Bit Treasure is about the old stuff, the games you buy when you’re strapped for cash or throw your money at Humble Bundles for, the games you come back to every now and then over the years, or have buried in your 300+ Steam games list. And sometimes it’s about games you’ve just never heard of.
Treasure 2: The Ballad of Audiosurf
In this current age of gaming the lure of making a game replayable for the sake of keeping an audience for as long as possible is now ever-present. It seems to me that there are three ways developers, usually at the aggressive behest of their associated publishers, tackle how they make their games replayable:
- Make a game that the player will revisit every few months/years, as seen primarily in single player ventures. Like movies, they’ll be something the player can revisit to experience all over again.
- Make a game that has the player regularly coming back, usually with a competitive incentive. Multiplayer games or games with online scoreboards usually fit into this. Survival games do this as well, even if you don’t particularly realise it.
- Basically put the game on ransom unless the player pay microtransactions and we shall never speak of those games again.
Audiosurf, in my mind, falls into the second category of replayable games. It’s one of the most unique games out there and it’s probably the only game that I will keep playing until the day I die.
In the now far-off year of 2008, my final year of high school to be exact, I sat down with a couple of friends of mine as one of them pulled out their laptop and showed us this wacky new game called Audiosurf. It would play a song while you controlled a spaceship, speeding down a racetrack created from the song. Each new song we gave it changed the nature of the racetrack and the ordering of blocks that would appear in the path that you either had to hit or dodge. It is now 8 years later and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing this game or its 2015 sequel, Audiosurf 2. The franchise is a part of my adult life now. Whenever I buy new songs, I’ll inevitably load up Audiosurf 2 and trip the light fantastic on the Musical Super-Highway.
Audiosurf as a concept is a wholly simplistic one, and yet it appears to have been infuriatingly difficult for other developers to replicate since its release in 2008. The game describes itself as a “music-adapting puzzle racer” on its Steam Store page, and that’s the term I want to focus on here: “music-adapting”. Audiosurf seems to be the only music game I know of that understands what that means.
The basic gameplay formula of Audiosurf is “insert song, fly spaceship, hit blocks, and rock out”. There are 6 modes that use that formula in their own unique ways. I’ve only ever played two of those modes, Mono and Double Vision. In Mono mode, you need to hit colour blocks while dodging greys in order to colour match them. Double Vision, on the other hand, requires you to team up with a buddy, who controls a second spaceship, in order to colour-match blocks on the same racetrack. I personally think that these two modes are the only important ones worth mentioning here as they’re the easiest to play while still being difficult enough to master for those who want to score the big points.
When it comes to games that use your music as a gameplay mechanic, I think what a lot of them do so very, very wrong is that they use the music given to them in a way that doesn’t independently challenge you which each song. Beat Hazard and Symphony are great examples of this. There’s nothing particularly unique about the levels that you’re on when one of your songs is playing in these games. Beat Hazard is basically an asteroid shooter that gets faster or slower based on the intensity of the song. The same goes for Symphony, in which you’re basically playing a game of Galaga that also gets faster or slower based on the intensity of the song. These games are very pretty and provide challenge in their own right, sure, but when both games boast that each song will uniquely bend the game’s rules, they fall disappointingly flat.
This is where Audiosurf comes in and shows these other music games how it’s meant to be done.
Audiosurf’s tracks are built so that your spaceship slowly climbs uphill during quieter moments in your songs, more or less levels out during verses, and plummets downhill when the song gets intense. Now, if the game stopped there and had the player shoot things out of the sky while flying along the racetrack, it’d have the same problems as Beat Hazard and Symphony. But thankfully it doesn’t do that. Instead, Audiosurf has you hit blocks to fill up as many spaces as possible on the racetrack itself. This is the big difference between Audiosurf and music games like Beat Hazard and Symphony, which think that songs affecting the speed of the gameplay are all you need for a replayable experience. None of the enemies you shoot in those games act any differently based on the tempo or intensity of a song, let alone appear only when something specific happens in a song. They just go fast, or go slow. As a result, there’s only one layer of that “music-adapting” gameplay going on. You need another layer of gameplay to compliment the speed changes, not work separately from them.
Audiosurf compliments the speed generated from the songs with the blocks that are set on the racetrack, which you will need to hit and dodge in rhythm. This ensures that every song you play through has its own unique challenge. You can replay songs to try and get the highest score once you’ve practiced them enough times to know where the blocks are going to end up. To me, you end up playing in tandem with the song, rather than having it just play in the background like a regular game soundtrack.
In the years after its release, I’ve tried and failed to find a music game that comes close to the mastery of the genre that Audiosurf has managed to pull off, and I think I’m okay with that. The game has garnered a cult following, rightfully so, and I’m one of the top Australian players, a fact I’m very proud of. That’s mostly because hardly anyone in Australia plays it anymore, but still: I’m that awesome at Audiosurf. The sequel, Audiosurf 2, came out in 2015, and it’s basically just the same game done better. The Super Smash Bros. quality model, if you will.
Speaking of Smash Bros., I’m incredibly surprised Audiosurf hasn’t become an eSport yet. I mean, how is it not an eSport? It’s the perfect combination of a Tron racing derby and a rave, so I don’t understand how people haven’t been on board with this as an idea. I suppose for now, like it has since 2008, the Audiosurf franchise will be naught more than a cult niche game. And that’s a shame because I think it truly deserves much more than that. But sometimes the real treasure doesn’t garner more than praise from those who already know of its value, and spreading the word is the only way to make it shine brighter for everyone else.