After rearranging my Wii’s disk space to accommodate the comparatively large download—catch you on the flipside, Paper Mario—I settled in for some truly excellent, old-school synesthesia.
Bit.trip: Beat is a paddle game: think Arkanoid, Breakout, Pong or, ahem, Circus Atari. Here, though, the paddle control is gracefully approximated by very gently rocking the Wii remote forward and back. As with classic paddle games, the controls are ‘twitchy’ and require only very fine movements.
Your onscreen ‘paddle’ (which is to say, your avatar, or, you know, the line) moves vertically along the far left of the screen, and little pellets fly onto the screen from the right, hurtling toward the paddle. And the point is to hit them. Simple. Each pellet represents a kind of a musical note, too, so as you bat the pellets away, the game’s melody emerges. So far, easy enough.
But as you progress through the game, the choreography of the pellets becomes increasingly intricate. Soon those specks are weaving in and out of one another, changing shape and size, or cruelly altering their course midflight. In that way, Bit.trip: Beat is a classic gamer’s classic game: it’s all reflexes and pattern memorization.
When your paddle is in serious jeopardy, the game abruptly switches to a kind of “Danger! Danger!” Pong mode. The music disappears, and the graphics reduce themselves to their Pong-and-ball blipping fundamentals. And it’s genuinely unsettling. Compared to the rest of Bit.trip: Beat’s furor, the starkness of the black and white screens is downright creepy—like being trapped underwater or in the vacuum of outer space.
Perhaps Bit.trip: Beat isn’t all that innovative, but it sure borrows from the best. Those delicious, low-rez graphics are so totally cribbing from bit Generations. The controller’s rhythmic throbbing, the pulsing in your hand? That’s lifted right off of Rez. Like the music? It’s heavily inspired by the work of 8bitpeoples and other musicians.
And Bit.trip: Beat’s addictive “I can do better!” gameplay uncannily reminds me—right down to its shmup vibe and its emphasis on synesthetic musicality —of Lead for the 2600, of all things.
I’ve heard it argued that every game should have a ‘narrative’, and while this may not be true, by golly, Bit.trip: Beat has one. It reveals itself quietly, in the background, behind the mess of dots and dashes and musical morse code. And while that story isn’t especially crucial, it’s a nice touch. Things are happening. I am going somewhere.
I was a girl on a mission. As I played, each time I missed a pellet, I felt this strange surge of apology. That’s really remarkable, I think. I’ve missed plenty of notes and percussive beats in my time; I require a stellar music game to make me sorry for bumbling the song. That’s gratifying, in its own way. I began to compete against myself.
The real strengths of gameplay are, paradoxically, the feelings Bit.trip: Beat inspires in the player. There’s your inexplicable commitment to maintaining the flow and movement of the music. There’s nostalgia, which itself is powerful. There’s synesthesia, that musically- and sensorily- augmented shooter trance. And then there’s the feeling that keeps you playing, no matter how frustrated you become: the sensation that you really are constantly improving as you play. It’s why I still play Lumines. It’s why I stopped playing Geometry Wars.
Bit.trip: Beat hit Nintendo’s WiiWare channel yesterday. It’s yours for 600 points (and, I believe, 312 blocks of flash space).
P.S. Check out the supremely rad Commander Video fan art, which I am irresponsibly using in lieu of screenshots.