Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Indie-Cember: VVVVVV

  • Developer/Lead Designer: Terry Cavanaugh*
  • Release:
    • PC: 11 January 2010
    • Nintendo 3DS: 29 December 2011
  • Genre: 2D Action/Adventure
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$5
*3DS port published by Nicalis.

As a gamer from the post-Nintendo generation, my experience with, if not knowledge of, everything that came before the NES is spotty at best. For example, as of writing this, I've never played anything on a Commodore 64. Shame, I know. And that's merely a reflection of my personal history as a gamer; I'm not understating its success or anything. For instance, I hear the C64 was way popular in Europe, so it's a very real possibility that an indie game developer from, say, the British Isles may have grown up with it, let its style shape his earliest concepts of a video game, and use that mental image to shape his own products. And what do you know, that just so happens to be the case with the Irish-born, currently England-based Terry Cavanaugh, and his most notable title to date, VVVVVV (pronounced "The Letter V Six Times").

In VVVVVV, you play as Captain Viridian, a grayish-blue humanoid who is forced to evacuate his spaceship along with his crew, only to come out the other side sans crew. It is then up to you to rescue the remaining five members of your crew, wherever they may be. And how is this to be done? Why, in the context of a 2D platformer, simple enough. The game is divided into an open world which you get to explore at your leisure, and various sub-levels in which your crew members may be found. Ah, a Metroidvania format, nothing we haven't seen before. Oh, and instead of jumping, you get to flip the gravity to get past obstacles.

Wait, what?

Yes, because jumping is too mainstream, pressing the action button (default: spacebar) flips Captain Viridian from the floor to the ceiling or vice-versa. This is not a new concept in gaming controls, having been represented in titles like Metal Storm (NES, 1991), Wendy: Every Witch Way (GBC, 2001), and Messr. Cavanaugh's own freeware title, Sine Wave Ninja (PC, 2009). But VVVVVV goes all-out with the concept, since nearly everything in this game revolves around this manoeuvre. After having eased you into the game's mechanics by letting you explore parts of the game freely, new concepts are thrust upon you, primarily in the aforementioned sub-levels. Tricks are introduced at just the right pace, like wrap-warping from one side of the screen to another, lines which automatically flip you upon touching them, and spikes.
Later areas gradually introduce you to concepts like wrap-warping.
Because it's a retro-styled game, of course they have to have instant-death spikes. I mean, how else are you going to ramp up the challenge? Put more animate obstacles on the screen? Not with this hardware! ...At least not the hardware Messr. Cavanaugh is trying to evoke. But before the more noobish of you get up and walk away from this article, to retreat behind the cover of your chest-high walls and suckle on the teats of regenerating health, hear me out. The difficulty of VVVVVV is balanced out by the presence of checkpoints -- and lots of them. And despite what I called you out on earlier, I applaud this approach. A major source of frustration in video games is failing a challenge and have to wait a long time before you can try it again. I've actually up and quit video games that made me sit through an unskippable cutscene every time I tried to face a boss *CoughKingdomHeartsNotTheHDRereleaseMindYouWhichThankGodfullyHasThisFeatureCough*.

If you remember the beginning of this article, I didn't write that spiel about the Commodore 64 just to fill up space. VVVVVV does, in fact, draw inspiration from the aesthetics of the C64 and its software. The visuals are presented in a limited colour palette, individual objects are drawn solely in shades of the same hue, and instead of camera scrolling, each room in the game's map fills the screen area, no more, no less. And you know what? I kinda like this approach. Each room has a different name (courtesy of the guy who made QWOP, no less), and non-spiky obstacles are patterned after these names. You can expect to dodge ghosts, clouds, stop signs, and even words and numbers in your journeys. I don't know about you, but that leads to far more memorable experiences than just facing down identically-uniformed humanoids.
It's nice to see creativity in the colours and object designs.
What's more, this was more or less intentional. The word from the horse's mouth (so to speak) is that not only was this an opportunity for Messr. Cavanaugh to indulge in his own personal "retro fetish", and to "make something that looked and felt like the C64 games [he] grew up with", but to avoid the hassles of modern graphics and make visuals that are genuinely interesting. [1]  And if the latter were the only reason, then I dare say this is one corner I wish was cut more often. It's not just how they're presented here in VVVVVV, but it's a bucking of one of my least favourite trends in modern full-budget game production: the "Real Is Brown" trope. Maybe it's allow advanced lighting routines to run without bringing down the entire graphics engine, maybe it's to reflect the stylistic choices in other media, maybe it's a stylistic choice for its own sake, I don't know. All I know is I hate it. Limiting yourself to a short slice of the colour spectrum makes for forgettable moments in your work, and when everyone's trying to do it, well, it's one of the many reasons I fear for the safety of our beloved industry. And to bring this review back to the point of Indie-Cember, it's one of the many reasons I've stuck my head under the surface of the indie ocean and drowned in its innovative pleasantness. ...Try not to think too much about that metaphor.


So yeah, VVVVVV. Yes, its controls may be overly-dependent on fast-twitch timing, and may occasionally be a bit slippery. Yes, it may be a little short -- I managed to finish a bare-bones run in just over an hour, in one sitting -- if you don't spend any time hunting out the optional Trinkets or playing the unlockable challenge mini-modes. Yes, being trapped in those cut-away sections drags down the pacing a bit, keeping you from the freedom of exploration until you finish them. Although, I will give them credit for eliciting an emotion of desolation. And yes, this business of spikes killing you when you simply brush up against their side needs to stop. But by all other accounts, VVVVVV is a well-oiled machine that pulls you into the zone with just a few rooms. Maybe it's Magnus PĂ„lsson's club-ready chiptune soundtrack that does the trick. Or maybe it's the pacing which puts you back in the action as soon as possible after each mishap which keeps the intensity flowing. Either way, it's got all I could ask for in a platformer: something innovative, something thought-provoking, and above all else, being really, really good at what it's supposed to be.

+ Delivers many variations on a simple gameplay mechanic.
+ Frequent checkpoints balance out its difficulty.
+ Creative characters and room names.
+ A thumpin' chiptune soundtrack.

- The cutaway sections drag down the pace a bit.

Control: 3 trinkets out of 5
Design: 5 trinkets out of 5
Graphics: 5 trinkets out of 5
Audio: 5 trinkets out of 5
Value: 3 trinkets out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)
[1] Rose, Michael (2010-01-06). "Intervvvvvview: Terry Cavanagh". IndieGames.com.

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