The BIT.TRIP games were initially lined up to reinvigorate a service that was meant to be a big, bold step for Nintendo. A service that was created to highlight smaller games from more compact developers, promoting creativity, offering game makers and game consumers more choice in the way they approached content on an exciting, innovative home console.
In hindsight of course, WiiWare continued to be – with a handful of notable exceptions – utter rubbish. But Gaijin Games’ series was definitely part of those “notable exceptions”: with old skool, utterly hardcore fundamentals of play design. Their presentation was uncompromising: an evocative pre-8-bit art style that looked like caffeine fuelled Atari 2600 titles which thumped and pulsed along to the chiptune soundtracks provided by notable artists in the field, including Nullsleep, Bit Shifter and Anamanaguchi.
It’s been almost three years since the first of the six games – BIT.TRIP BEAT – hit The Big N’s downloadable store and they’ve been compiled for 3DS, a system that is also arguably in need of a bit of a kick start. But a handheld with 3D capabilities, and a stylus and circle pad for input is very different to a motion controller and a big screen TV, a factor that Gaijin appear to have overlooked, making for a collection of high quality games marred by needless concessions.
Since the games were built with this “golden era of gaming” mentality, they’ve remained relevant and are as good as they were to play originally.
That’s not to say they’re all winners. CORE in particular is as mind bogglingly confusing to play as ever, giving you a laser in the centre of the screen to fire in four directions at targets as they zip by. It’s difficult to predict which route these objects will take and you’ll often find yourself overwhelmed by its complexity. It takes a great deal of dedication and commitment of patterns to memory, perhaps more than most will give it.
BEAT is excellent, a game that takes the premise of Pong and ramps it up. You control a paddle and must return the incoming balls to the rhythm of the music, failing to do so sees you lose energy. Lose too much energy and it’s game over, forcing a restart of an entire – very lengthy – level. Like the best titles in the collection, you quickly lose yourself in the bleep-driven music. It’s a pity that FLUX is so similar as, though it incorporates aspects of other efforts in the series, it is at heart more of the same and therefore underwhelming.
Shmup-ish FATE has you riding what appears to be the wave sign of a sound, firing at enemies and clearing your path as the screen pushes forward. As you advance and reverse along this channel it becomes clear why the soundtrack is influenced much more by dubstep, skimming through and rewinding at will along this visualisation of the concept of audio. If you’re a shoot ‘em up veteran and haven’t played FATE, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
VOID is another curious beast and highlights one of the main themes of the oeuvre: the flexibility of the simple pixel. Given direct control of a mass of black block, you collect others of the same colour, scoring points and growing at the same time. The longer you wait, the more you increase in size, the greater your combo becomes. However, this is a risk, as one hit from a white pixel and the counter resets. While initially an abstract mechanic, you suddenly realise that the play has changed into a pacifist shmup, or a game of thread-the-needle, or even a racer. This is only possible due to how minimal design encourages imagination in the mind of the player, and it’s wonderous to behold.
But the clear winner of the package is RUNNER. As its name suggests, Commander Video is running along and must avoid obstacles and incoming fire, as well as defeating enemies with a swift kick. It’s more broken up than other entries, segregated into stages within levels, mitigating the crushing difficulty. You’ll be sent back to the start of an area with a single mistake, and this happens almost constantly as you learn what lies ahead. But as you improve and crawl inch by inch closer to the finish line, that invigorating sense of satisfaction with overcoming challenge drip feeds you to continue, right up until the joy of the end of a level. The music is appropriately at its most euphoric here, making for an experience both audiophiles and “the hardcore” will get a lot from.
Title lead Commander Video and the environs surrounding him look sharp on the small screen. The curious, early Activision influenced visuals still trick you into wrongly remembering the game from your childhood, such is Gaijin’s commitment to the aesthetic “bit”.
The big worry that the controls might not transfer over is also overcome by intelligent use of mixed control setups. Runner is all buttons for the split second accurate jumps that need to be made, Void makes good use of the Circle Pad, Beat offers both stylus and direction button schemes. But here is where we start to see the flaws, the imperfections between the pixels.
In Beat and Flux, if you do plump for traditional controls, you’re given a sticky feeling paddle that demands free flowing movement to play it successfully. Using the stylus overcomes this, but why would the option be there in the first place?
Simply, it’s because there are some aspects of the hardware that have not been given consideration. The input can be overcome in Beat and Flux, but what cannot is the achingly long levels that need to be cleared in a single run. This is a portable machine, and with the potential shortness of play sessions that such a device comes with, you might only have five or ten minutes in one burst. Most of these games – aside from Runner – do not cater to this fact.
Another thing that can be overcome but absolutely should not need to be, is the slowdown when displaying the game in 3D. To get the frame rate you need, forget about playing in the third dimension, it’s notably slower than when shown in 2D. Not that you’ll want to play in 3D anyway, as the effects in the game are far too distracting with it turned on.
When all the action of a title, and consequently all of your focus, is on one plane, the most distracting thing that can be presented to you is a continual barrage of colourful explosions on different horizons, diverting your attention. BIT.TRIP does this in a cheap way to incorporate 3D and makes for a significantly worse experience when active. Which begs the question: why put it out on this format at all if you’re not going to use the unique hook effectively?
- Tons of content for your cash.
- Art looks better here than on its original platform.
- An immense challenge, though one that’s entirely surmountable.
- 3D is tacky and negatively affects the play experience in a significant way.
- Some control options are unusable.
- A few of the games are far too long for your bus ride to work.
With a few concessions to some thoughtless uses of the tech, BIT.TRIP Saga comes recommended. You can overcome most of the problems the title has with a few tweaks of your own making, though of course you shouldn’t have to finish the job of the people asking for your money in the first place. Still, Saga is great value as a complete package, and its individual components, though visually compromised by the 3DS’s USP, continue to impress.