Release: Out now
Publisher: Aksys Games
Developer: Gaijin Games
For just 600 Nintendo Points, Bit.Trip Beat wants to tell you the story of videogames. And the story it tells is this: nothing’s changed. Forget the lights and sounds, the vectors and polygons – beneath all the endless finesse a modern game can muster, we’re still trapped in a primitive exploration of cause and effect, and marching to a digital beat of success or failure. We’ve spent so much money and seen so many sights, but, deep down, when all that is stripped away, we’re still playing Pong.
Even if you don’t think that’s true, it feels like it could be for as long as Bit.Trip Beat has you in its fierce little grip. Gaijin Games’ WiiWare title might be both short and difficult, but there’s a confidence in its unforgiving design, and great skill displayed in the way it uses rhythm and conditioning to such powerful effect, the soundtrack growing with every micro-success, while the venerable mechanics ensure you’ll understand the rules before you even pick up the controller.
And the rules are very simple: avoid missing ball for high score. A musical blend of side-scrolling shooter and Atari’s no-frills classic, Bit.Trip Beat flings blocks of colour at you, asking you to bounce them back with a paddle operated via a twist of the remote. Batting enemies away builds the accompanying music one note at a time, adding to the multiplier and eventually flinging you further into gaming’s future as the chip-tunes and visuals grow more elaborate. Miss, however, and each failure threatens to push you back into the black-and-white past, stripping Bit.Trip Beat of all unnecessary distractions.
The resulting game is both charming and clinical. While the enemy waves and boss encounters explode with a frugal creativity, Bit.Trip Beat, like many rhythm games, has no room for self-expression on your side of the TV, and the most you can ever hope for is to successfully counter its challenges. Beating a level is a two-pronged affair, combining twitch reactions with memory, and mastery only brings another kind of slavery once you realise you’ve simply become better at doing what you’re told.
But it’s the right kind of slavery: beneath the primary colours and quirky narrative, Beat is adept at blending punishment and satisfaction, and, as the waves build and the patterns become increasingly apparent, Gaijin reveals a more thoughtful side, one scattering of enemies slyly cluing you in to the position of the next.
It’s an alternate history of videogames, then, showing how much they’ve changed and yet how deeply they’ve remained the same. There’s something almost tidal about Bit.Trip Beat. It’s not just in the manner your multiplier builds up and washes away as each level heads to its explosive conclusion, but in the way the game’s presentation shuffles restlessly through thirty years of technology, reaching for 3D models and intricate soundbeds one minute before pulling everything to pieces the next, until there’s nothing left but single pixels and tinny beats.
The three marathon levels might have been better broken into a series of shorter sprints, and the four-person co-op is a stressful frustration, but as a single-player score-rush, Bit.Trip Beat is mercilessly targeted to the most masochistic part of your psyche. The result is by turns infectious, delightful, and entertainingly cruel.