Editor's note: This review originally appeared in January, when VVVVVV was made available on the North American 3DS eShop. We present it today to mark the game's release on the eShop in Europe.
Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV is a game in love with being a game. The sci-fi tale of six space-dwelling scientists (whose names all begin with the letter V) getting displaced in another dimension is silly, but the bare-bones premise is fitting for the 8-bit retro aesthetic. This nostalgic presentation allows Cavanagh to look at common conventions with a deadpan sense of wide-eyed wonder.
When it's discovered that walking to one end of the screen causes you to emerge out the other side it's explained as "inter-dimensional interference". The first time a scientist sees a checkpoint he suggests it be brought back to the ship to be analysed. Where Atari games like Asteroids and Centipede seemed embarrassed by their stories, Cavanagh builds one to complement the medium's preposterous designs. These analytic musings and low-fi visuals brings to mind classic sci-fi yarns like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, from an era when computers were the size of apartments and even the most basic video games were the stuff of dreams.
VVVVVV is sharper and more modern than its inspirations, sidestepping the archaic trappings of actual games from the eighties. The design vaguely resembles Metroid, but where Samus' debut presented players with an open world to explore, it was really only somewhat open, with a series of barriers blocking off much of its real estate until the proper piece of equipment was found.
VVVVVV doesn't bother with upgrades. You only have one ability throughout the entire game. By tapping a button you can flip gravity, effectively transforming ceilings into floors and vice versa. Where most games today lead players by the nose or place locked gates indicating they should be revisited later, VVVVVV's condensed maze is entirely accessible after a brief tutorial. This lack of guidance means you're literally lost in space, but the manageable scale and a bevy of warp point alleviates needless backtracking while you boldly go where no one has gone before.
Whichever way you go, you'll be greeted with fiendishly difficult platforming challenges. Much like Super Meat Boy, nearly every jump requires precision and one wrong move will see your space captain's pixelated body reincarnated at the most recent checkpoint. Thankfully, these are mercifully frequent, cropping up in almost every single screen. It's not unusual to fail dozens of times on a single jump, but the penalty for dying is so minor that it seldom frustrates.
Each area is distinct too, with new ideas offering neat twists on the one-button gravity play. In one section the edges of the screen lead to its opposite end until the correct exit is found, while another offers an escort mission where your charge will run towards you when you're on the ground but ignore your presence entirely when you're on the ceiling (clearly they come from the Arkham Asylum school of observation). Another level places you on a vertical scrolling elevator lined with spikes.
Amusingly, the more hazard-prone screens come with their own witty title written by QWOP creator Bennett Foddy. A screen following a dive off a cliff is called "I Changed My Mind, Thelma" and possibly the game's hardest optional challenge is a multi-screen spike-filled corridor entitled "Veni", "Vidi", and "Vici".
VVVVVV premiered on PC in 2010, and this 3DS port is a mostly solid conversion. Having the map simultaneously in view on the bottom screen is a major boon in a game about charting the unknown. Other additions include a selection of user-created levels, some of which are by notable indie designers like Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson. 10 of these were already available on PC, but eight are new to this edition.
Regrettably, there's no level editor (though Nicalis, the publisher of this port, has stated that it would like to add this) and the 3D is underwhelming in a game with primarily black backgrounds. Between that and the pillar-boxed top screen, VVVVVV takes so little advantage of the system's unique capabilities that it's a little troubling it wasn't released on DSiWare for those who've not taken the plunge on Nintendo's latest handheld.
Despite these niggles, this is a fine port of a splendid platformer. Switching effortlessly between sadistic punishment and boundless freedom, VVVVVV provides more moment to moment pleasure in its scant two or three hour campaign than most games do at four times the length. While not flashy, long, or for the faint of heart, those with an affinity for old-school difficulty and newfangled mollycoddling checkpoints will find Cavanagh's tribute to the past could teach its high-definition contemporaries a thing or two.