It kind of amazes me that after some 25+ years of playing hundreds of video games, a game based around a single, simple core concept can still feel so fresh to me when executed well. In the case of VVVVVV, a new 2D platformer for the 3DS eShop, that concept is to remove the ability to jump with your character (no jumping, in a platformer?) and replace it with the ability to manipulate gravity and flip your character from the bottom to the top of the screen, and vice versa. This mechanic is, essentially, what the entire game is built around. In fact, literally all that you can do in the game is move around and flip your character (barring the occasional button press to active a computer or talk to someone), so it is safe to say that the game sinks or swims based on this mechanic.
I say that it swims.
To give a little history, this isn't the first time that a 2D platformer has utilized gravity mechanics in this way. Offhand, I can recall a neat little platformer / shooter hybrid on the NES called Metal Storm that did something similar, as well as Gravity Man's stage in Mega Man 5 (the player did not have control of the shifting there, it was more environmental, but it was the same general concept.) And I'm sure there have been others, so I'm not going to make the claim that this is a totally new idea. However, as it has been years since I have played a game with this mechanic, it is fresh enough and, as stated above, the execution is where VVVVVV truly shines.
Hey look at me, I'm totally walking on the ceiling!!!
Let me take a step back and set up some context. You play through VVVVVV as a spaceship captain named Captain Viridian whom, through some paradox or other, has ended up in an alternate dimension (dubbed VVVVVV, hence the name of the game) and must now seek out his lost crew members. You're not going to be playing this game for the story elements, but they do work both to create an interesting setting and to give you some motivation to keep moving forward. The dialogue is also clever at times, if ultimately unforgettable. Thankfully though, the story is a very minor element in the game, and you are rarely pulled out of the gameplay.
The graphics are, as you can plainly see, decidedly retro. Some people will argue that the retro thing is getting a bit played out, especially within the world of indie games, and I can understand that argument. However, retro graphics still get me excited, and there is definitely a different feel in VVVVVV than there is in the many games that try to emulate NES-style graphics. Which makes sense, as the intent was, apparently, to try to emulate the feel of the Commodore 64 (a platform on which I have little experience, so there is a bit of a fresh feel there.) Actually the graphics most remind of an old computer game that I used to play at my cousin's house called Bubble Ghost. The 3D is pretty sweet too, essentially all it does is separate the foreground from the background, but it makes for a nice, subtle effect.
And the music. Oh man, the music! I've heard plenty of retro chiptune soundtracks over the years, but I do believe that this is quickly becoming one of my favorites. A couple standouts: Pushing Onwards, Passion for Exploring, Positive Force, and Predestined Fate. There really isn't too much more that I can write about the music, it speaks for itself. I will say this though, the already great soundtrack is made even better by the fact that it just feels right within the context of the game.
Woah a ghost! This is basically the spiritual successor to Bubble Ghost now!
Alright, let's get into what you came here to read about, the gameplay.
VVVVVV takes place in an interesting dimension indeed. The world is laid out a bit like a Metroid game, so progression takes place in a non-linear fashion and you have several options of where to travel next. Actually, I would say that the layout feels a bit more like Mega Man ZX: Advent (for all three of you out there who have played it), which is to say that there is a non-linear “overworld” to explore but there are also semi-distinct, more linear “stages” built right into the world. Your main goal in VVVVVV is to rescue all of your crewmates, which generally means going through each “stage” to find a single crewmate waiting for you at the end. However, there are also 20 “shiny trinkets” scattered throughout the world, and collecting all of these can feel very rewarding, especially since most of them involve specific gameplay challenges that must first be passed. Personally I am all over this kind of world map, and for the first time in a long time I felt like I was truly exploring a world, excited both over the choices I could make and what was to come next.
The “stages” themselves each have a pretty unique feel, both in looks (albeit most of this is done through color palette choices) and in the type of gameplay that you will find in them. For basing itself off of a single, simple concept, VVVVVV does a lot more with the gameplay than I expected. What types of gameplay are there? Well...
VVVVVV is not a dimension that is particularly hospitable to human beings. In fact, quite the opposite. There are moving platforms, which wouldn't be too bad, except that there are deadly spikes all over the place so if you miss your platform, bye bye. You will also find treadmills, which potentially sound nice and relaxing, except that there are deadly spikes all over the place. Let's not forget about the crumbling platforms which, of course, have deadly spikes underneath them. The bouncy ropes you will find may actually sound kind of fun, except that there are deadly spikes all over the place. There are a variety of enemy um... creatures I guess?, which can be particularly difficult to avoid when in the midst of deadly spikes all over the place. At times there are long, Mega Man-ish drops in between deadly spiked walls, and forced scrolling screens where you must move quickly to avoid deadly spikes. Have I mentioned yet that there are deadly spikes all over the place? Ok, so this probably makes the game sound a lot more repetitive than it is, but I'm only stressing the deadly spikes because in some ways they are as much of a recurrent theme as the gravity mechanics are a core concept. Yet the spikes are just the means to add challenge. There are a variety of gameplay mechanics surrounding the gravity and spikes, however, that is pretty impressive for a short little indie game.
I'm not going to explain each mechanic one by one, but another core VVVVVV mechanic exists whereby exiting certain screens in the right place leads not to new ones, but to the other side of the same screen. This is often used in very interesting ways to make almost puzzle-like areas which can require a bit of thought when trying to figure out how to progress.
Navigating this kind of stuff can be very interesting at times...
