Once upon a time, video games made you work really hard to succeed. They made you learn patterns, start over constantly, and deal with the ramifications of whether or not you wanted to pass the controller from your hand through the front of your television screen in a physical manifestation of how you feel about your character’s most recent death. In this day and age, where Nintendo now has a feature that will play its games for you so you don’t have to struggle with the “hard” parts, we luckily have the independent game world. The beautifully, aggravating platformer is alive and well in the indie gaming scene, and Terry Cavanagh’s latest title VVVVVV is a brilliant, modern manifestation of this retro feel.
In VVVVVV, you’re a spaceship captain whose ship and crew is dragged into a new dimension, leaving everyone stranded and separated. It’s up to you, as their fearless leader, to venture through this strange new world to track them down and escape from this odd new place. With the power of teleportation and a tight control over gravity, you traverse an alien world to accomplish your task.
I do know one thing for sure: VVVVVV is not a game about the value of human life. Because you’re going to die, then you’ll die again, and then you’ll keep dying – but you’ll learn to love it.
The main mechanic weaving through VVVVVV is the character’s ability to flip gravity with the simple touch of a button. When you’re standing on any surface, you can simple hit your action button to flip to the ceiling, and vice versa. The switch only affects the character, not any other items or obstacles that may be in the room. The changes can’t be made mid-flip, only if you’re standing on a flat surface (or hit any number of gravity flipping triggers spread out throughout the game). If it were not for the spot-on controls and sheer simplicity of movement, this could have been disastrous. But the movement is so simple and natural, that you can actually play the game one-handed with just the arrow keys, using up and down to flip gravity. I often found myself wandering through the game world with one hand on the keyboard, the other freely scratching my chin trying to figure out which area to explore next. But when sections got more intense, I’d switch to keep my free hand on the spacebar (another option of gravity flipping) so I felt like I had a little more control.
You have a map of the game world that clears up as you explore more and more, and handy teleportation units link different areas of the world so you can quickly get to the vicinity of an area you know you need to open up. These quick jumps around the game world are quite useful to help track down your crew and the twenty Trinkets scattered around the world as well. Several sections of the game take place in dimensions outside of the main map, which are exciting additions to an otherwise (relatively) straightforward experience. Most screens in the level sections of the game are titled at the top or bottom with clever names, certain ones which will stick with you long after you stop playing the game. And as though you need to be reminded, upon completion the game tells you exactly which room you died the most in (though it will already be burned into your retinas).
The game begins to shine in its balance of disparaging difficulty and instant respawns. Most sections won’t leave you without a checkpoint more than one screen away. This is a more modern interpretation of old school difficulty, as limited continues and starting back at the beginning used to be all the rage. This, in turn, makes the most difficult sections of the game the ones that linger for more than a few screens without a checkpoint (I’m looking at you Veni, Vidi & Vici). The biggest complaint you’ll hear from the general populace will be the difficulty, but like Goldilocks and her porridge, I think it’s just right. The most difficult sections revolve around the Trinkets, which technically, are optional to the game’s main story.
There are also several areas of variation, where you’re not playing through a single room with simple up and down flips. Some sections are a lengthy height, and the screen scrolls upwards or downwards, punishing you with death by spiking if you fall behind or get too far ahead. Other sections have you dodging flying objects as you bounce back and forth between two gravity switching borders including one timed survival section that I won’t entirely spoil (outside of mentioning there is a timed survival section). After judging the difficulty early on, it was my personal goal to finish the game with deaths kept in the triple digits and not spilling over into the one thousand category. I had just crept over 800 as I rescued the final crew member and headed towards the last stretch. The final section of the main story is a frantic race to the end, with flashing colors and plenty of distractions along the way. The music is tense and I could tell my deaths were adding up. But with a triumphant flourish, I finished the my first playthrough with roughly 865 deaths. Not necessarily impressive, but a small personal victory for myself. VVVVVV makes you work for your success and you feel all the better for it.
VVVVVV’s graphics are pulled straight out of a Commodore 64′s motherboard. The color palette is limited but consistent, making the game feel just right. Terry Cavanagh isn’t an artist by trade, but the solid feel of his alien world and simple characters are exactly what they need to be. The characters are pixellated and walk stiffly, yet they show the perfect amount of animated emotion for the game. There’s nothing more telling than attempting to lead one of your shipmates to safety, and watching their smiling face turn to a frown as you die thirty different times right in front of them (or kill them an equally high number of times). I’m sure it’s meant to reflect their sadness, but after death number nine or ten it really just feels like disappointment. The simple flip in expression works well throughout, and you feel proud seeing the beaming smiles after finally reuniting the ship’s crew.
Humor is another key element I’d contribute to style rather than story. With the rooms each thoughtfully named, they often lead to jokes. Such as one screen called, “What Lies Beneath” is right above a screen called “Spikes Do!” in which you’re guaranteed death if you fall into it. And that’s just one of many examples, wait until you find the Naughty Corner.
VVVVVV’s story isn’t important. It’s a framework for the gameplay. I think I would have enjoyed the game just as much if all the traps were intact and no text was involved. But the tale of a captain saving his crew is a nice touch, and the dialogue is reminiscent of simpler times. While not paramount to the experience, the tale is also told through a series of computer terminals you run across, each featuring a snippet of info from the dimension’s previous inhabitants. With these clues, new locations are revealed and you can start to put together what happened to the world.
The music, composed by Magnus Pålsson, is absolutely fantastic. It’s a direct descendant of catchy 8-bit tunes that would rock out of your television in the NES days. If you’ve seen just the trailer, you already know what I’m talking about. It’s an homage to the clever ditties of yore, but sometimes even borders on outright imitation on level completion (I wanted to check to see if a morph ball was available after I saved my first crew member). But the similarities aren’t so striking that the soundtrack doesn’t feel original and catchy. I even caught my fiance humming one of the tune’s in the kitchen after she’d heard me playing the game.
My biggest complaint is the game’s length. While it offers bonus variations to unlock as you play, such as time trials, flipping the entire game world, and continuing to play to collect the rest of the trinkets, my first playthrough still clocked in at just under 2.5 hours. While I wanted to go back and finish getting trinkets right away, another part of me wanted to bask in the completion and shut down the game for the night, or even longer. So as much as the bonuses will add longevity and what I’m sure will be online bragging rights, a longer main quest could really have benefited the game.
I did return to finish what I started, and after gathering my twentieth Trinket, my deaths had escalated to around 1250 and my playtime was approaching 4 hours. I was pleasantly surprised to find even more diversions to extend the gameplay available after collecting the last Trinket. I won’t spoil the fun, but the game includes a lot of bonus features to keep it up and running, and competitive.
The independent gaming world is a bright spot for solid platform games. There are a lot to choose from, so some titles can get lost in the shuffle. But from start to finish, Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV is a shining example of how to blend simplicity, polish, difficulty and excellence in a nicely packaged product. VVVVVV shouldn’t be missed.
And Mr. Cavanagh, as per my twentieth Trinket that I had the hardest time finding, apology accepted.
You can purchase VVVVVV through its website, thelettervsixtim.es, for $15 starting Sunday, January 10.
[Terry Cavanagh provided DIYgamer with a copy of the title for review purposes, this in no way affected the outcome of the review]