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A Lighter Jog: RUNNER 2

March 17, 2013

I know what you’re thinking—this isn’t The Walking Dead! Indeed: although I completed the final episode today, I haven’t yet worked out what I want to say about it. So not wanting to rush things, I’m going to write about a game for which I’ve already collected several thoughts: Runner 2. Or, technically—and I’ll only spell this out once—Bit.Trip presents… Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien.

I acquired the original Bit.Trip Runner two winters ago, and quickly fell in love. It took me many months, totalling 13 hours, to complete it. It was a test of endurance, and of the fortitude of my stomach lining. It was brutally difficult, yet incomparably rewarding when I managed to—finally—succeed at each level. When I at last beat the game, it was pure ecstasy: I had conquered this devilish, this finely tuned, increasingly and almost comically difficult game. Consequently, I eagerly awaited Runner 2, which would offer another chance to experience the elation of overcoming what, at first (and second, and twentieth, and hundredth) encounter, seemed like impossible obstacles.

Runner

First, I’d like to talk about what made the original Runner so good, that we may accurately compare it with its sequel. The greatest thing about Runner was when you began a new level and came upon an absolutely unforgiving obstacle, one on which you’d trip every time you managed to get that far. And then, even when you managed to make it past, a new evil would await. Yes, the learning curve was steep, but that just made the reward all the greater. Every obstacle eventually fell to your unshakable will.

And since success depended on repetition, the game didn’t punish you for failing. At each “bonk”, Commander Video would be tugged back to the start of the level as if pulled by some ethereal rope, and you’d start over in a few seconds, at the next loop of the music. There were no lives, no discouraging “Game Over” screens, and naught but the smallest delay between failure and your next attempt. Designed in this way, hitting an obstacle didn’t feel punishing, nor did it feel unfair.

Runner 2

Runner 2 shares this same trial-and-error, quick-restart process—and frankly, I don’t think it would be a Runner game if it didn’t. But there are many things that have changed around this foundational mechanic. The first and biggest change, gameplay-wise, is the addition of checkpoints somewhere around the middle of each level. After hitting the checkpoint, bonking an obstacle brings you back to there, not back to the start of the whole level. And there are now three difficulty levels (“easy”, “just right”, and “hard”), which vary the number of obstacles for each level. Finally, a less visible but certainly noticeable change is the more “friendly” learning curve. So how do these things affect the gameplay?

Easy does it

My initial reaction to checkpoints was an unfavourable one. Why? Because to me, the whole point of a Runner experience is to do and redo every level, every obstacle, until you’ve improved and finally prevail. With checkpoints, you only need to overcome the first half of the level once. In a way, checkpoints split a level into two smaller levels that are easier to beat (by virtue of being shorter). Of course, I should mention that you have the option to jump over a checkpoint without triggering it, which forces you to restart from the beginning if you fail—but the incentive to do so is minimal: you get 50,000 points added to your score. And what purpose does the score serve? Not much, except to give yourself a quantifiable comparison of skill level between you, your friends, and other players. But really, isn’t Runner all about the personal sense of accomplishment from overcoming each level? Why, then, should I care about increasing my score?

Thus, the only reason to skip over a checkpoint is for the greater challenge (and therefore the greater success)…but even that is weak motivation. The original Runner‘s demand for perfection was not up for negotiation, and the game was built to force you to learn every obstacle and beat every level before you could progress. Speaking from personal experience, there were times when I got so fed up with a level that I just had to walk away and come back to it several days later. But what if the game had given me the option to skip the level, or else provided some other handicap after some number of tries? Do you think I’d take it? Maybe. Eventually. In the face of brutal difficulty, it’s hard to continually volunteer to take the hard path over the easier one, especially when it’s so easy to just run through the checkpoint. It makes the game more accessible, allowing more people to complete the game, but at the cost—I worry—of some of the elation you get when you’ve succeeded.

The choice to include checkpoints, though, is consistent with the inclusion of the three difficulty settings and the more gradual learning curve. A Runner veteran myself, I blew through the first world on the middle difficulty without much resistance, so I’ve played in Hard every since. I’m finding the second world to be challenging, but those checkpoints still ensure a steady, if slow, progress. But given that I’m still on the second of four or five worlds, it’s too earlier to judge whether the game truly ends up being easier and less satisfying than its predecessor, so perhaps I ought to end this topic here.

Oh, but I must say one more thing about checkpoint: this time, something positive. When you approach a checkpoint, the camera pans/slows so that the Commander ends up in the middle of the screen (rather than on the left, as usual), which is, I think, a brilliantly subtle way to warn the player of the upcoming checkpoint so they don’t miss it accidentally. I am very impressed by the developers’ way of indicating this without the use of any UI popups or what have you.

Presentation

The other important change to the game—and certainly the first one anyone would notice—is the visual style and presentation. Still played in 2D, Runner 2 is rendered in 3D with beautiful graphics and a charming, lively world. The characters and obstacles (where applicable) have personality. Further, the game is narrated by Charles Maritinet, the voice of Mario, and of Paarthurnax in Skyrim. His voice adds further charm to Runner 2, and feels right at home with the rest of the world.

I saw many concerns about the change in style before Runner 2 was released, but I had faith that the developers knew what they were doing. And I’m glad to find that my trust in Gaijin Games was well founded. In fact, looking back at Runner, it feels more old and tired than before, now that it’s contrasted with a more colourful and vibrant world.

Pain Awaits

With that, I shall conclude.  There is much left to be played, and final judgments will have to wait until then. I will say, though, that I’m very much enjoying the game, and I think it’s largely due to its charm—in addition to the thrill of victory.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 22, 2013 9:52 pm

    I’ve never even heard of this game before, but it sounds intriguing. I picked up “Ikaruga” simply because it was slated to be incredibly difficult. And it is, I was pleased to find. This, then, sounds right up my alley. Also, the music seems important, as you mentioned that the character respawns in time with the music. That is also intriguing. Anyway, nice review.

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