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Not often will games come along and surprise you these days. In our age of information, developers and publishers go to great lengths to push their products. Specifically, they hope to get fans hyped enough to buy the game day 1 as well as keeping the title in the public mind for continued spontaneous purchases of their product. This is why we're rarely surprised and blown away by a game. For me, VVVVVV was that type of game.
Created entirely by Terry Cavanagh (with music by Magnus Pålsson), VVVVVV released on January 11th, 2010 for Windows and OSX. It is a platformer at heart and another entry in the somewhat new phenomenon of particularly evil twitch platforming, which requires players to perfect their movements in order to continue, against great odds from environmental factors. Harking back to the high difficulty of certain retro platformers (see Castlevania, level 6 of Ninja Gaiden, Ghosts 'N Goblins), some gamers have been looking for more, perhaps as somewhat of a counter to the relative ease of today's mainstream games. Many amazingly popular games in this genre have been created with relatively crude tools or even as direct romhacks, such as Kaizo Mario and I Wanna Be The Guy. As time moves on, these games have been getting more sophisticated and really come into their own as standalones, as seen by the recent release of Super Meat Boy.
If anything, VVVVVV is still a bit of a transition point between those two camps, as it was (surprisingly) created in flash and with very limited resources. But it just exemplifies the potential of the genre. So let's get into what VVVVVV actually is and how it plays.
As you start, you are almost immediately thrown into the action. Your ship has encountered some strange turbulance and you need to evacuate. Your character and your shipmates bolt for the the teleporter and warp off the ship. Of course, the teleporter is also malfunctioning and the crew is split up. Now, it is your job to explore the world and find your lost crewmates. Players will quickly discover that movement in this game is different from normal. Instead of traditional walk/run/jump physics, VVVVVV only allows you to run and flip. Flipping essentially instantly reverses your gravity and sends you to the ceiling (or to whatever dangers lie above). Flipping again switches gravity back down. This is the entire gameplay mechanic.
After the early guided sequence, your path opens up and you're free to search the world as you wish. The exploring is aided by a metroid-esque map, which subtly encourages you to scour each square for fun and goodies. However, this world is cruel. The freeness of this seemingly open world contains several of what are essentially dungeons, each with crazy screens of spikes to avoid, tricks to use, and objects to pass. Luckily, save points are abundant, so a single death poses little setback. The game is entirely free of load time and feels as crisp and fast as an arcade game. Through constant speed learning and twitch reflexes, you eventually conquer each side dungeon and rescue your teammates. It's hard to understate how much fun this game is, combining rapid-fire twitch gameplay with exploring. Eventually the exploring unfortunately ends, after you finally track down each of the optional trinkets. But new challenges continually unlock as you complete objectives, making this game quite deep if you wish it to be so.
Ultimately, VVVVVV feels like a fantastic value. Originally priced at $15, it has since been changed to $5 in order to access a new market. It worked to grab me, and is one of the freshest little games I've played in some time. In many ways, VVVVVV has the best elements of both old-school and modern gaming, and is clearly a labor of love when it comes down to its fine tuning. Its manner of death-based gameplay may be offputting to some players, but most will be able to persevere through trial-and-error, emboldened by well-placed savepoints and overall game speed. Charming, fast, and fun with an unrelenting retro decor. Not much more you can ask for.
(Bonus level madness)