Out of the numerous games to spring up under the Bit.Trip umbrella, it’s not exactly a surprise that the most accessible of the bunch, Bit.Trip Runner, would be the one to transcend its retro-styled roots. In bringing the Runner games’ mechanics to a fancier playground on the Switch, developer Choice Provisions has made its most ambitious game yet–but in doing so, may have revealed the limits to how far it can push the concept. It’s also the most difficult, and if you haven’t already invested in a good sturdy case for the Switch that might stand up to having the system thrown at terminal velocity out of a living room window, now would be a good time.
On paper, the gameplay is as deceptively simple as it’s always been. Your character runs forward automatically, and it’s up to you to jump, duck, slide, and kick down obstacles until you reach the finish line. The secret sauce of the Runner series is that every action and every item in a stage is plotted to work with its music, a whole game trekking along to simple melodies. Stages can be unpredictable, but if you have any sense of rhythm whatsoever, losing yourself to the music can get you through the tougher moments.
None of Runner 3’s tunes are terribly catchy, and quite frankly, it makes me wistful for the innovative chiptunes that accompanied the original Bit.Trip Runner. Most of the tracks settle for rudimentary and quirky when they could’ve absolutely gone big and eclectic. The furthest Runner 3 branches out in that regard is in the Danny Elfman-like haunted house tunes that accompany much of the second area of the game. At most, the music does the bare minimum: providing a beat for you to follow.
Most people will be able to blast through the first few stages easily, but Runner 3 ramps up the difficulty early on. Around the halfway point of the first area, stages start changing perspectives to an angle, but the shifts in viewpoint can make some of the jumps trickier than they need to be and obscure some obstacles. At its most aggravating, it’s difficult to suss out where it’s safe to land or what the timing needs to be to kick something out of your way. There are also moments where the game is too complex for its own good; for example, a machine that builds platforms as you run along, making anticipation impossible except through sheer trial and error–which can feel immensely cheap, especially as you get closer to the finish line.
That problem is made worse by the sheer length of each level. Although there are fewer stages in Runner 3, they go on longer than ever–a perfect run with no deaths can sometimes stretch on for four or five minutes. There are still checkpoints at the midpoint of each stage (and as before, if you like living dangerously, skipping the checkpoint gives you a ton of points), but each stage is so densely packed with obstacles this time around that those two minutes to get to safety can feel like an eternity. On top of that, the difficulty is wildly inconsistent; you might get stuck on an early stage that throws bizarre off-kilter obstacle patterns at you, and the next two stages could be walks in the park.
Compared to the relative austerity of the previous titles, Runner 3’s environments go full-tilt wacky, overloaded with comical flourishes. The very first stage has you running through a breakfast island, a place where the palm trees are slices of cantaloupe and grapefruit, the rivers flow with milk and cereal, and the high roads are paved with waffles and toast. Later, another stage in Foodland sends you running through a giant refrigerator, bouncing off Jell-O cubes and jogging past some of the most outlandish and gross fake food products imaginable (personal favorites: Fish Errors, Beefmilk, and Cup O’ Lumps in Milk Brine). Runner 3’s levels are so immensely packed full of random amusements that you’re equally likely to fail because you were busy staring at some visual gag happening off in the distance.
For those who do want more of a challenge, there are Hard variations of each stage, and ironically, there’s a more gradual climb in difficulty with these than in the normal stages. In addition, the branching Hard routes tend to be where most of the game’s collectibles are hiding, giving even more incentive for multiple playthroughs of an area. Said collectibles unlock a sizable amount of content, from the truly infuriating Impossible stages to new runners–with recurring characters from previous games rubbing shoulders with Shovel Knight and, for some reason, Eddie Riggs from Brutal Legend–to Retro stages which are built on a Hanna-Barbera aesthetic.
The greatest compliment to be paid to a game like Runner 3 is that after feeling the urge to toss a controller, it’s hard to think of anything else except trying again. Runner 3’s greatest strength is in rewarding that perseverance. Getting through each stage means more jokes to see, more characters to play around with, and more secret stages to explore. Runner 3, over time, reveals itself to be a veritable buffet of weird and whimsical environments, and thrilling, precision-based gameplay, but make no mistake: you will have to work for your meal.