Arcade games and early console titles once relied heavily on abstracted graphics and gameplay that prioritized “twitch” skills and hand-eye coordination. As technology advanced and gaming became a more singular experience, complex systems and narrative depth took the fore.
The rise of downloadable gaming, however, has allowed that design philosophy to once again take prominence, as smaller games offer bite-sized chunks of satisfying old-school gameplay in a “retro revival” of sorts. Bit.Trip Core is one of those games, and does its job very well, all the while incorporating modern design sensibilities to deliver a wholly unique experience.
Like its Gaijin Games’ other WiiWare game Bit.Trip Beat, Core uses modern tech to deliver musical, rhythm-based gameplay dressed in the style of the 8-bit generation. While continuing the story of Commander Video, Beat‘s protagonist, Core isn’t so much a direct sequel as an alteration of the formula.
Where Beat resembled a heavily stylized adaptation of Pong, Core is closer in gameplay style to a multidirectional shooter. Rather than deflecting Bits with a platform, Commander Video must now take control of a “Core”, a device that fires beams in four directions to intercept beats coming from all sides. In control terms, the player directs fire in each direction from the center of the screen, using the Wii Remote’s d-pad and the “2″ button to trigger laser shots, following the visual patterns and taking down enemies with the beat of the music. Occasional upgrades can vary the properties of the beams, causing them to shoot in two directions at once or some other way. Bombs can also clear the screen of Bits in case of danger.
Core‘s other major gameplay concept revolves around “mode shifting,” wherein the player’s performance shifts modes up and down, via the “mega” and “nether” bars. Hitting Bits fills the mega bar, and missing them fills the nether bar. Filling the mega bar shifts modes up, from normal “Hyper” to “Mega” and then to “Super”, with appropriately-sized score multipliers. Shifting up also changes the visual and musical feedback. Where the beat and music is relatively simple in Hyper mode, in Super mode that same music comes fully alive, with multiple layers of rhythm playing over and under each other.
However, screwing up consistently shifts the player down into Nether mode, which is a silent, monochrome screen showing nothing but the bits and interface, with no audio feedback other than bleeps and bloops coming from the Wii Remote’s built-in speaker. Nether mode acts as something of a last chance, as recovering the beat while in Nether mode can shift back up and into the game proper. In that fashion, Core doesn’t rely on a punishing system of lives and 1ups, allowing players a chance to recover from their mistakes without repeating the stage.
Bit.Trip Core retains its 8-bit sensibilities when it comes to difficulty, as well. The game can be brutally hard for the less coordinated (like myself). While in Beat one only needed to follow objects coming from one side of the screen, Core throws enemies at you from every direction, some of which change paths and patterns quickly. The mode-shifting nature of the game allows some breathing room, but the real key to success at the game is managing to keep the rhythm. At its best, Core drops into a state of zen-like concentration, the sort needed to pull off stunts like perfect Guitar Hero runs or dodging 200 lightning bolts in Final Fantasy X‘s infamous Thunder Plains area.
Unfortunately, the beat can be difficult to recover once lost. I often found myself in a sort of death-spiral when facing the more chaotic sections, the abrupt mode shifts breaking my focus. Using bombs didn’t help very much, since clearing the screen causes me to lose track of the next wave of bits. Of course, this kind of difficulty makes success all the more satisfying, and retrying an area you’ve mastered can reveal a lot of music that you missed while muddling through the first time around, especially if you can do it while shifted into a higher mode.
That said, I can’t help but wish that Gaijin Games had included a sort of “Demo Mode” play that allowed players to sit back and watch the game play itself, enjoying the soundtrack and background graphics without worrying about losing, as was included in Rez on the Dreamcast (or its HD remake on Xbox Live Arcade)
In the end, Bit.Trip Core is, like its cousin, is a game of the new old-school and happily wallows in its simplicity as an easy-to-learn-but-hard-to-master shooter. It’s a welcome reprieve from games with highly complex battle systems or overwrought narratives, and takes you on a beautiful, if occasionally frustrating, trip.
The background graphics are trippy in their simplicity, and the experience is amplified by the visual feedback received from shifting up in mode. Sometimes it can be hard to see the story being told for all the chaos onscreen, though.
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With mechanics just one step up from Breakout or Pong in accessibility, about anyone with thumbs can play. I'd have preferred an option to use the Classic Controller's D-pad, though.
Though a great techno experience, the soundtrack is somewhat less varied than Bit.Trip Beat's, perhaps due to repetitions in the bit patterns that arise over the course of the game.
It lasts about as long as you're able to keep up, and getting higher scores or mastering it can provide many opportunities to replay.
Bit.Trip Core shows that old philosophies can be made new again if spruced up properly.