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This week we’ll be piecing together the 1s and 0s of BIT.TRIP. The most important source for this article is Palisagarus Power Hour’s A BIT.TRIP Retrospective. Many of the images, as you’ll see, are derived straight from this intrepid YouTuber’s history on an under-covered series. Two other key sources were Nintendo Life‘s coverage of the series, as well as Push Square‘s interview with Gaijin Games ahead of Runner2.
In 1997, Alex Neuse joined Lucasarts as part of its quality assurance team. He would remain with the venerable studio through 2004, working on titles including Xbox’s tactical gladiator RPG Gladius (2003), before founding his own operation in 2004. This first iteration of Gaijin Games was unable to secure a contract to develop games with any publisher, and the indie outfit shuttered shortly thereafter.
Neuse joined Santa Cruz Games as a creative director and formed friendships with fellow employees Mike Roush and Chris Osborn. In particular, Neuse and Osborn shared a love of the Atari 2600 aesthetic and sound design. This mutual appreciation blossomed into a partnership when the group opted to give Gaijin Games a second go in 2008. With a specific plan in mind, the studio would find more success in its second form.
BIT.TRIP BEAT (2009)
Gaijin Games was initially made up of only three individuals: Alex Neuse (design), Mike Roush (artist) and Chris Osborn (programmer). Luckily, this was all they needed to begin work on a simplistic throwback title designed for Nintendo’s WiiWare marketplace. BIT.TRIP BEAT was intended to be the first of six games which tell the story of a character’s birth, growth, death and afterlife.
First, of course, the studio needed to determine that character’s name. Commander Video was chosen, as this had been Neuse’s pseudonym on various internet platforms throughout the preceding decade. The character was depicted simply, designed to be immediately recognizable and not tax the limited capacity of WiiWare file sizes; he consists entirely of a tall, slim black rectangle with pixelated arms, legs and a widescreen TV screen for a face.
The gameplay style was, similarly, based around simplicity. Gaijin’s founders loved the Atari 2600 visual design and aimed low with the visual ambition of their first project; with the Great Recession only getting underway as their studio was founded, a limited budget would be necessary for the project’s success. Because of this, 1972’s Pong became the primary frame of reference. The WiiMote’s motion sensors were the closest modern analog to Atari’s paddles,and the low overhead of digital distribution made WiiWare a natural fit.
BIT.TRIP BEAT is a rhythm game in which the player moves a line up and down one side of a screen to bounce blocks that move towards it from the opposite side of the screen. The blocks make unique noises and are coordinated to move in time with the pulsing chiptune soundtrack, composed by an anonymous musician at the Petrified Productions studio. All visuals are inspired by the Atari 2600, though the color palette is significantly wider than what would have been capable on the 1977 console.
Interestingly, Commander Video himself does not appear as the player avatar. In fact, his absence from this entry reflects the broader thematic structure of the series’ six games. In direct contrast to its simplistic visual design, BIT.TRIP’s narrative is quite ambitious – players experience the birth, life and death of Commander Video over the course of the franchise, with the first entry abstractly representing his emergence into the world.
To remain in the spirit of opacity while still promoting their product (having learned hard lessons about market penetration at earlier gigs), Gaijin Games revealed the upcoming BIT.TRIP series with a bizarre viral marketing campaign. A Wikipedia entry on the main character was published, while social media accounts associated with the handle Commander Video obliquely directed observers to a relevant web address. In a strange video that circulated, a twelve foot tall Commander Video is discovered by a soldier and asserts his humanity in the distorted, garbled voice that would come to be associated with the character. The video’s impression is simultaneously humorous and horrifying, subtly implying the incongruously simplistic and profound elements of the franchise.
Whether due to the uniquely 21st Century marketing or just the strength of its underlying game design, BIT.TRIP BEAT was immediately lauded upon its release. In only a handful of months, Gaijin Games had developed and released one of the WiiWare platform’s most unique, gripping titles. This was only the beginning, though, and the positive reception reinforced Gaijin’s resolve to forge ahead with its planned six-game arc.
