Two weeks ago, your Mid-week Mission was Super Crate Box, a simple, pixel art title carefully constructed around one innovative game mechanic. This week I would like to talk about a game with an even simpler art style, which is built around a less innovative mechanic—Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV. And yet, for all of the utter simplicity in its visuals and gameplay, this title manages to be one of the five best platformers I have played in the last five years, and one of my top ten platformers of all time.
VVVVVV is a game whose aesthetics leave everything to be desired, but which uses its sparse, sometimes-baffling visual presentation (in conjunction with Magnus Pålsson’s anachronistic chiptune-esque masterpiece of a score) to set an incomparably other-wordly mood plucked straight out of 1980s video game logic. Meanwhile, the deservedly lauded level design ties the project together for a respectably challenging campaign. For more on why and how this game looks so odd and plays so wonderfully, keep reading.
Many gamers would be familiar with Cavanagh’s more recent success, Super Hexagon, which is a game much more comparable to Super Crate Box; both are tightly constructed, aesthetically simple arcade-style games with a steep incline in difficulty over time. Fans of that recent Cavanagh game should most assuredly try out this earlier one, as VVVVVV is a game that boasts all of Super Hexagon‘s virtues, and much, much more.
For VVVVVV, the gameplay mechanic around which the game is designed is player-character Captain Viridian’s inability to jump like a normal platformer character. Instead, the player is granted control over Captain Viridian’s (vertically oriented) direction of gravity. That’s it. You just flip him up and down to cross gaps and pass spikes.
Sounds pretty easy, right? Well, not exactly. See, the captain (and his obstacles) move and fall quickly, requiring precise inputs and mastery of the mechanic to beat most rooms in the game. Due to its copious checkpoints, it is certainly not the hardest platformer I have played, but some of its mini-games, extras, and collectibles are truly devious. After you’ve tried VVVVVV‘s challenge out for yourself, watching a speedrunner effortlessly destroy it (WARNING: spoilers) can be cathartic.
This fidelity to the central gameplay design is matched by VVVVVV‘s level sections, which can be visited nonlinearly from an expansive hub spanning the entire game map, and which each house a singular mechanical conceit (for instance, one such section ties the flipping mechanic to contact with flashing lines placed in the level). These conceits are well-implemented, and the individual rooms in the game, from start to finish, represent a master-class in elegant level design. When one first begins the game, one can hardly imagine the immense amount of variation and invention in room designs which they will encounter before the game is done.
The initial impression of simplicity comes in large part from VVVVVV‘s art style, which borrows heavily from the simple color schemes, minimal animations, and discrete pixelated objects of games on old computer systems like the Commodore 64.
Most of VVVVVV‘s rooms contain only elements which would fit cleanly into a grid pattern, and Captain Viridian himself is essentially rectangular and lacks all but the most primitive animations. While this can be jarring initially, its exceptional clarity makes the player’s task in a given room—and the player-character’s all-important hit box—immediately discernible.
Now add to this visual simplicity a plot about crew members missing in an alternate dimension; backgrounds and textures which resonate thematically somewhere in between electronics and space; and a score which is as emphatically happy and enthusiastic as it is eery and oscillating (with most of the eeriness coming from the music’s brilliant marriage between modern techniques and 80s styles), and the result is a whole with a sort of structuralist poising of the player between charming familiarity and unnerving otherness. Part of this unease comes from VVVVVV‘s several easter eggs, which sometimes represent seemingly symbolic pieces of Cavanagh’s dreams and other times feel like bug exploits.
This perfect match among tone, plot, gameplay, and music makes for a cohesive love letter to an often seemingly forgotten chapter in the history of the burgeoning form of games. But you can set aside its poignant tribute to the past without harming the game’s value to most players. If you’re a platformer fan like me, VVVVVV will give you an adequate challenge and a high level of enjoyment for its cost; if you’re an admirer of games that come close to the guarded realm of art without losing sight of what makes a game enjoyable, this game will show you adventure, concern, and frustration in a bright and vivacious package. And if you’re a completionist . . . good luck.
A Game with 1980s Cohesion: