Looking over the pedigree of developer Terry Cavanagh (especially at the highly well-received Don’t Look Back), it’s apparent the guy can make a mean platformer. But what happens when he makes a mean platformer? The answer: one of the most punishing but excellent games I’ve played in a while. If stellar platforming and brutal masochism are two of your greatest joys in life, VVVVVV is the perfect game for you.
To summarize, VVVVVV is a straightforward platformer that could best be described as ‘minimalist’. From its understated but highly expressive pixel art to the nostalgic chipmusic soundtrack, this game has decidedly retro-minimal roots. Even the controls are non-excessive; the game is played essentially using only three buttons (left, right, and action). Even more impressive is that VVVVVV is retro not just in style but in focus: it’s clearly a game first and an artistic adventure second, with the player being bombarded virtually nonstop by hardcore platforming gameplay from the moment it begins to the moment it concludes.
The gameplay twist in VVVVVV is relatively benign, too – instead of jumping, the action button in this game reverses gravity, which in many ways is far more useful than a jump, but in others is far more limiting. It’s the way Cavanagh uses this mechanic, though, that makes VVVVVV so wonderful.
Imagine, for example, that only a few pixels away from your character is one of the 20 collectible (and entirely optional) ‘shiny trinkets’ in the game, but between you and it lies a small lump of ground. You can’t jump over the mound, since you have no jump ability, so your only choice is to reverse gravity and fall up – up through some half-dozen incredibly challenging, winding, spike-filled rooms (in which he placed exactly zero checkpoints), only to reach the small piece of safe ground at the end, reverse gravity once more, and fall through the whole monstrosity again. To be fair, this is definitely one of the game’s crueler moments, but VVVVVV will not hesitate to put you through hell before you reach the end.
Luckily, the vast majority of the crazy-hard moments found in VVVVVV are fully optional sections leading to shiny trinkets. The rest of the game is actually surprisingly generous with checkpoint placement. So no, I guess you don’t have to go after the trinkets. But if you don’t, you are cheating yourself out of that glorious, satisfying rush that comes with trying something 1000 times and then finally succeeding.
That’s only barely an exaggeration, too. The Game Complete screen at the end of VVVVVV informed me I had died 958 times. In my experience, though, sometime around the 50-death mark, the deaths no longer affect you as much. You transcend them. They aren’t failures, they’re temporary setbacks. And it’s around this point that you realize that VVVVV has gotten its hooks in you.
I’m not one to often finish commercial-length games, but I completed VVVVVV over the course of one afternoon in just a couple of sittings. There are a few potential explanations for this: firstly, it’s not the longest game in the world by retail game standards. It took me just under two and a half hours to complete, and that was with a fair amount of trinket-hunting sprinkled in there. Secondly, you’ve got the exceptional soundtrack by Magnus Pålsson (aka Souleye). His high-energy chiptunes are an incredible motivator and keep the adrenaline pumping for almost the entire duration of the game. I surprised myself with my patience for VVVVVV‘s frustrating segments, and I truly think Pålsson’s soundtrack deserves recognition for that. This game contains some of the most fist-pumpingly energetic chip music I’ve ever heard [and that's saying something; we just got back from Blip Festival!]
But the primary reason it’s so easy to keep playing VVVVVV is because it’s so much damn fun. In many ways, it’s the perfect platformer. No leaping about with an arbitrarily selected jump height; in this one, you jump forever high. Equally great is that on more than one occasion, a stage in VVVVVV will take a standard-issue video game convention (an auto-scrolling level, an escort mission, etc) but do it the Cavanaghian way. And every time it happens, it’s refreshing. This game is essentially platforming incarnate, and it shows from the unique, diverse, and downright fun stages found in it. Honestly, it’s very difficult to come away from this game thinking that Cavanagh is anything less than a game design genius. If you have ever enjoyed the sweet anguish of a challenging platformer, VVVVVV is worth your hard-earned dollars.
VVVVVV is due for release on Windows, Mac, and Linux January 10th, 2009 for $15. It will first be available for purchase this Sunday through the (excellently named) website thelettervsixtim.es.