Did I mention that I’ve been playing a lot of indie titles lately? Well, this time it is a strange game called VVVVVV. No, that isn’t just a nightmare for my spell-check, it’s the name of an indie title available on 3DS, PS Vita, iOS, Android, Ouya, and the operating system of your choice (sans Linux). VVVVVV is a game that looks like it belongs in the early era of games, and I mean pre-NES. You are Captain Viridian, a little light-blue man made of pixels on a journey through space with a cavalcade of V-named companions. En route to some faraway place, the captain and company experience some interstellar interference and are separated, marooned in an unfamiliar place. Captain Viridian must find his friends and the source of interference that punctuated his journey.
Now, I say that VVVVVV looks like a Commodore 64-era game, but don’t be fooled. If this game were out at that time, it would have kicked Pac-Man and Donkey Kong from their pedestals. The game is a platformer, but with an unexpected method of play. Instead of jumping, the player can only move Captain Viridian on the ground. That is to say, there is no jump button. Instead, the player can change gravity vertically. At first, this mechanic felt restricting, which any platformer-lover will experience, but it doesn’t take too long to get the hang of. VVVVVV is as much of the platforming variety as it is a puzzler, since you must flip and flop the captain through area after area while avoiding spikes, lasers, flying words, and baddies, all of which lead to an instant, inescapable demise. Thankfully, checkpoints are at every turn so that even though the game is old school in difficulty at times, the transition from embarrassing death to the next attempt at victory is nearly instantaneous.
While there are tight, well-designed levels within the entire map, they are separated by long stretches of nothingness in the open world sections. Still, it is fun to explore and map out. Each of the areas in which Captain Viridian’s friends are lost offers an alternate challenge, most of which are tropes of regular platforming games, which feel very different because of the way in which the captain is controlled. For example, there is a section of forced progression, areas that include the leave-the-screen-on-one-side but end-up-on-the-other-side challenges, and platforms that refuse to remain intact if you are standing on them. There are hidden items within the regular game, but the ways in which one needs to retrieve them include some the toughest challenges in the game. There was one challenge in particular which took upwards of an hour to finish. If you play the game, you’ll know exactly what I mean when you get there (hint: it includes a lot of spikes). Unfortunately, the game is a little bit untrustworthy because the controls seem overly sensitive, which will propel Captain Viridian through the high-speed sections, but maybe send him flying into decimation during moments when being absolutely spot-on is crucial.
The presentation of the game is probably my favorite part of VVVVVV. It looks like something from a time gone by and has the bright and almost abrasive colors of arcade games. Captain Viridian himself is so simple that he is impossible not to like. After failing consistently, his open-mouth grin morphs into exhaustion and depression and it is a harsh reminder that you are playing a game that punishes the inexperienced. Each sector of the game has a title, and by sector I mean one screen, so there are hundreds of them. Many, depending on the level, make fun of the player or describe the puzzle in some way. One of them is even an apology for making an area so difficult and, rightly so. Though there are few interactions with the other V members of the captain’s team, each set of dialogue is interesting and makes one question how such simple models can have distinct personalities. All this quality presentation is coupled with what must be my favorite chiptune soundtrack for a game. The tracks each use the chiptune tools to create songs that motivate, set the mood, and even add to the desperation of some of the game’s challenges.
I have a bias when it comes to games that play the nostalgia card, even for an era that I was only half a part of, half a twinkle in my father’s eye, and have almost no memory of and by that I mean the 80’s. But this game, only a few years old, feels like something that was missed—the lost classic of pre-Nintendo gaming. That said, I’m going to put my least subjective hat on. Sometimes you feel cheated by the controls; he isn’t as slippery as Luigi, but I cried foul at a few points. As much as there is to do in the first playthrough, I certainly haven’t tried the no-death challenge postgame, nor have I played many of the time trials. This game has character, charm, a fantastic soundtrack, and just enough of a challenge to frustrate but not enough to cause rage-quits. I wish I could erase my memory and play this game fresh again; VVVVVV is a challenge worth conquering.
Vinny Orsillo | @VinnyOhGames