Developer: Gaijin Games
Publisher: Rising Star Games
The BIT.TRIP series are an example of latter-day indie classics: small but perfectly formed synaesthesia experiences that are loved by both gamers and fellow developers alike. Gaijin Games rallied other boutique outfits to lend their own characters, such as Super Meat Boy himself, to the cause, creating an inclusive and addictive set of rhythm games that all offer unique experiences held together by gorgeous 'big pixel' art design, the likeable Commander Video protagonist and dynamic ambient soundtracks that evolve as you play.
After releasing their six games (Beat, Core, Void, Runner, Fate and Flux in chronological order) on PC, WiiWare and iOS, Gaijin have partnered with the inestimable boutique publisher Rising Star Games to bring the entire set to the 3DS as a single cohesive package. Nintendo's console is still crying out for more unique game experiences, and I'm delighted to report that BIT.TRIP SAGA is the gem that many gamers have been waiting for.
Synesthesia - the concept of experiencing music through tactile gameplay - underpins all six games, as does a coherent scoring mechanic. Play well and the BGM rewards you by evolving into toe-tapping multi-layered brilliance, with each gameplay interaction (blocking an incoming projectile in Beat or jumping over a pit in Runner) creating a dynamic melody that's different each time you play. Fare poorly, though, and the experience pares back into a stark 8-Bit world of deafening silence punctuated by harsh, primitive sounds. It's a wonderfully compelling mechanic, but all six games deal with it in pleasingly different ways.
Beat and Flux are both ball and paddle games, much like an insanely hectic version of Pong. You'll need to block increasingly difficult waves of incoming 'beats' (read: projectiles) to score well, with each impact creating a discrete musical note that compliments the ever more complex musical accompaniment. Fantastic stylus support makes control as accessible and engaging as possible, in pleasing contrast with the hit-and-miss motion controls provided by the WiiWare version. It's a seriously addictive proposition, and thoroughly unpredictable thanks to occasional boss battles and some outrageously tough demands placed on your reflexes.
Runner, a side-scrolling 'one button' platformer, takes a different tack entirely. Commander Video runs through a meaty gauntlet of pits, steps and hazards, with each jump playing out a tune on top of the evolving BGM. It's probably the most beloved and most difficult game of the collection, tempering stiff challenge with a truly compulsive addiction factor. Prepare to lose many hours to this harsh, yet pretty, mistress.
Void and Fate change up the formula yet again. The former is best likened to a top-down scrolling shooter minus the guns, challenging players to weave their black hole through incoming fire, collecting black beats to increase in size and strategically popping their cumbersome bulk to weave through damaging white beats, accruing massive score bonuses in the process. Fate, on the other hand, is a scrolling shoot 'em up that tethers Commander Video to a scrolling sine wave; adding a thought-provoking new dimension to the traditional frenetic action as well as introducing you to powerups provided by Super Meat Boy and the like. Again, responsive analogue controls makes them accessible as possible.
Core, a cruciform rhythm-matching game, is once again the weakest link in the chain. It looks and controls well enough, but the finnicky split-second timing you'll need to match the right direction with fast-moving beats makes pattern recognition and memory much more important than any skill or subtlety on your part. Still, pushing yourself hard enough to finally prevail can offer a compelling source of self-improvement in its own right.
Ignoring the 3DS' gyroscope and concentrating on responsive analogue controls ensures that all of these six games feel right at home on Nintendo's portable, but their effortless brilliance is mainly down to how perfectly suited they are for a handheld platform. Each game hinges around two dimensional single-screen action, which works brilliantly on the 3DS' top screen since you can instantly take in the entire situation at a single glance. The vibrant art design pops and zings, bolstered by a pin-sharp attention to detail. Amazingly, I frequently felt that the BIT.TRIP series works better on the 3DS than on a monitor or television, especially as part of a well-rounded package.
Of course, this being a 3DS title, you'll also be able to push up the slider and activate full 3D functionality for each game. BIT.TRIP's colourful artwork and gorgeous backgrounds are thoroughly mindblowing when you engage the extra depth, but in gameplay terms, you'll only really want to use it on a case by case basis. Void and Fate are both perfect candidates since they provide large and instantly-recognisable main characters who contrast with the gyrating background elements, whereas the bittier artwork of Beat, Core and Flux can cause the eyecatching background animations to dominate the screen (making incoming projectiles very difficult to see). Runner, which features constantly scrolling scenery behind a static protagonist, becomes borderline nauseating within a couple of minutes. Frame rate also halves from 60 FPS to 30, meaning that purists will probably want to deactivate the effect after briefly trying it out.
Being that the visuals are absolutely stunning in 2D, it's not really a problem. The option is there should you decide to dabble in three dimensions.
BIT.TRIP SAGA represents excellent value for money thanks to the variety and raw quantity on offer, not to mention the lavish attention to detail that has clearly gone into making these six games absolutely shine on a handheld console. However, there seems to be a major missed opportunity. The Wii Complete Edition contains a huge amount of extra fan service content including 120 extra levels, unlockable sountracks and artwork, letters from the editor and awards, which are bizarrely absent from the 3DS version. Coupled with the lack of global leaderboards and multiplayer of any kind, it's easy to feel a little cheated.
- Six excellent games, all of which work and control brilliantly on the 3DS
- Amazing dynamic soundtrack (headphones recommended)
- Gorgeous visuals
- No online leaderboards
- Lack of extra content and multiplayer
- 3D effect can distract (or even nauseate) depending on the particular game
The Short Version: The BIT.TRIP series has found a natural new home on the 3DS, which allows their sensational art design and accessible-yet-punishing gameplay to shine thanks to outstanding controls and attention to detail. If you've never experienced Gaijin's masterpieces before, or even if you're a veteran, SAGA is an exceptional package that deserves to monopolise your card slot for a long time.