BIT.TRIP CORE (2009)
The second game in the BIT.TRIP series was released only four months after its predecessor. The player still does not take control of a Commander Video avatar, but instead controls a small ship shaped like a plus-sign. This vessel sits in the middle of a screen and permits the player to aim a laser in four directions as blocks cross between each of those directions and the screen’s edge; the blocks, as in BIT.TRIP BEAT, correspond to notes on the chiptune-inspired soundtrack and must be hit with the laser in time with the music.
After Commander Video was born at the end of BIT.TRIP BEAT, BIT.TRIP CORE depicts him beginning to establish control over his body as a child. The backdrop is intended to abstractly represent his body while the laser striking blocks implies the impulse that consciously animates his movements in physical space.
Three levels are available to play, and the brief experience takes only about forty five minutes in total. Inspiration this time is drawn from the Atari 2600’s Cosmic Ark (1982) rather than Pong. In addition, Guitar Hero (2005) proved a helpful influence when the team grew frustrated with their project early in development. Players originally had the ability to aim their ship’s laser, rather than having it fixed to the four cardinal directions, but this was abandoned in favor of a Guitar Hero-esque “moving notes” design when the original plan was believed to be too complex.
Surprisingly, the development workflow on BIT.TRIP CORE and others in the series was less consistent than the player might expect. It seems as though the music or visuals would consistently come first, so one could be designed around the other, but that was evidently not the case. Sometimes a level would be a reaction to Petrified Productions’ audio track, while other levels were designed and then sent to the audio studio to fill in the soundtrack. This seems as though it would prove problematic for a rhythm game, but Gaijin Games avoided letting that inconsistency show through in the final product.
BIT.TRIP VOID (2009)
Several months after the premiere of BIT.TRIP CORE, BIT.TRIP VOID made its debut on WiiWare. This entry would be the most mechanically ambitious yet, as it does not emphasize either moving along one axis or firing out along pre-defined lines from a central location. Instead, the player has full 2D control over their avatar for the first time in the series – this time, the avatar is a mass of pixels that grows or shrinks as it intersects with small black dots traveling across the screen.
At the same time, the player must avoid white dots traveling alongside the black ones. This can often be done by moving the player avatar around, but the avatar grows so large at times that the player must manually tap a button to shrink it, incurring a small point penalty but avoiding the larger penalty incurred by colliding with a white dot.
This management of interactions reflects BIT.TRIP VOID’s underlying thematic content. Like earlier titles in the franchise, it opens with a brief cutscenes revealing Commander Video’s stage of life. The newest entry depicts the lead character struggling to interact with his peers, driving them away with his overbearing personality. The game mechanics, along with the level titles (including Ego and Id), represent Commander Video’s attempts to mitigate his natural tendencies in the pursuit of harmony with those around him.
BIT.TRIP RUNNER (2010)
The fourth title in the BIT.TRIP franchise would go on to become the most influential on series entries following the initial six episode suite. That said, its mechanics are unique among contemporary BIT.TRIP games. In it, the player finally takes on the role of Commander Video as he travels through the world avoiding obstacles and collecting gold bars.
The gameplay itself is reminiscent of the side-scrolling endless runner genre that began to grow in popularity on mobile devices after the success of 2009’s Canabult. It is distinct from these games, however, because it is not procedurally generated and, consequently, has a limited number of levels. There are many more stages than preceding BIT.TRIP games, though the length of each is relatively short.
Rhythm is again a key component, as Commander Video’s actions are mapped to sounds which, when executed at the right time, correspond to the chiptune-influenced soundtrack. These actions consist of blocking, sliding and jumping, as horizontal movement is automatic. Level designs are largely flat, accommodating this gameplay, and feature numerous surreal structures and creatures bearing oversized eyes.
In fact, the game’s Pitfall! influences are made explicit by bonus levels accessed when the player collects every gold bar in a stage. These bonus levels have aesthetics and obstacles drawn more or less directly from the iconic 1982 Atari 2600 game. The original build of BIT.TRIP RUNNER would have been less similar to Pitfall!, as it featured numerous other abilities drawn from earlier BIT.TRIP games, but these were eventually dropped because playtesters found them confusing.
BIT.TRIP FATE (2010)
While BIT.TRIP RUNNER had abandoned the ethereal, abstract atmosphere of its predecessors in favor of a visibly whimsical aesthetic, the fifth title would take a major turn in the opposite direction. The tone was darker, as its landscape represents Commander Video’s death at the conclusion of his journey in the fourth game. The avatar’s form again became more abstract as the developers aimed for a vehicular shoot-’em-up style.
