The next indie game on my list is VVVVVV, even though I’ve played it already. But it has since been updated to v2.0, including a bunch of bonus levels made by various other indie game developers, so I decided it was time to play through it again. Besides, it’s excellent, and only takes a few hours to play through, so why not?
If you have not yet played VVVVVV, you’re probably looking at that screenshot and thinking it looks like a game from 1980, rather than 2010. The retro look is intentional, and in motion it looks a lot better than you might expect. The animations are smooth and lend a modern sheen to the visuals that suggests games of old rather than outright emulating them. The visuals also set a certain tone that fits the gameplay perfectly.
And the gameplay itself is the best part of VVVVVV. There are only three buttons — move left, move right, and flip gravity — but designer Terry Cavanagh uses these simple mechanics to absolutely brilliant effect over the course of the game.
The level design is simply perfect. Levels are paced just right, with particularly tough areas spread out with just enough respite in between. Checkpoint placement is spot on, so things never get too frustrating even when I’m trying to pass the same obstacle for the 53rd time. The levels also do an excellent job of guiding the player; I never felt lost and rarely needed to check the in-game map to get my bearings. But, most importantly, the level design is incredibly imaginative. How many ways can you think of to use a gravity-flipping mechanic in a platforming level? Well, Terry Cavanagh thought of ten times more. On countless occasions I entered a seemingly impossible screen and fumbled around a little before the solution came to me in a flash of inspiration, a big smile appearing on my face.
That VVVVVV can keep me smiling is quite an achievement, especially considering just how tough it is. Many sections are fiendishly difficult, especially when one is trying to find all of the trinkets, which is purely optional. But find them all I did, and even the toughest of them was unable to put a dent in my enjoyment. With each failed attempt I was simply more determined to do better. It’s a rare game that can pull this off, and it places VVVVVV among some of my favorites like Super Meat Boy or Matt Thorson’s games.
If this were all that VVVVVV were, it would still be a great game. But two things elevate VVVVVV above simply being a set of great levels. First are the characters; it’s impossible not to love Captain Viridian and his intrepid crew, who never lose their optimism even in the face of danger and uncertainty. Their little pixelated frowns and grins are surprisingly emotive, and the brief snatches of conversation between the crew engender a genuine desire to find them all and help get them home safely. There’s just enough dialog to hint at each crew member’s personality and relationship with the rest, leaving the player feeling familiar with them all despite the game’s short duration.
Second is the music. It’s the best game soundtrack I’ve heard in recent years. Composed by Magnus “Souleye” Palsson, all the music is chiptune in keeping with the retro aesthetic, and all of it is excellent. The levels themselves typically feature upbeat, intense music to go with the fast-paced challenges within, but my personal favorite track plays in the large hub area between levels, as I tool around at a relaxed pace, simply exploring for exploration’s sake.
Upon replaying I discovered the the bonus levels included in v2.0 are not integrated into the main game but rather accessed separately from the menu. This didn’t stop me from replaying the main game though. The second time was no less enjoyable, and it is the perfect length, taking only a few hours to complete. Then I took a gander at the bonus levels. There are ten of these, and I decided to sample the one by Markus “Notch” Persson (of Minecraft fame) first. It’s a large, open map centered around collecting the five missing members of the crew, but I actually found it a bit frustrating; without an automap it was hard to determine where I needed to go, and the checkpoint placement, while competent, wasn’t quite as perfect as in the main game. It left me with an even greater appreciation for Terry Cavanagh’s level design. Afterwards I discovered that Notch’s level is actually a port of his 4k VVVVVV demake made for the Java 4k contest. That inclines me to forgive most of its foibles, and I definitely plan to check out the rest of the bonus levels, which include two by composer Magnus “Souleye” Palsson.
If you have not played VVVVVV, I highly recommend grabbing a copy. You can do that directly from Terry Cavanagh for a price of $4.99, for Windows, Mac or Linux, and there’s even a link there to get it on the Nintendo 3DS. It’s also available on Steam. If you are somehow still not convinced to try it, why not check out the free demo? There is literally no downside.
Because you can flip gravity.
(EDIT: When you’re done playing, here’s where to get the soundtrack.)