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Review - VVVVVV (Steam, 2010)

Solid level design and a slick retro aesthetic that will keep you smiling

Indie developer Terry Cavanagh is known for producing tough but high-quality games with colorful retro aesthetics.  His new game Super Hexagon is wildly popular and old favorite Don’t Look Back recently got an iOS re-release, but he is probably best known for VVVVVV, the notoriously difficult platformer with a unique control scheme.  This game is hard, yes, but with liberal checkpoints and instant retries, it manages to avoid frustration most of the time, and stay fun throughout.  The visuals are simple and charming, the chiptune music is unexpectedly great, and the level design is smart.  VVVVVV is a really solid little game that deserves its status as a new indie classic.  

The story, such as it is, is that Captain Viridian (that’s you) and the five members of your spaceship crew have run into some trouble and end up going through a teleporter to an alternate dimension.  It’s up to you to navigate the dangerous pathways of this dimension, find the missing members of your crew, and teleport back to safety.  It’s a pretty bare-bones setup, and not a story that will use up much of your brainpower (or attention).  It doesn’t get in the way, though, and that’s good enough for me.

Because this game is about challenging retro gameplay, not story.  The central mechanic here is that while you cannot jump, you can reverse gravity any time you are standing.  With the push of a button, you will then “fall” from the floor to the ceiling or vice versa.  You can choose to use a single button for this or use the up and down arrows to shift the direction of the gravity up or down, respectively.  This is a really neat idea, and not one that’s been done much elsewhere.  It’s always risky to base an entire game around one core control mechanic, because it needs to work perfectly or the whole game falls apart.  Luckily, Cavanagh nailed it.  The controls are simple and tight, and the levels are nicely balanced.

At first, things are pretty simple.  There will be spikes on the ground in front of you, but none on the ceiling, so you use the gravity switching mechanic to fall up there and walk safely ahead.  There are also times when, since you can’t jump at all, you’ll need to flip twice just to get over a small obstacle in front of you that any other platformer hero would have hopped over without a problem.  But as the game goes on, things get more complicated.

The flipping is not simply a straight up and down movement.  You can still move left and right while falling, and the momentum you built up while running before flipping is preserved in part.  Most of the game is built to take advantage of these factors.  You will very often have to get a running start and use your limited control in the air just right to thread the needle through a terrifying gauntlet of stationary spikes, fast-moving hazards and disappearing platforms. 

Later in the game, new wrinkles to the formula get introduced.  There are these thin little threads that automatically reverse gravity, sending you falling the opposite way without your consent.  Later levels contain several of these, and hitting them all just right to get where you need to go is pretty exhilarating.  Then there are areas where when you fall off the bottom of the screen, you reappear at the top, and the same goes for left and right.  This means you’ll have to change the way you look at things because you’re now expected to know where on the left you’ll end up if you fall off of the right.  These parts take some getting used to, and are probably the biggest workout your brain gets during the game.

Like many other difficult indie retro games right now, VVVVVV is basically a series of one-room challenges.  If you can figure out just the right combination of flipping and movement to make it to the other side, you will almost invariably be rewarded with a checkpoint.  And also like those other games, this game knows that crushing difficulty can cross the line from fun to frustrating pretty easily, and the best way to avoid that is to have checkpoints everywhere, and to make sure that the player can try again immediately after death, with a minimum of lost progress.  Cavanagh has done this dance before, and knows very well how to make that balance work.

The visuals in the game are retro, though-and-through.  Not SNES or even NES retro, but rather Atari 2600 or Commodore 64 retro.  Everything is just about as simple as you can get, but thanks to the great colors and charming little facial expressions on the characters, it worked for me.  This sort of graphical style is a bit of an acquired taste, so I can understand not everyone liking it, but I thought it had tons of style.  

The music is also a bit on the retro side, but not quite as far back.  Composer Magnus Pålsson did some really great chiptune work on this game.  Much of the music felt like a slightly deeper, more fully orchestrated take on the Mega Man games, which any chiptune aficionado will tell you is high praise indeed.  I wouldn’t say the music is good enough to listen to on its own, but the fast tempo and strong, catchy melodies are a joy to listen to while playing and fit the game perfectly.

VVVVVV is a short, simple affair so there’s not a lot more I can say about it.  It’s really tough while still staving off frustration (a minor miracle in my eyes); the controls are incredibly simple yet bely some hidden depth; it looks and sounds fantastic; it introduces new challenges just often enough to keep things interesting; and it knows to leave the stage before the applause dies down.  It’s a really fun way to indulge those old twitchy retro skills without the punishment and loss of progress (and quarters) that comes with older games.