When their initial designs proved too passe, however, they reached out to a former colleague from Santa Cruz games. Daniel Johnson had been friends with Neuse, Roush and Osborn during their time doing work for that studio, and had become available in the intervening years; Santa Cruz Games had sadly dissolved during the midst of the Great Recession. Johnson was a major boon to the team and helped it revolutionize the game.
Interestingly, the meditative BIT.TRIP FATE almost featured multiplayer. NintendoLife’s excellent series retrospective compares this mode to Jet Force Gemini (1999), as in one version of the concept a second player would have commanded a turret tethered to Player One. An alternative concept even included competitive mechanics, but fewer details on this are available. In any case, multiplayer was abandoned as it clashed with the introspective nature of BIT.TRIP FATE’s abstract narrative.
BIT.TRIP FLUX (2011)
The final title in Gaijin Games’ first suite of BIT.TRIP games hearkened back to BIT.TRIP BEAT, which had somehow been released less than two years earlier. Gaijin Games managed to publish six games on WiiWare in only 24 months, each depicting another stage in the life journey of lead character Commander Video. With BIT.TRIP FATE reflecting his death, follow-up BIT.TRIP FLUX reflects his consciousness coming to peace with its separation from the physical world and rejoining its spiritual origin.
Visually and mechanically, this is represented by a return to the design of BIT.TRIP BEAT. The player again controls a paddle using motion controls, though the paddle is now on the opposite side of the screen from where it had been in the earlier game. Dots and their corresponding beats are similarly reversed. A cooperative multiplayer mode is included, as had been the case in BIT.TRIP BEAT, but is now limited to two players rather than four. Finally, the checkpoints that had been requested by fans after the first game and included in all subsequent ones are integrated here as well. Players’ progress is no longer reset each time they lose, dovetailing elegantly with the theme that Commander Video has grown over the course of his life.
With the conclusion of the original six BIT.TRIP games, Gaijin Games completed the mission it had established in 2008. Three years later, the studio had successfully established a franchise and been lauded as one of the best content creators on Nintendo’s WiiWare service. Luckily, BIT.TRIP would not be bound to that ephemeral marketplace for long: collections of the full game library were published in hard copy on 3DS and Wii, while downloadable versions would be published on 3DS, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Windows PC, Mac OS, and mobile devices over the coming years. Controls needed to be adjusted where they had hinged on the WiiMote’s unique motion sensors, but all versions are excellent introductions to one of the 2010s’ most unique indie series.
As for the staff at Gaijin Games, they felt that they had fully explored the Atari 2600-inspired retro environment and next set out to make something more modern. Chris Osborn left the small studio to form his own operation called Tracer, but the staff size would otherwise grow alongside the team’s ambitions to expand the world of BIT.TRIP. These ambitions would bear much-anticipated fruit in 2013.
Bit.Trip Presents… Runner2, Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (2013)
Gaijin Games simultaneously expanded and narrowed their scope with the ambitious sequel to its six WiiWare games. More specifically, Runner2 functions as a direct successor to the fourth BIT.TRIP. Alex Neuse explained in an interview with Push Square that the seventh title is set during the time between BIT.TRIP RUNNER and BIT.TRIP FATE, as the antagonist from BIT.TRIP RUNNER strikes Commander Video and his friends with a “Reality Unfusion Ray” that zaps them into an alternate dimension.
This functions as a narrative development, such as it is, but also provides an in-universe justification for the radical overhaul to the BIT.TRIP visual palette. Gaijin Games was heavily limited by the small file size requirements on Nintendo’s WiiWare service,and consequently opted to give their first post-WiiWare BIT.TRIP game a significant makeover. Visuals are no longer texture-free 8-bit pixels, but rather fully textured polygonal models. The game was released on Windows, Mac OS, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U initially, making full use of those platforms’ HD resolutions to depict a deeply surreal landscape in colorful, detailed splendor.
In contrast to the major cosmetic update, the mechanics are almost identical to BIT.TRIP RUNNER. The player character automatically runs from left to right along a 2D plane, as the player used button inputs to engage in other actions like jumping or sliding. Among other new techniques, Commander Video can now dance for at least one full beat to improve the player’s score, promising a new layer of risk and reward not present in the original BIT.TRIP RUNNER.
