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.