Rhythm games have gotten pretty unwieldy these days, and not just because of the ridiculous floor space requirements. The prevailing attitude among developers seems to be "more" rather than "better" - more songs, more peripherals and more verisimilitude. Under the weight of these requirements, it's no wonder that most gamers view Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero World Tour as largely interchangeable.
BIT.TRIP Beat, the first in a series of WiiWare titles by indie developer Gaijin Games, takes a more stripped-down approach to the rhythm game, and while its influences are practically ancient compared to titles like Guitar Hero, it offers a completely new take on the genre. It's short, ridiculously hard and backed by one of the coolest chiptunes soundtracks I've heard in a videogame. Even better, it's only six bucks.
Part Pong, part Dance Dance Revolution, Beat has you build primitive synth melodies by bouncing stray pixels off the screen using a 4-bit paddle. To move the paddle upward, tilt your Wii remote toward the screen; to move the paddle downward, rotate your Wii remote away from the screen. It's the perfect control mechanism, providing all the precision you'll need to tackle the game's later stages without ever getting in the way.
The real complexity in Beat comes from the mischievous pixels themselves, which display a wide variety of behaviors to slip past your paddle. Some stutter across the screen in bursts, others freeze your paddle in place and still other must be hit three or four times before they finally leave the screen. In all, there are over twenty different types of pixels, and the way they interact with each other in tandem with the music provides an entrancing audiovisual experience.
Beat's stark chiptunes soundtrack perfectly matches the simple Atari 2600-esque visuals, and the music adapts to your performance. Hit a certain number of pixels in a row, and you enter Mega mode, wherein the background music becomes more intricate and complex. Conversely, missing too many notes in a row drops you into Nether mode, where the visuals revert to an even more primitive black-and-white, and the only sound comes from your Wii remote speaker each time you hit a pixel. It has the effect of watching an EKG in a medical drama - you know you're only moments from flatlining.
Like the arcade cabinets of yore, Beat records your high score, but it remains local to your own machine - there's no way to gauge your performance against other players from around the world. For me, it wasn't much of an issue; my main incentive for playing was immersing myself in the music and feeling that sense of flow that the best rhythm games provide. It's a little shorter than I would have liked at only three levels, but they provide enough challenge and variety to last much longer than you'd expect a $6 game to last. Beat isn't likely to dethrone Rock Band or Guitar Hero anytime soon, but for fans of electronic music and retro-inspired gameplay, it's a breath of fresh air. You could ask for more from Beat, but for what it is, it doesn't really get much better than this.
Bottom Line: Beat is the rare videogame that blends retro and modern gameplay principles into an experience that feels somehow timeless.
Recommendation: If you like the soundtrack, buy it. Even if Beat only gives you an hour or two of enjoyment, it's well worth the meager price of admission.
Jordan Deam's eyes have a tendency to go bloodshot after 15 minutes of BIT.TRIP Beat. From intense concentration, of course.