the first game in the bit.trip series isn’t a lengthy game. it has three levels and each last`s approximately 20 minutes. judging by this, it`s clear that the game was intended to mimic the structure of old arcade games which favour high scores and replayability. the game is immensely replayable thanks to the engrossing visuals and addictive music. not forgetting the sheer challenge of the game means you`ll be revisiting it quite a lot if you ever want to be good enough to finish it.
as the game opens we are treated to a vast view of outer space, (the stars are all rendered in a square pixel fashion) then a 3D model of a blocky character flies in. he has a chunky rainbow trail behind him. he lifts his arm in a one frame animation (reminiscent of the era) we are then treated to a nice mixture of particle effects and bright lights to transition into gameplay. (obviously higher quality effects but they’re presented in that pixel fashion) the character himself exudes that retro Atari aesthetic. the pixel proportions of his eyes are a different ratio when compared to the rest of his body, but it`s irrelevant because there are no pixel limitations(obviously) it`s a artistic choice here.
the intro is brief, doesn’t really explain anything unless you look heavily into the subtext of the entire game. (bit.trip beat is the journey of commander video forming his collective conscience) but just like the era of games it draws inspiration from, plot was never that important a factor. it`s a simply an experimental prerequisite here.
for gameplay you are required to hold the Wii remote/ios device sideways and twist it to move your paddle up and down the screen. (your paddle is locked onto the left side while objects you need to deflect come from the right, like a sideways version of arkanoid)
just like this, but in outer space
you lose health for every pixel which you miss and passes offscreen to the left. this method of control harkens back to the various devices used to play `pong` back when it was still in arcades. (the gameplay is similar to boot) and it`s a great idea to reinvent this retro control method because all of the aforementioned modern devices have very sensitive accelerometers and it makes gameplay very smooth and precise. so the controls are an evolution of those older control methods, like the Atari paddles and the pong dials.
the heads up display used in-game uses the very pixellated retro font. it`s too heavily pixellated however, it`s far smaller resolution then the paddle or anything else on-screen and it makes them hard to read. they can’t be compared to the `resolution` of anything however, as the game runs at the native resolution of whatever console is running it. but compared to the size of the player paddle and the projectiles it`s way to big and clashes. this is one of the times when the game goes too far with it`s retro stylings, and should have made some leeway for the sake of modern accessibility. the confusing thing is, the textures used on numbers are a high quality colour gradient, so that shows they very purposefully made the decision to use that font/resolution.
there`s a very innovative mechanic in the game regarding combos. for every pixel you deflect your `hyper` bar fills up. every one you miss drains it quite considerably. (accentuating the old school difficulty) whenever the bar empties completely the game will `drop` a degree in visual intensity. the lowest level (closest to death) is a black and white mode where the visuals become incredibly simple (but still maintains the modern frame rate and smoothness thankfully) and the music cuts out completely and the only sound you get is retro beeps from the wiimote speaker. (or ios device respectively) to regain more `health` you need to get a combo big enough to fill up your hyper bar then the game morphs back to the regular visual style. there’s a level higher than the regular state, where the games becomes something akin to a pixellated fireworks display. nearly every projectile has some sort of particle effect associated with it and the backgrounds become much more busy. the music also ramps up in intensity. this entire mechanic of visual levels changing depending on the skill of the player, is the games greatest strength. it`s a immersive way of informing the player of their failure/success and more than makes up for the botched head’s up display.
despite the projectiles in the game being simple pixels, all the different variants have a lot of personality to them. using a combination of different sound effects, different note patterns, colours, shrinking and growing, flashing, twitching, teleporting, trails, particle effects, and even various ways to effect the players paddle. (reverse controls, freeze movement etc) it`s great to see the game utilizing every single trick to squeeze as much variety and depth out of it`s simple gameplay mechanic.
the game can feel like a music rhythm game at times. the projectiles are thrown at you in different patterns and you begin to develop muscle memory when seeing them come at you. and it`s at times like this you can feel like your playing a sideways guitar hero.
