Groovy Gymnastics

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Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (Wii U, PS3, 360, Steam, Vita)
Developer: Gaijin Games
Publisher: Aksys Games
Price: $15

The Bit.Trip game series presented Commander Video’s entire existence from conception – sperm and all – to his nostalgically ethereal afterlife. Over the years, our 8-bit hero learned to balance his Freudian psyches in Void and became a liberal pacifist in Runner. Or do I have this all wrong? Bit.Trip’s unconventional storytelling techniques, such as ambiguous stage titles and cinematics, leave you with more questions than answers (is that Commander Video’s brain building like Lego pieces in the background?) – gaming’s equivalent to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The series’ ponderousness is replaced with levity in Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, while retaining its charmingly challenging and rhythmically retro roots.

A playful, alliteration-obsessed Charles Martinet (never heard of him? I doubt that) narrates the pixelated protagonist’s perilously peculiar predicament (I’ll stop). He voices comically irrelevant ads, such as “Burger Mouth Burger Brand Mouth Burgers” and other odd non-sequiturs, which prelude each play session. This, coupled with ditching the angular NES-era motif, affirms an unpretentiously silly tone that radiates throughout. The locales exude this vibe with mountainous barrels, trees, and Diglett-like protrusions that happily spectate your acrobatics far away in the scenery.

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These anthropomorphic backgrounds are polite enough not to cringe at your repeated failures. One mistake is all it takes to restart from the beginning in Runner 2. Commander Video jogs at a steady pace, as if trapped on a treadmill, dodging the obstacles in his way. You’re eased in by hopping over spiked-baddies like hurdles until eventually you’re sliding under narrow chasms, kicking flimsy foes, and deflecting incoming blocks with little time to blink. A single preemptive action flings you back to the start – a break long enough to curse your mother yet brief enough to forget it happened – giving you the chance to right the wrong. Each punishing stage wears down your resolve yet reaching the finish line is euphoric. It’s a contrary combination of pain and pleasure that’s as blissful as sweet melon and salty prosciutto is delicious.

Runner 2’s musical score is the skewer that holds this treat together. The levels in each of the five worlds have two alternating tracks that make each run a blast (Supernature’s jazzy piano beats and The Mounting Sadds reverb and distortion heavy techno sounds are highlights). Your actions add their own notes and when your multiplier increases, the music evolves. Songs start off with a soft but distinguishable melody that continues to grow fuller until it crescendos. Nearing the end of a stage, the intensity fades and the percussion mutes, replacing the bleeps and bloops your actions make with sublime violin strings. The music’s progression parallels the stage’s challenge, creating a harmonious experience that plays like a strange yet elegant fusion of Super Mario and Guitar Hero.

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This rhythmic delight’s challenge can be tinkered in either direction. There are three difficulty settings, harder alternate routes, and optional gold bars to snag. Grabbing all of the ingots ends the stage with blasting Commander Video at a target via cannon, like a Mario flagpole, that adds to your score. For those who want to further bolster their scores, you can skip the checkpoints and perform point-awarding jigs. But beware! Dancing can’t be interrupted, so don’t pull a Frank Underwood and frantically mash the shoulder button. I can’t tell you how often I screwed up while doing “The Worm.”

No matter how you play it, Runner 2 is like walking down the street, blaring the newest M83 single on your iPod, swinging your arms and taking each step in sync to the beat. It’s the Bit.Trip where Commander Video learns that existentialism is less fun than dancing to the catchy beat of his drum.

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