VVVVVV for Nintendo 3DS, PC, Mac, Linux and Android OS
The bizarrely named VVVVVV is another of those retro styled platformers that have become the bread and butter of indie game development in recent years. Since these stylish side-scrollers have become something of a cliché, it takes something fairly special to separate your small game from the pack. VVVVVV is just that, through a combination of a unique and simple game mechanic, some wonderful Commodore 64 style graphics and possibly the catchiest chiptune score I’ve ever heard.
The plot of VVVVVV is hardly Planetscape: Torment, but it’s pleasant and gets the job done. It’s certainly got slightly more meat to it than previously reviewed indie platformers such as Mutant Mudds, and oozes charm. When the spaceship of Captain Viridian is caught in some ‘dimensional interference’, they are thrown into a parallel dimension. Viridian is separated from his crew, and so much explore his new surroundings (known as Dimension VVVVVV) to find and bring them all together back to the ship. The little snippets of dialogue between Viridian and his crew after each is found is whimsical and amusing, and lends each crew member a distinct personality in the incredibly brief time we encounter them. My praise may make it sound as if the story is a complex epic, but in reality it’s a very sparse and simply narrative. What sets VVVVVV apart from similar games is that it makes an effort to give your actions some context, without allowing the plot to dominate the gameplay. VVVVVV should be a textbook example in how to handle stories in side-scrolling platformers; Nintendo could learn a lot from this in their increasingly blandly plotted Mario games.
VVVVVV is built around one, simple mechanic; the flipping of gravity. Uncommonly for a platformers, Viridian cannot jump, and can instead only be sent launching towards the ceiling or floor. That’s pretty much it, and it’s amazing how much the developers managed to wrangle out of this simple mechanic. There are lots of spikes to avoid, trampolines which bounce you around and platformers which vanish below your feet. One of the more interesting features of the game is that it takes place in a fully explorable environment, with no linear path from point A to B. From the hub setting there are different colourered environments to find which contain each crew member. These environments tend to shake things up slightly, with slightly different slants on the basic mechanic of gravity flipping. Of course, there is really one thing that VVVVVV is known for more than anything else; it’s difficulty. This game is incredibly, devilishly and delightfully hard. It’s also very fair. Displayed prominently on the title screen is your number of deaths; mine, after the four hour or so of the main game, easily exceeded 1000. The checkpoints are very regular, so there’s almost no penalty for death, and nonexistent load times mean that each time you die you can immediately get right back into the action in a manner similar to Super Meat Boy. Although I would regularly spend ages on one screen, dying again and again, I was never frustrated. There is no chaotic element to grasp victory from me at the last minute, it is simply a matter of refining my own skill and training my muscle memory. This is exactly how to handle difficulty in games, and it just feels oh so satisfying to reach that next checkpoint before launching into the next deadly challenge.
Often, when a game is labelled as ‘retro’, what they really mean is that it’s simply sprite based, but with designs clearly surpass anything that would have been possible back in the days of the NES. This is not the case with VVVVVV; the game has a signature Commodore 64 style that works really well; excessive visual bells and whistles would only serve to distract in a game which can, at times, require absolute concentration. Where the game truly excels in its presentation is in its score, which contains some of the best and most catchy tunes I’ve ever encountered in a video game. I sometimes feel that many chiptune composers are rather lazy, simply building upon nostalgia rather than making the effort to compose any of the truly classic tunes produced by people such as Koji Kondo of Nobou Uematsu. Magnus Pålsson’s score for VVVVVV however is absolutely sublime, catchy, uplifting and never annoying. The pain of dying over and over again is alleviated by the fact that it lets you listen to the incredibly catchy music for a moment longer. As a side note, I played this on 3DS and the 3D is an absolute waste of time, it’s completely unnecessary.
VVVVVV is a brief, yet incredibly fun experience. A lot of hard work and love has been put into this game, and Terry Cavanagh, the game’s creator, should be proud of what he achieved here. If you have a 3DS, the only rival in quality to this on the eShop is PullBlox, and it’s an absolute must. Although it has more rivals on other platforms, I’m still convinced that VVVVVV is a hell of a lot of fun and worth your time and money.