orientation is an interesting element for music rhythm games and also shoot em ups
( also, the emphasis on high scores) the music is also very well synced with the gameplay. each pixel hit forms a note in the song. so when you see a large cluster of notes coming, you know your about to hear a busy section of song.
speaking of the soundtrack, it`s a very modern reinterpretation of retro sounds. it uses a broad range of different sound effects from seemingly every single console ever made. there’s busy melody`s with high-pitched beeps and a strong bass to offset the tinny quality of the sound effects. alongside a lot of futuristic sounding distortions and moody echoes.
there are some 3D visuals at play here, but they’re reserved for background filler and the actual assets are similar to the style of 3D dot game heroes.
but without the outlines
there’s a story being told using the background visuals. the first level is full of stars, planets forming and abstract shapes which is meant to show the mind of commander video being formed. the second level has the camera flying through lots of tunnels with a red blocky flow, which is to the nervous system forming.
the third level has a blocky brain in the background and lots of random objects like trains and trees. this is to symbolise commander video becoming aware of the world around him.
it`s a nice touch to see such subversive and experimental storytelling methods using the iconic retro visuals. no game back in the 16 bit era would have attempted such a dangerously creative approach to storytelling. the levels are also bookended by short animations of commander video performing silly little animations which surprisingly actually have context to the story. it`s helpful in piecing together the abstract story.
the boss fight for the first level (transition) is a square mass which shoots pixels from it`s body at you. you simply need to reflect every pixel untill it`s shot every single part of it`s body. it`s a creative hybrid of pong and arkanoid mechanics. the method in which it shoots you is quite similar to standard gameplay. groups of pixel have their own patterns and movements and it continues to ramp up in intensity untill it has run out of `ammo` so to speak. it would be entertaining to see a more conventional sprite tear pixels from itself to attack with. imagine if Mario tore off little red bricks from himself to throw at enemies untill he has no more of himself left.
I imagine he would throw his hat and moustache first before dissecting himself
the second boss fight on the descent level is distinctly arkanoid. a wall on the right shoots pieces of itself at you for you to bounce back at it and in turn destroy more pieces of it. it imitates arkanoid exactly, this is one of the few parts of the game where rebounding pixels actually has physics. (depending on which speed/direction/angle you hit a pixel, will determine how it moves back right) which mixes up the flow of gameplay quite nicely. there’s not a whole lot to mention in the way of modern innovations here, apart from the intense background visuals and dramatic music.and obviously the content comparisons. arkanoid back in it`s era would have been an entire full product, whereas in this modern game it`s a single boss fight.
the third boss fight on the third and final level `growth` is an even more derivative of it`s retro inspirations. it`s a replica of pong, the difference being that the game pits your one paddle against up to 4 A.i controlled paddles. it`s suitably tough and fitting for a final encounter and if it weren’t for the 4 against 1 mechanic it would be branded as overly similar. but as is, it`s a fitting final boss for a game which wears it`s pong inspirations proudly on it`s sleeve.
the game is mostly a success but one area it massively trips up in, is the poor post game support. the initial release on wiiware has no online functionality to speak of. there is local leaderboards which I feel is an archaic feature and something which was only of use back in it`s respective era, just like the idea of `lives` in modern games. they were mechanics used to squeeze more visits for arcade customers and it`s not really applicable for a console game. online leaderboards would have been a solid way to contemporarise an old mechanic.
so to summarise, the most relevant points I gleaned from this game study
- controls: innovative way to touch up a long-lost control method.
- visuals: unobtrusive use of 3D and modern flourishes. changes in style serve a fundamental purpose.
- mechanics: extremely thorough use of the main mechanic.
- homages: boss fights are clever contemporary updates of vintage games.
- degree of faithfulness: some areas are a little too respectful of the source inspirations and should have been deviated/improved more.
- storytelling: a subtle and innovative approach using a visual medium which had always favoured the conventional. it`s an attractive mixture. lends a feeling of maturity to the retro stylings.
- audio: a modern imagining of the retro style which is wholly relevant to the on-screen action. these 20 minute opus`s are a great contemporary touch.