Game #10: VVVVVV (2010)

creator: Terry Cavanagh
took me: 3:46
finished on: 31 July

I bought this with the Humble Indie Bundle when it came out recently. No, wait, I bought the Humble Bundle solely on the description of this game alone (and was pleasantly surprised by some of the other games too). It’s a “retro platformer”, in this case literally meaning that it looks like it could have come out of another era of gaming. Each level is one colour and the pixels are large and blocky, and the music is entirely synthesized from beeps and boops. Its defining feature is that instead of jumping, one must reverse or flip gravity and fly up towards the ceiling, avoiding any spikes in the process. In some places, this can result in jumping up and down in a sequence, and it is said that this is one possible origin of the game’s strange name, as it’s the shape that you make as you jump.

And it’s utterly charming, particularly for something that can be quite garish in style. The little character you control is the captain of a ship that gets stranded or something – but there’s something so childlike about his relentless happiness (and occasional sadness) that I didn’t realise that the character wasn’t a baby separated from his parents until several minutes into the game when the dialogue didn’t match with that assumption.

Anyway, it’s also an incredibly difficult game, where fast reflexes get you places. You die all the time, but you come back straight away at a checkpoint, which is probably on the same screen. One of its strengths is that it really explores different possibilities for using the main game mechanic to its full potential, and doesn’t get bogged down in different abilities for the character; it’s a three-buttoned game, basically. There are also objects to interact with like conveyor belts and lasers which make you flip in mid-air. One thing it could maybe have had more of is levels where these different objects are combined; the game is divided into sections which each focus on a new mechanic or object.

But then you get to the optional trinkets, a sort of catch-em-all object that is strewn around the game map, and then you get to the much more difficult challenges. I think the ultimate has to be the section “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (aka “Doing Things the Hard Way”), which takes piss with the no jumping mechanic just a little bit. It’s somewhat foreshadowed by at least one earlier level, but essentially, your trinket is on the opposite side of a waist-high fence, and in order to get to it, you have to fly up a 6-screen long, spike-infested tunnel and back down again (to the only nearby ceiling). I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I spent about half of the 3 hours of my first playthrough trying to get this one trinket (my death count went up significantly, too, of course, although I didn’t record what it was at the time); and the only way to complete it is to play it so much that it becomes muscle memory. I didn’t have as much trouble replaying it a couple of months later. It’s worth noting that this is one of the few places where the game really becomes arm-gnawingly frustrating. Most of the game is difficult, yes, but because death is so cheap, you don’t notice, as you just come back and try again two seconds later.

Then we come to the music… which is superb. The musician, a Swede known as SoulEye, seems to be some kind of master at taking music written to a limited format such as that of 80s era game music and turning it into something dynamic, fun, catchy and toe-tapping. So good, in fact, that I went and bought the soundtrack from the guy’s website. The music really adds atmosphere to the game, as well; I fear it would feel much blander without it.

For all that is good about VVVVVV, however, it’s frustratingly short, and the original doesn’t come with much replayability value – all you can do once you complete it is replay it upsidedown (topologically the same, of course, so nothing new there, strictly speaking), or do a timetrial, or the frustrating unlockable minigame. Or for the extreme masochists, no-death mode, which I swear must be impossible or something. You can also get trophies for under a certain number of deaths. But it doesn’t feel like much extra.

Fortunately, the game also came with a level editor and a bunch of user-made levels – apparently a brand-new feature that Cavanagh implemented for the HIB version – and new levels have been appearing on the game’s website since the beginning of August. They do vary massively in difficulty, of course; I’m now stuck on a particularly difficult one called 333333. But they do serve to highlight that the original VVVVVV didn’t really scratch the surface of what one can do with the game engine, and a lot of them are, naturally, brilliant. The aforementioned SoulEye even made his own level with two extra tunes in it.

Anyway, it’s definitely the best game that I played out of the HIB. Fast, fun and addictive, and with the addition of the player levels, it has lasting power too.

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