The automatic runner genre, arguably the most pared-back form of the 2D platform game, has a strong heritage on mobile platforms and in Flash games. Titles like Canabalt, Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride have strong reputations for being polished games which are well-suited to short play sessions and which represent the purest form of gaming as a reaction test. Making the shift to consoles and thus the change in perception from casual to core audiences, however, seemed at first to be an unusual move; by paring down the gameplay to a limited number of inputs it seems like the capacity of consoles or PCs to offer more complex experiences is being ignored. Yet Runner 2 is clearly very much a core game in its presentation and amount of content; by framing its gameplay in the traditional terms of non-automated platform games (themed worlds, unlockable characters and a gradual progression of abilities), Runner 2 has the sense of achievement beyond simply beating a high score that a good game needs.
At the core of any automated runner’s design is the understanding that many platform games are inherently reliant on forward motion; here, the old rivalry between Sonic and Mario is key; Sonic games were traditionally focused on speed and forward progression, with technical skill used to reward the player with higher, shorter yet more difficult paths; in comparison Mario games were more mazelike in level design and based around finding a route to the finish. A runner game thus draws on the Sonic design ethos of rewarding reaction time over spatial reasoning and puzzle solving. Furthermore, platform games in this vein traditionally require only a very limited suite of player abilities; in Sonic 2 the player can run and jump, and get a speed boost. Seeing as how such games rely on momentum for forward progression often with only limited player interaction needed save rapid reaction to obstacles, Runner 2’s status as a “core” game – one based on traditional models of console gaming – does not seem so incongruous. It is a Sonic game with the only difference being the player does not need to hold a direction button to progress. What then sets it apart is how the level design is not intended to catch the player out and force them to fail by relying on them travelling too fast to adequately respond to a challenge, but instead to encourage progress. Each successfully collected item or avoided obstacle
Simply progressing in Runner 2 is easy; any level can be beaten by trial and error. However, as any good game does it features significant amounts of side-challenges both unacknowledged and tied to secrets; a simple “red and green” path aspect divides levels into two with a harder and easier path – like Sonic in many ways – but the rewards are usually the same on each in terms of level completion. Multi-tiered level design is a common feature of games – with end-of-level grades and collectibles within levels intended to reward replaying levels until a perfect score can be gained – but what Runner 2 does is provide multiple tiers of skill within the level while making the collectibles another tier on top of that. The green and red routes will usually have the same number of gold-bars on them, but the red will require more skill to find them. Similarly the red route might contain a cosmetic upgrade or a secret level – but one can usually still get a “Triple Perfect” rating on a level while staying on the green route. The secret levels in Runner 2 are interesting in their own right, framed – as many games do nowadays in a nod to gaming’s history – in a retro arcade setting in the form of the “Captain Video” game which evokes something like Commander Keen. In a touch of good design, “Captain Video” levels can be replayed even if failed in the course of a level, and do not count towards level completion for the level where they can be found.
Thus Runner 2‘s core game mechanics are well-defined and logically-presented. This is then combined with truly excellent and expressive design; it has the self-consciousness of, for example, a Double Fine game and the whimsical handmade graphics of Littlebigplanet. Yet while it is visually impressive, it is not overly busy or difficult to follow the action, which in a reaction-based platform game is key. What is more, the level design – the arrangement of obstacles – is very precise and based entirely around the game’s excellent soundtrack. Each jump, score multiplyer or gold bar adds a note to the melody of the level’s theme tune, and continued success is rewarded with the music building and changing. Again, this use of gameplay to determine music is not new – games like Chime have been doing similar for some time – but as part of the complete package of Runner 2 they contribute to its overall quality as a game. Similarly while the game is quite abstract in terms of gameplay and character design, using heavily stylised and surreal figures and landscapes, the simple narrative is told very thematically with pulp-pastiche cutscenes and an omnipresent narrator.
Individually, no aspect of Runner 2 stands out as truly original – it has music tied to gameplay, it is an auto-scrolling platform game, it has mock-retro and mock-pulp stylings. But as a complete package it has a unique charm. While the elements that make this up are perhaps predictably unpredictable (giant talking gherkins, a comedy human cannonball bonus stage, frowning hills in the backgrounds) the whole is so earnest, and the gameplay so simple and compelling, that it is hard to criticise it. It is a game heavily invested in gaming’s history and nature in its debts to retro graphics styles and the platform genre but also one which combines them with the medium’s new direction in its use of the auto-scrolling form.