With regard to its soundtrack, Runner2 is not a major departure from its predecessor. Petrified Productions’ anonymous composer does most of the heavy lifting, scoring the vast majority of this charming rhythm game. Chiptune icon Disasterpeace (known at this time for Fez ; more recently for It Follows  and Hyper Light Drifter ) contributed to the score of retro-themed levels as well. Most notably, Mario voice actor Charles Martinet functions as the game’s narrator!
Runner2 was a major indie success, improving on its predecessor in virtually every way. Though a retro aesthetic had seemed inextricably linked to the BIT.TRIP franchise, Gaijin Games received acclaim for taking a risk and succeeding at broadening what the series could look like without compromising its identity. The gameplay was universally lauded as well, delivering on the promise of an expansive rhythm game built on the foundation of BIT.TRIP RUNNER. A planned feature that saw players using the Wii U GamePad to see an x-ray image of action on the television screen was cut, likely due to the game’s multi-platform optimization, but fans would be pleased by a downloadable content pack called Good Friends released several months after release; in keeping with BIT.TRIP’s role as a member of the 2010s indie revolution vanguard, the expansion features playable characters from other major indie hits. These include Super Meat Boy’s title character, Cave Story’s Quote, and Spelunky’s Spelunker. Gaijin Games had a hit on its hands, but the world would be left waiting five years for the next entry in the franchise.
The five years between Runner2 and Runner3 would prove transformative for its studio and identify in a few ways, though Runner3 would not be the major overhaul that Runner2 had been. In 2014, Gaijin Games had changed its name to Choice Provisions. At the same time, the Bit.Trip naming convention was entirely dropped from the newest series entry’s title.
This reflects some new design elements added to Runner3 that represent a new approach to game development. Alex Neuse heavily documented the game’s creation through a develop blog, revealing that his approach was primarily oriented around crafting a rewarding experience for players of any skill level. This is only partially successful in the final product, as critical outlets like GameXplain asserted that Runner3 is the most challenging BIT.TRIP RUNNER title, but Neuse’s laudable goal is evident in how the game iterates on its predecessors.
In particular, levels features multiple paths, multiple collectible items, and multiple difficulty levels. The standard difficulty, however, has a number of features that keep it from being accessible to inexperienced players. Levels are now rendered in three dimensions, rather than the strict 2D that had defined earlier games, so it’s more challenging to gauge distances and make the precise moves needed to get through a stage. The stages themselves are much longer as well – Runner2 had over one hundred levels while Runner3 has only 27.
The level designs are simultaneously the strongest and weakest point of Runner3. They are visually lush, expanding still further upon the surreal atmosphere introduced in BIT.TRIP RUNNER and updated in Runner2. Themes are diverse and humorous, while the game’s multiple paths enhance replayability even within a single stage. Unfortunately, the length of the stages results in a greater level of challenge; checkpoints are present but not numerous, so players see the same stretch of landscape repeatedly throughout any given run at a stage until they perfect their abilities.
Mechanically, Runner3 is similar to its predecessors. Commander Video automatically runs while the player taps buttons in coordination with the soundtrack to make him jump over, slide under, or kick down obstacles. A quest system and vehicular sections complicate this a bit, but the vast majority of the gameplay will be familiar to fans of earlier BIT.TRIP RUNNER titles. Humorously, the ability to play as an alternate character is available in the base game – players can take on the role of a virtual Charles Martinet, who also returns to his narration role from Runner2.
Runner3 was well received when it launched on PC and Switch platforms in May 2018, but the praise was less unanimous than it had been for earlier series entries. This is primarily down to the level of challenge and the sense that Choice Provisions had pushed this concept as far as they could. Alex Neuse has spoken about branching out into new ideas using the BIT.TRIP license, though, including genres as diverse as survival horror and role-playing games. Only time will tell where Commander Video’s next adventure will take him.
What do you think about the BIT.TRIP series? Do you wish there were more spinoffs? Are you clamoring for turn-based Commander Video combat? Which is your favorite or least favorite title in the series? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
Next week, Franchise Festival will be covering Lunar. Be sure to join us at 9:00 AM EST on Friday, August 31!