In VVVVVV you play Captain Viridian, whose spaceship has crashed in an alternate dimension, leaving the crew scattered around in need of rescue. It’s your job to go out into the open world (and into its linear ‘dungeon’-like levels) and bring them back, via the time-honoured medium of 2D puzzle/platforming. This is the latest from distractionware (aka Terry Cavanagh), and indeed you might call it his first ‘proper’ game in the sense that it’s quite long and costs money, except that that would be to the disparagement of his earlier free games, which are entirely proper in their own way.
The game sets out its stylistic influences early: the initial loading screen is instantly familiar from many Commodore 64 games (though fortunately not as long). The simple sound effects, blocky-pixelled sprites, two-frame animation and (mostly) non-scrolling single-screen rooms are all straight out of that era, though it’s all significantly smoother and friendlier, so it’s more like your rose-tinted memories than a potentially nostalgia-disturbing dose of reality. The music is uniformly brilliant, ranging from jaunty to whimsical, again in a charmingly 8-bit vein.
The mechanics are fittingly simple, too; in fact apart from the ability to move left and right there’s really only one: you can flip the gravity at will between up and down. You have to be standing on a surface to do so, so there’s no hovering by way of mashing the ‘flip’ button, and there’s the slight additional complication that you can manoeuvre left and right as you’re falling down or up.
All the retro aesthetics might be suggestive of a pretty hardcore experience, and in a way it is. It’s an undeniably difficult game, but its other sensibilities are completely modern. Unlimited lives, saving anywhere and frequent checkpoints where you instantly restart on death set the accessibility bar pretty low. Or maybe high. I’m not sure how the accessibility bar works; the point is, it’s very accessible. If VVVVVV had been released during the heyday of the C64, it would have given you three lives and no continues and I would’ve played it for hours after school without ever getting past the second level. Or these days, played it for ten minutes and given up in disgust.
But accessible is not the same thing as easy; in fact it’s this very accessibility that gives it the freedom to be really quite difficult indeed. By way of illustration, my first play-through took just under two hours, during which time I died 792 times. Yes, this game killed me on average about once every nine seconds, and did it without pissing me off. Or at least not enough to quit. It’s the instant restarts in particular that remove most of the potential frustration. It’s something we saw before in Trials 2; the ability to instantly—really instantly, no slight delays and for god’s sake no confirmation dialog—restart after any mistake lets you try the same bit over and over and over to a startlingly addictive degree.
The level design also helps on this score; it’s almost never unclear what it is you have to accomplish in any given room, so you’re not left trying things aimlessly. The room names (a feature of platform games that was sadly abandoned on the invention of scrolling) sometimes give slight hints at puzzle solutions, too. Not just hints, also general witty observances, pop-culture references and even outright mockery of the player. Man, I love the room names.
Back to level design, though, it’s much better than just being not-frustrating. When you have only a very simple game mechanic (like ‘flip gravity’) it puts great responsibility on the level design to provide depth and complexity, to fully explore the possibility space defined by that mechanic. VVVVVV‘s levels discharge this responsibility in hugely impressive style, with the aid of a few traditional hazards—like spikes and enemies—and environmental features, some traditional—conveyor belts, forced scrolling, screens that wrap around at the edges—and some not, like the the ‘tripwires’ that flip gravity as you touch them. They’re constantly inventive, never repetitive and generally brilliant.
So there you are. VVVVVV is a lovely assortment of contradictions; simple but complex, difficult but accessible, retro but modern. All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the surprisingly good story, told through short snippets of conversation with the other crew members. Or the replay value added by time trials and optional collectible trinkets in extra-tricky sections. Oh well, there can’t be time for everything.