“Amicus Plato amicus Aristoteles magis amica verita.”
(Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth.)
-Sir Isaac Newton
VVVVVV represents to me an exploration of the limits of the general populace’s tolerance levels in video games. To dissipate any suspicions you may have after that last sentence: I really enjoyed this game. So here’s what I mean by limits and tolerance.
“Vee vee vee vee vee”? Just a humming V noise? However you pronounce the title of this indie by Terry Cavanagh, his first commercial game, VVVVVV is about a group of spacefaring stick figures led by Captain Viridian (the player character). When the crew’s vessel is assaulted by dimensional interference, they abandon ship via teleporter but quickly find themselves separated and lost in space. Captain Viridian must hunt down each member of his crew and discover the source of the interference in order to get their ship functioning again and escape dimension VVVVVV.
Six characters whose names each begin with V… “VVVVVV”?
VVVVVV is the best kind of puzzle video game where the rules are inherently simple but the stage design grows more complex. As a 2D puzzle platformer, the game is unique in that there’s no jump function. Viridian navigates his environment through the manipulation of gravity. This anti-grav movement is the core mechanic. There are no guns, no power ups, no extra lives, or anything of that sort. Viridian travels along the ground or he can flip himself upside down to travel along the ceiling. These limitations afford challenging and unique level design, falling upward or downward to overcome obstacles and hazards, which are numerous.
That’s no understatement. Dangers are so frequent that checkpoints are placed in nearly every room. If you impale yourself on spikes or find yourself crushed by flying metaphysical words like “Truth” and “Yes”, you’ll be able to instantly respawn nearby. This makes VVVVVV a trial and error sort of game, which certainly will test the limits of tolerance, specifically the patience, of players. This is a tough game which can border on frustrating but it relies on an exploratory lust and brevity of gameplay sessions and goals in order to keep the player invested.
Further, the graphics are interesting in their choice of era to adapt, since most retro-styled games seem to choose either an 8-bit NES or a 16-bit SNES/Genesis appearance. VVVVVV models itself after what I originally thought to be Atari 2600 graphics, though I later discovered that the intention was to emulate the appearance of games from the Commodore 64.
Even for a classics gamer like myself, the C64 was before my time and I barely have any experience playing with one so in that regard the imagery of VVVVVV seems foreign, alien, and at first glance off-putting. There’s a boundary of tolerance there, and I expect that that line may be drawn closer to home depending on how frequently one plays retro or retro-styled games, or how far back in time one is willing to go.
However, with its context of weird interdimensional travel, it seemed to me as if the antiquated graphics described the totality of this strange multiverse, rather than merely giving an impression of it. Later in the game, the adherence to C64 aesthetics allows for some bizarre and beautiful environments.
Simple limitations, unrelenting difficulty, antiquated graphics, and next there’s storytelling. Beside the retro-themed visuals, this should be the most apparent limitation for anyone even remotely familiar with the games of the 80’s. Modern gamers, or more appropriately those who exclusively play current gen and/or last gen titles, are accustomed to expository sequences which play out like scenes in feature films. Voice acting, facial mapping, detailed character animations have all become the norm and coming across a game where you actually have to read the dialogue yourself may come as a shock to some people. I wouldn’t say something so audacious if I’d never experienced meeting such people myself.
This is exactly how VVVVVV describes its world, though, through old fashioned text boxes when characters interact with each other. Curiously, each room or screen in the game is also named; another tenet from games of the past. However what is said in VVVVVV is just as important as what isn’t said, or more significantly: what isn’t directly described.
As mentioned, the crew of this starship become lost in varying corners of these dimensions where physics don’t follow any kind of normality, or even consistency. The map loops at its edges. The “monsters” are abstruse objects. In VVVVVV, there’s a palpable air of what it’s like to explore one’s dreams, where substances and concepts only make sense within the context of the dream while dreaming, though once the game is over it all blurs together and becomes tough to describe and recall.
Let’s address the elephant in the room here. The literal elephant in a room. The image of the so-called sad elephant below is a composite of four game screens (rooms), so it’s this huge radiant image you suddenly stumble across while exploring the dimensions. If Captain Viridian stands next to it for a length of time, he becomes sad too.
As far as I know, there’s no functional purpose for the sad elephant. Its existence in the game is irrelevant and in that respect, an anomaly. Why is this elephant here? What does this elephant mean? Don’t know, but apparently it was a figure in the developer Mr. Cavanagh’s own dream journals, and he decided to include it in this game. Elements like this which are familiar but surreal in their placement make VVVVVV‘s world a compelling one.
The question ultimately is: Are you willing to ignore those elements or absurdities in order to play this awesome game? What you may find is that you’ll enjoy the game more because of them. Retro-styled, self-inflicted limitations can make for modern gaming experiences unlike any other and that’s precisely what they do here. The methodology of world-building, the structure of the game’s dimensions, the way in which you interpret it and figure out how to interact with it, the steep but surmountable difficulty… these are VVVVVV’s gifts to our universe.
The 8-bit Review
I’m at a crossroads in my thinking in trying to grade VVVVVV’s visuals. They are anachronistic by design. While it’s interesting to see new innovations brought to old graphics on modern consoles, this makes it difficult to concretely describe the potential and quality of the graphics, especially since we as a culture generally associate greatness in games with higher definition and detail over less. With VVVVVV, subtlety is of import.
