Vidi, Veni, Vici!, Easy Mode Unlocked, Your Bitter Tears… Delicious, Getting Here is Half the Fun, Your Bitter Tears… Delicious, Easy Mode Un- shit! And so our friend Captain Viridian’s smile is turned upside down for the three-hundred and seventy fourth time in the last half hour, planted, as it is, on the same row of spikes that got him two attempts ago. Don’t worry though, this is the hardest section of Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV we’re talking about; it does get at least slightly easier.
The challenge is indeed ferocious, and were any other three hour game’s conclusion routinely met with nothing short of a thousand deaths it would forever be appended with a “horribly frustrating” warning. This is, you may have gathered, not VVVVVV‘s problem. It is infuriating, but one’s blood isn’t likely to curdle for longer than those fairly frequent half second intervals – the time it takes to reset to the last checkpoint. These have been judiciously scattered on an almost room-to-room basis, ensuring that no more than a few moments’ play separate Viridian from the next plank in this ocean of sharks.
That’s not a bad analogy, actually, in that this space station has been kindly decorated with row-upon-row of spikes. When viewed in this context the game’s title makes far more sense as a series of abstract characters than a textual string. In VVVVVV, the three-button play mechanic is the be-all and end-all, the plot of Viridian’s search for his scattered crew little more than a premise, an excuse. Its lean nature has a point to make: if only more games had the balls to avoid narrative altogether. Here, any dialogue is sharp and to the point, servicing the game as best it can by framing it in an interesting way – as opposed to what could be described as “Dom’s Wife Syndrome”. Here, such frivolous, expensive vanity is outlawed. Navigating those spikes is the end, total control our means.
And total control is all we’re afforded. Despite the echoes of older Metroid, Cavanagh’s game contains no power-ups, no enemies and in fact no jump button. Therein lies the hook, and the heart of what makes VVVVVV such an outrageous and thrilling ride from tentative start to triumphant end. That third button – complementing the more traditional left and right – is the ability to flip gravity whilst Viridian’s feet are in contact with a flat surface. It’s an incredible sensation, all told, that dry description belying its infinite charms. That our humble hero can’t surmount the tiniest of obstacles on his own is used to tease the player at the expense of other games, but it’s absolutely core to the challenge. The mechanic demands the kind of speed and precision that may lie a little out of reach for those not accustomed to keyboard directional controls, but most players’ dexterity should only improve as it wears on.
It’s not just instinctive split-second timing that’s asked of the player, though. Some areas are puzzle oriented, requiring quick thinking as well as quick fingers. A series of rooms inspired by the original Mario Bros., for instance, operate on an “infinite loop”. Not only are the puzzles smartly constructed, but the platforming is, ahem, thrown on its head by the disorientating movement from one side of the screen to the other. Cavanagh’s talent for level construction is abundantly evident in the pixel perfect challenges, his use of the mechanic at times astoundingly inventive. VVVVVV is certainly in the World of Goo, Braid and Glum Buster lineage of taking a single aspect of play to its logical conclusion, stretching it impossibly far in the process. It’s an interesting phenomenon, but the complexity via simplicity gene is one that’s hard to pick holes in.
And as much as it affectionately pokes fun at the old-school, VVVVVV owes an awful lot to the last three decades of platform gaming. The charmingly retro art direction is a hallmark of its static presentation, and the load screen is ripped straight from the ZX Spectrum. Bright colours stand out against the black, star speckled background as if to taunt today’s biggest games – you may have thousands of colours to our sixteen, but we use them all. The theme of past meets present is no more exuberantly expressed than in the music. Magnus Pålsson’s soundtrack is a true gem, grabbing Mega Man by his 8-bit throat and dragging him through the last twenty years of advancement in the electronic genres, producing sounds that are at once richly atmospheric and proud to display their legacy. It’s also video game music in the best possible sense, urging the player on when it needs to and melting into the subconscious whilst in the zone. Though still fantastic independently of the game, they’re best experienced as an awesome whole.
What results is a game with bygone days in its heart but its head firmly focussed on the here and now. As with Braid, Bionic Commando Rearmed and Trine before it, it’s helping usher in the next generation of two dimensional platforming, paying its due to the eighties before speeding past them in a blur of polished originality. VVVVVV‘s fusion of styles is exactly what lends it its endless playability; there’s not a dull moment to be had in this tight, rewarding and above all blisteringly fun package.