Developer: Terry Cavanagh
Publisher: Terry Cavanagh
Genre: Puzzle Platformer
Release Date: 1/11/2010 (Independent)/9/7/2010 (Steam)
I admit that I’m a little bit weary of AAA releases. I’m weary of spending $60 on games that are focus grouped, cost millions to make, require a pass just to be able to get online, and in the case of PC games, often come with restrictive and even Draconian DRM that make pirated copies of the game legitimately *better* than legitimate copies. I’m thirty years old and have been playing video games since I was literally in diapers, so I’m what you could consider an “older” gamer. Even as a professional journalist, I sometimes think the industry is moving too fast for my personal tastes, especially with the industry to the point where the big money is really big, and the smaller developers and publishers get eaten up like schools of fish. I miss the days when Activision was the darling of the industry, a place that was started up by ex-Atari employees so that they could get some recognition for their work, and wasn’t The Enemy, a huge, unfeeling Borg that destroyed Infinity Ward, ruined the rhythm game market, and whose CEO is on record as stating that he wants to “take the fun out of making video games”, along with all of the other stupid crap that routinely comes out of his mouth.
To be fair, the indie games market is robust, but just like any industry that relies on a few bright diamonds, there tends to be a lot of coal. Therefore, finding the good ones tends to be an exercise of wading through gimmicks, blatant ripoffs, and those stupid “artsy” games. Sometimes, in cases like Aquaria, you succeed. Others, like The Path, end in failure. Still, it’s nice to be out on the hunt, even if I barely have time to play, let alone write about them, because I have to spend all my time talking about games where you have to spank anime girls as part of the goal.
I almost feel ashamed that I had to wait for VVVVVV to be released onto Steam. It initially came out in January, and while I knew of it, and had heard good things, it flew under my radar, because I was covering other, more worthy games. Of course, being a Steam release makes it that much easier for me to try it out, so I picked it up on a whim for $4.49. Did the things I’d heard about it hold true, or is VVVVVV one of those games that gets an inaccurate underground reputation?
The moment you boot up VVVVVV, you notice that the game plays up its “retro” feel to the hilt, with a loading sequence that reminds you of old Commodore 64 games. You’re then introduced to the game’s story, which is that you’re Viridian, the captain of a six-man crew on a spaceship, but your ship crashes after receiving some interference from the dimension you’re in. All six of your people end up teleported to a different part of the dimension, and after a sort of tutorial stage where you get back to your ship and find Violet, you have to go out and find Vermilion, Verdigris, Vitellary, and Violet. Yes, all six crew members start with the name V, but surprisingly, this isn’t the only way the game’s title starts to make sense, and as you play the actual game, you realize the deep thought and wit that went into making the game itself.
About five minutes in, you start finding your first stages, and the second reason the name makes sense makes itself apparent: the Vs look like spikes, and you will see A LOT of spikes. Gameplay is exceptionally simple: you move with either the arrow keys or WASD, and use either space or up/down to flip. Whatever area you flip to is where gravity applies, so when you flip to the top of the screen, you get sucked in until you hit solid ground. Old school gamers should think of the NES game Metal Storm, because it’s the same general system. This same mechanic, when applied to moving tiles and floors that give way when you touch them, is applied throughout the entire game. There is a different stage area for each crew member that you have to rescue, denoted by the colour of the represented crew member, and each one has a different element, such as a string that changes your direction, or The Tower, which is an automatically scrolling tower with spikes at the top and bottom that forces you to move fast. There’s even an escort section, where the person you’re escorting follows you as you’re on the ground. These zones are found by searching through space, which automatically fills a map, reminiscent of Metroidvania-style games.
The deal with VVVVVV is that it does absolutely nothing innovative, nor does it want to. The beauty of the game lies in level design. Every level in a particular area has a name to it, and the obstacles can be often as simple as the words “OBEY” going up and down, or a set of binary numbers. One area has a stage called “I love you…”, with a bunch of hearts that you have to avoid, with the next area being “Which is why I have to kill you”, only here, the hearts are broken. Regardless of what the obstacles are, from spikes to motioned objects, you will die. A lot. This is because most of these puzzles require a combination of timing, precision and foresight that would make them impossible under any normal circumstances. Thankfully, there are checkpoints all over the place, so if you die on a puzzle, you don’t end up going back too far except in a few cases where the added layer of challenge is intentional. Therefore, you can worry about beating a puzzle without having to worry about backtracking through things you’ve already done. Even then, I died over 1,300 times in my first playthrough – yes, it counts that stat – though most of them were on one particular puzzle – the Veni, Vidi, Vici section of the game, which can best be described as one of those areas from a Mega Man game where you fall to avoid spikes, but on steroids (it’s also optional). Though it’s somewhat easy to get frustrated doing these puzzles, the frustration doesn’t last very long due to the quick restarts. The game supports both automatic saves at teleporters and quick saves, so you can walk away from the game any time you want if you need to take a break.
If there’s any complaint I have about VVVVVV, it’s the lack of gamepad or joystick support. A game that requires this much precision – especially with how weighty Veridian can feel at times – should support a gamepad. I had some issues keeping my guy under control with the keyboard, and though it could be considered “retro” to have a game that only supports a keyboard, even the Commodore 64 and other systems of that era supported a joystick.
VVVVVV is short – I beat it in three and a half hours my first time, and there are some speed runs that are as short as 16 minutes on Youtube – so if you’re looking for an epic, this isn’t going to fit the bill. However, there’s some replayability to be had via unlockables, unlockable time trials, and “silly trinkets”, which are used to unlock the soundtrack. Some of the trinkets require some real ingenuity to acquire them, but again, these are all optional. In fact, the unlockables are optional; the game gives you the option of unlocking everything right from the start, if you don’t want to spend time doing so. Some would argue that it defeats the purpose, I prefer a game that gives me the choice of doing so without having to pay a ransom to a company like Electronic Arts via paid DLC. Really, VVVVVV is whatever you want it to be. If you take a look at it, see antiquated graphics and simple gameplay mechanics, that’s what the game is; that’s fine, save your $5. I see great balance, timeless gameplay, charming (if overly “retro”) graphics, and some of the best level design I’ve ever seen. I also hear a chiptune soundtrack by Magnus “Souleye” PÃƒÂ¥lsson called PPPPPP, which is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard this year in any game. Yes, it’s chiptune, but not only is it catchy, but it’s extremely sophisticated in how many layers of sound there are. It’s not entirely “retro” because there’s no way this could have been replicated on any system from the mid-80s, but the soundtrack really is amazing, or at least amazing enough to cause me to buy the album of it.
Graphics: Pretty Poor
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
VVVVVV didn’t reinvent the wheel, but damned if it didn’t make a really good one. People who spend too much time worried about innovation, mind-blowing graphics, or ensuring that every game has a gruff space marine should definitely make some time to check this $5 game out and remind themselves why they love video games. The gameplay is timeless, the design is genius, and what’s most amazing is that this was all done primarily by two people.
It’s not a game of the year contender, but it doesn’t have to be. VVVVVV is a terrifically inspired game, and for the cost of a value meal at McDonalds, gamers should definitely check it out and support outstanding independent game designers. At the very least, check out the two-level demo that is playable in-browser.