Version tested: PC
Over the last decade or so, videogames have learned manners. They discovered that they would get invited round more often if they stopped being quite so horrible. They learned how to explain themselves properly, how to get to know people gradually, and how to be entertaining in polite company without being so rude and challenging all the time. They grew up, in other words, and quite right too.
But some people, including some of videogames' best friends, felt that in this drive for warm, all-embracing, one-button, smooth-curve accessibility, they'd lost their edge a bit, and were in danger of forgetting what they were about in the first place. And so a new old breed of deliciously, sadistically difficult games has started to emerge, including retro throwbacks like Mega Man 9, but also modern reactionaries like Trials HD and Demon's Souls, and even supposedly cuddly uncles like New Super Mario Bros. Wii: games that would sooner slap you in the face than hold your hand. Gamers, cheeks stinging, have woken up from their mollycoddled daze and said, "hit me again!"
Such gluttons for punishment will enjoy Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV, a short sharp shock of a 2D indie platformer with a gravity-flipping party trick. This is a game of fiendish design and extreme speed that requires both your reactions and your problem-solving to be razor-sharp.
It's not, however, anything like as crude or ironic as its comically basic, pixellated graphics and stupid title might suggest. Nor is it living in the past. VVVVVV is smart and generous: death is instant and very frequent, so restarts are immediate, checkpoints are everywhere and you get infinite lives. It's also sophisticated, with a cunning structure, varied and imaginative design, perfect pacing and even, in its simple way, storytelling prowess. It's as if Portal had been made in 1985; it's a turbo-charged, sci-fi Jet Set Willy set in a world that's falling apart.
The world's most economical intro movie telegraphs the set-up: a spaceship encounters some kind of dimensional disturbance on its travels, and its six crew members (all of whose names start with V) end up scattered about a mysterious and treacherously dangerous space station, around which the fabric of space and time seems to be distorting. Taking the role of Captain Viridian, the player's job is to find the crew and reunite them aboard ship by reactivating a network of teleporters. In doing so, he'll need to negotiate a handful of tortuous yet linear levels set within a loose, chaotic overworld, like a disintegrating Metroid map.
VVVVVV controls with just three inputs: left, right, and flip gravity. The Captain can't jump, but he can suddenly fly to the ceiling or the floor and stick to it; he needs to be standing on a surface to flip, otherwise you'd be able to make him fly just by hammering the space bar. From this simple but original twist on the most basic platform-game template, Cavanagh conjures dozens upon dozens of satisfying spatial puzzles and challenges to your dexterity and - above all - timing. Each one is neatly encapsulated in a single, non-scrolling screen with a witty title by Bennett Foddy.
Importantly, Cavanagh keeps throwing new ideas in, twisting VVVVVV's already two-sided world into new shapes. Pixel-thin fields that reverse gravity are used as trampolines and slingshots; wraparound rooms become mazes with no entrance, or infinite loops that scroll past your eyes like interference on an old analogue TV. Sometimes you'll have to lead a hapless, gravity-bound crew-member around. Over its short length, VVVVVV never gets old, squeezing every drop of potential from its mind-bending reorientation of platforming, a Mario Galaxy in microcosm.
This homebrew production isn't quite a match for the platforming masters in terms of finesse, however. Speed is a key element of its stringent difficulty, and the Captain moves blindingly fast and strictly digitally, with not much sense of momentum or physical contact. Precise control of him would be beyond most input devices this side of a professional arcade stick - certainly a humble keyboard - and sometimes his twitchiness, that vital microsecond of lag as your clumsy fingers pound the plastic, breaks the close bond that you need between player and platform-game hero.
Moments of such unfair frustration are extremely rare in VVVVVV, though, which, considering its difficulty, is a great achievement. In the course of a three-hour playthrough I died one thousand times, but only once got properly, maddeningly, just-can't-go-on stuck (for those who've already played the game: it was "Do as I say... not as I do," which coincidentally is the only screen in the whole game the Captain isn't smiling for). VVVVVV's tough, but it's designed to be enjoyed and completed, not to punish or defeat players. Its difficulty is actually perfectly pitched, and eased by periods of downtime as you explore the generally peril-free space around the space station levels, rooting out your next way in.
What's also remarkable - and much harder to explain - is how atmospheric and full of character VVVVVV manages to be with the most basic audiovisual resources. Much of the credit goes to Magnus Palsson's brilliant soundtrack, which transcends its coarse chiptune stylings in some genuinely rich, evocative and exciting electronic music that perfectly matches the game's retro-futurism.
There's also the fact that, for the most part, VVVVVV is played straight. It has its moments of indie quirk, with hazards composed of the words LIES and TRUTH bouncing around, but it has no pretensions to be anything other than a sci-fi adventure and a rip-roaring videogame. In that context, the simple exclamations of the script, the barely visible two-frame animation and the blocky graphical shorthand give it a sort of naïve purity, and the Captain's idiotically permanent grin in the face of the death of a thousand deaths becomes - in your head, at least - an expression of indomitable heroism. Somehow, this childish cipher becomes a great game character you'll feel real affection for.
As I've mentioned, VVVVVV is fairly short, taking around three hours to complete, and another couple - plus a great deal of skill and patience - to retrieve all of its collectable trinkets. Bearing that in mind, the asking price of £9 ($15, €10) might seem pretty steep. Then again, look past its lo-fi style and you'll realise its production values are hardly stingy, with unlockable time trials and other Easter-egg modes, and generally slick presentation. More to the point, it's excellent for its entire length. How many big-budget developments can say that?
8 / 10