There is the angle of VVVVVV’s uncanny, metaphysical world being better represented by lights and colors and basic geometric shapes over stark realism, so in that respect these graphics perhaps best serve this game’s presentation. It’s hard to even imagine what VVVVVV would be like if things had been dialed up to 16-bit or even 3D. My presence in time is betrayed even by that bit of phrasing “dialed up”, the alternative, “dialed down”, seeming a negative to a positive. While VVVVVV may not necessarily impress in the realm of visuals, but in the developers own words he was indulging in his own “retro fetish”, and VVVVVV takes all of the inherent restrictions in that philosophy to do with them the most that can possibly be done.
Swedish composer Magnus Pålsson (aka SoulEye) created a chiptune soundtrack for VVVVVV that fortunately strays from noise and homes in on catchy rhythmic tracks. The music fits the upbeat personality of the game’s grin-bearing protagonist, who only drops the smile on occasion. In that I think it captures the tone of game music from the era it emulates.
That Pålsson describes retro game music as “the most enjoyable to make” should come as no surprise, considering the joy of these compositions. This score is one of the better retro-styled that I’ve heard.
Hilariously, the soundtrack for VVVVVV was released as PPPPPP, with a metal version later called MMMMMM.
Though the core mechanic is essentially simple, greater and greater complexity is introduced in the game room structures themselves. Playing through VVVVVV, you’ll eventually reach a point where you have to stop at each new room and look around, take a moment to study the environments and plot your path before moving forward. Some rooms have deceptive functions like disappearing platforms or wraparound edges and looping pits. There are conveyor belts, scrolling rooms, fast-paced enemies, and loads of spikes, besides. Many of these demand you come up with inventive ways to use Viridian’s flipping ability in order to escape death.
Throughout the game you’ll have the opportunity to hunt down trinkets as well as your missing crew members. Often off the beaten path, some of these trinkets are hidden behind the games most difficult platforming sections. One such trinket (which I gave up on) was beyond a long set of spike-walled corridors you had to fall upward through, reach the top and then fall backward back down in order to reach. Collecting the trinkets rewards the player with time trials, soundtrack access, and other secrets.
Upon completing a “level” by rescuing a crew member, Viridian and his comrade will be able to return to their ship via teleporter. Accessing a teleporter allows you to travel to any other previously tapped teleporter, allowing for fast trips across the game’s map. This method of travel works reliably enough until mid to late game when dimensional interference begins to throw Viridian into the deeper and darker recesses of space-time. This is when VVVVVV introduces its parenthetical levels which are less open-ended and more linear, and much more difficult.
Though VVVVVV is a shorter game experience than perhaps most, there’s lots to hunt down and discover. This game world isn’t massive (you can clearly see the size of the entire map comprised of individual room squares), but there are several play modes and trinkets to find. The game is very compelling in a first playthrough especially as you begin to open up the map and explore.
Let the record show that my first playthrough of VVVVVV took me just over two hours and that I died nearly 700 times! I feel like I spent a good chunk of that time just putzing around exploring, so I’m entirely certain that a dedicated, disciplined playthrough of the game could really cut that over all playtime down. Also, it is remarkably easy to rack up those deaths. As you can see in the image below, I accumulated as many as 54 deaths in a single room. With continue spots nearby, this doesn’t eat into your game time so much but it can become frustrating. Still, I felt that there was a good enough reward factor to make overcoming all that difficulty worthwhile. That and I was never sure what VVVVVV was going to throw at me next, which, coupled with its self-prescribed limitations, was always a pleasure to uncover.
The simple mechanic of being able to swap your character from ceiling to floor is taken to its limits in some of the game’s rooms, but it remains fundamentally easy to grasp. Looking at some of the harder rooms, such as the one below that gave me a heck of time, it becomes plain what you need to do but then you’ll need to develop the sense of timing necessary to reach your goal.
In the room “. . . Not as I Do”, you have to lead another crew member across the spiked floors. They can’t flip up across the ceiling or jump over the moving platforms suspended in the center of the room. They’ll only move forward whenever your character is touching the ground, so you’ll have to traverse the three moving platforms upside down, reach the far end and tap your feet on the floor then return to the ceiling quick enough for your comrade to pass onto each platform and reach the other side, then you have to go back across the platforms yourself and pass over them again on their top sides. I knew what I had to do after figuring it out eventually but my goodness was that difficult.
I vaguely remember only a few titles from the Commodore 64, most of them in the form of images I can’t put names to. Of them all, I remember Zak McKracken the most. I remember best the look of games on the C64, simple shapes and colors. VVVVVV, in choosing its influences from that era, stands apart from a lot of retro-styled modern games. Also, while the gravity-flipping mechanic wasn’t invented by VVVVVV (heck, there’s plenty of that in Super Mario Odyssey, even), putting that concept front and center is at the least different in a genre typically dominated by jumping and not flipping.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
The Nintendo Switch has really helped me catch up with a lot of games that existed on my peripherals for a long time, indies that I’ve wanted to play but kept forgetting about. I am glad I had the opportunity to play and review VVVVVV, and I must thank Nicalis for the press key. I enjoy going into these games dark, knowing as little as possible, and VVVVVV has enough surprises that I felt rewarded for not having anything spoiled.
Aggregated Score: 7.666666
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Categories: Game Review