If there was one thing lacking from the classic Pong, it’s variety. I joke of course, as Pong is a classic and I wouldn’t change it for the world. But, take it’s basic form of both simplistic pixels and simple bat and ball mechanics, and you’ll see that there is actually more you can do with the formula. And that’s what NAMCO have done here with Bit.Trip Beat, albeit with a musical twist.
First released on the Wii, utilising the Wiimote’s tilt controls, Bit.Trip Beat for iPhone and iPad shares the same core levels, and adds some extra downloadable levels (not tested) and online multiplayer over Apple’s Gamecenter.
The object of the game is to bat your way through pixel infested levels before moving onto the next. There is no in-level saving or checkpoints to each level, instead playing very much like an arcade mode, only once you have completed it you do unlock the next without having to replay the first. Played in landscape mode, you control you bat on the left side of the screen by either tilting the device up and down in tilt mode, or sliding your finger anywhere up an down the screen in touch mode. Tilt replicates the Wii version more accurately, but it’s good to see the touch mode introduced too. Personally I don’t find either mode better than the other, though touch is probably easier on the iPad due to its bulk, whereas tilt might be favoured on the iPhone due to the small screen. From the right hand side of the screen enemy pixels fly at you, and it’s your job to return them. It’s not as simple as Pong, with each pixel exhibiting varied patterns, and also teaming up in groups of pixels or waves. Most pixels are returned from whence they came, but some rubber-band back at you, changing position up or down the screen which really keep you on your toes (or finger tips). The patterns of the pixels are choreographed by the retro background music (think Pong meets Guitar Hero), and so the batting almost becomes a dance, as you scroll up and down, batting back pixels in time with the music. On repeated plays you’ll begin to memorise the next attack pattern by ear.
As you scale up through each level, the patterns of pixels become more complex and faster. The music also ramps up, building into an orchestration of retro blips and bleeps. That is of course if you are succeeding. There are two power bars in Bit.Trip Beat, one at the top registers hits, while another at the bottom registers misses. Should you miss and fill the bottom bar, you are placed in a kind of purgatory, where the screen turns from colour into monochrome. In a way this is designed to make it easier without the distraction of the music and the animated background visuals, but you can’t help feeling ashamed (NAMCO joked at E3 that they would call this ‘Nigel Mode’ based on how much time I spent in it during my hands-on preview!). Should you redeem your hit points, you are placed back into the colour world to continue your technicolour journey. However, if you miss while in purgatory then it’s curtains… and right back to the beginning you must go. If you make it far enough to the end of a level then you’ll meet the boss creature. The boss is built of pixels and will throw every configuration of pattern that you met so far, until the boss is empty of pixels and you’ll unlock and move onto the next level.
The game is pretty tough and unforgiving, particularly with the omission of checkpoints. Add to that a nasty powerup (or powerdown) that transforms your bat to only one pixel high (almost impossible to hit with) and even the hardcore pong players will get a good challenge from Bit.Trip. If however you are struggling then you can take part in a co-op mode and attempt to beat the game with a friend. You can play locally with any device over WiFi or bluetooth, or online via Gamecenter (not tested). This mode works great, but I would have liked to see a split screen mode on the iPad version.
Bit.Trip Beat is one cool looking game, it’s retro chic personified. While the game itself is super simplistic, the background animations are beautiful spiralling patterns of 3D pixel art, and they only get better the further you get… even if they can distract you from the gameplay (intentionally). The sound track is also too-cool-for-school, combining retro sound effects with modern techno and other electronica genres. It’s even available on iTunes as an album.
Bit.Trip Beat then is a great game and one that I think all iDevice owners should experience. It’s challenging, original and addictive, despite sending you back to the beginning when you fail. It’s up there with Taito’s Infinity Gene where a game can transcend into a work of art.