sense of arrogance to his preposterous design. Again, Runner2 won’t win Best Graphics Technical™, but it sports enough weird crap to charm the hell out of its intended audience.
Unfortunately, Runner2 isn’t without negatives. Chief among them is an occasional inability to separate Commander Video or any of the other characters from the background. Ideally you’re intended to never really look at the character, but rather toward the middle of the screen at the next incoming obstacle. Unfortunately that’s not the way everyone will play Runner2, specifically those players without much experience in platforming. The one area where this is rarely a problem is the final set of levels, which adopts a change in presentation I’d rather not spoil. In any case the backgrounds aren’t totally worth ignoring, otherwise you’d never see angry trees chewing axes or giant creepy mountains with faces, but sometimes they’re more distracting than entertaining.
Runner 2 is also a relentlessly positive game. The music is effortlessly cheerful, finishing a level always results in a message declaring your feat an amazing accomplishment along with a bunch of smiley face balloons, and Unkle Pickle is always ready to wave hi to the player after bulls eye-ing a target. Even Runner2’s background pieces, like wobbly UFO’s or grinning mountains, illicit an overwhelming sense of positivity. This is an admittedly left field observation about the game, especially one as difficulty as Runner2 can be, but I think it’s appreciable in a time when other games are content to drown the player in brown monochromatic hells and tired violence.
Bit.Trip Presents…Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien is the best of several worlds. It’s a both a Platformer that prefers pure reaction over trial and error memorization and a Runner reaching for complexity beyond a simple endless marathon. Surprisingly, Runner2 is also an accomplished rhythm game and one hell of a weird visual experience, should you choose to pay close enough attention. From any of its angle, Runner2 merits interest and appreciation.