VVVVVV has a very forgiving checkpoint system, with checkpoints littered across the game frequently, usually at least one per screen, if not more. Furthermore, when you die, there is no GAME OVER screen, but much like BIT.TRIP RUNNER and several other indie titles, you are immediately thrown right back into the game at the last checkpoint that you hit. It kind of amazes me that indie developers have figured out something that the major developers are still a bit behind on, which is that we play video games to play video games, and we don't want to needlessly be pulled out of the game to see GAME OVER screens and CONTINUE options all of the time. Of course we want to continue, and if we don't, we can always turn the game off ourselves. Anyway, throwing you right back into the mix makes for an ultimately much more fluid experience.
Which is very necessary, because you will die in this game, a lot. I would generally consider myself an above average gamer when it comes to 2D platformers, and over the course of the main game (which took me 3:13:13 to fully complete) my total death count was exactly 1,197 deaths. If my math is correct, this equals about 1 death per every 9.685 seconds of play time. Of course, it's not quite as frustrating as it sounds, and you (probably) won't be dying every 10 seconds throughout the entire game. An awful lot of those deaths happened at a few of the significantly tougher parts of the game. There is a particularly notorious section of VVVVVV called Veni Vidi Vici (check out a video of someone that is not me dying on it a bunch of times) that probably took me well over 100 deaths before I finally nailed it. Still, I don't want to scare you off, Veni Vidi Vici is an optional path to get a “shiny trinket”, and the required paths of VVVVVV, while certainly very challenging, are not quite as bad. Even if you do get stuck there are, apparently, options in the menu to both slow down the game and add invincibility, something that I was only informed of after the fact.
Another thing I love about this game is this sort of intangible feeling of rebellion against certain standards of the video game industry. This exists in a lot of indie games, although it seems to me like many indie developers are moving more towards trying to meet those standards to make their games more marketable. But VVVVVV feels almost... punk rock? This often comes out in the design, for instance, enemies that are just the word “LIES” that fly across the screen, a random bus that comes out of nowhere, or a secret room that has a big elephant for reasons I could never quite figure out. And did I mention that every screen has its own name? It's little details like this that I love, and some of these names are things that you would never see in a mainstream video game.
Black and white is the way to add retro sections into already retro games!
So I called VVVVVV a short game up above, but that is only technically true. Yes, VVVVVV itself can be finished in about 2-4 hours, depending on whether you collect all of the shiny trinkets or not. But VVVVVV also comes packed with a bunch of additional content, including 18 “player levels” which are, as far as I have been able to figure out, additional stages that were built with the stage designer that came packed in with the PC version of the game (unfortunately, the stage designer does not exist in the 3DS version.) Some of these stages are as long or longer than the main game itself. As for the quality of the player levels, well, I will get into that deeper below, but for now let's say that it can be a bit of a mixed bag, yet overall they are worth playing through. There are also time trials, and a no death mode. And I guess there is a flip mode, but there appears to be a bug related to this, because I can't for the life of me get it to actually work. Whatever the case, after finishing the main game, 17 of the player stages, and running through a few time trials, my total game time is now a bit over 18 hours, making it my 4th most played title (out of 82) on my 3DS. I have heard people out there calling VVVVVV a short game, and they are liars. It's only a short game if you ignore all of the additional content packed in with it.
VVVVVV is certainly not without its shortcomings. For a game that often requires near pixel perfect timing (especially in certain player stages), the controls can feel a bit loose at times. It is also a game that requires you to play the same tough parts over and over, which makes someone like me think “heck yeah, a challenge!”, but this could potentially annoy a lot of gamers, especially when taken in tandem with the not quite perfect controls. Furthermore, there are a few bugs. Nothing major, but once or twice my character would get stuck in a wall and I would have to reset the game. Another bug happened once when I went to quit to menu everything froze up. And as stated above, in a strange oversight, the flip mode appears to be straight up broken. The 3DS version of VVVVVV also costs more than the PC version, despite, as far as I can tell, having less content (although the PC version requires downloading a lot of content separately from the game) and no stage designer.
Still, it's a neat little concept and it is well worth the money on the 3DS. If you're into 2D platforming, Metroid-like progression, retro style graphics, totally awesome chiptune music, and a high but not insurmountable level of challenge, this is not one to pass up. The 3DS eShop is finally getting a lot of great games, but I urge you not to pass over VVVVVV without at least giving it a look. It may just make you flip for joy. Did I really just type that?
Great review, this game sounds like I would definitely enjoy it, and it most certainly has plenty of content to keep you playing for hours, it seems.
Zero, that stuff you described about the game 'rebelling' against the norm of the video game industry standards is something I can really appreciate. I'm glad these kinds of indie games are making their way to Nintendo platforms, otherwise I would have probably never played it.
You mention flip mode is straight up broken. Is this game mode supposed to be a major part of the game's content?
I haven't listened to a lot of the music in this game yet, as I would rather wait to play it so I can appreciate it in context first and foremost. Looking forward to playing this, for sure!
Just beat it again last night, but went for the "Finish with less than xx deaths" (I think it went 250, 100, 50) and I did it. Finished with 29 deaths, six trinkets, and did it in under an hour. I had to save, quit, and restart a lot.
I'm pretty sure it's impossible to complete "No Death" mode without turning on invincibility.
After spending some time with this game on my 3DS, I agree with your review, @Zero. This is an excellent game that I'm glad I finally played.
The checkpoint system makes an otherwise frustrating game a lot more enjoyable and actually 'do-able.' Every little difficult section will be saved every time you pass that 'C' sign, and it feels great!
And yes, I love the little details like the words that fly by, weird-looking enemies, and of course, the deep meaning behind each individually labeled room. It always gives my brain something to chew on.
You're right about the somewhat loose controls, especially the way Viridian skids a bit when you want him to stop.
The title of the game makes a lot of sense now, and it has more than one interpretation.
The bonus levels really do give this game quite an extended amount of game time, and I had fun checking them out. I've only beaten a few of them so far. I enjoyed reading your mini-reviews for each of these, and you're right, the ones with "pixel perfection required" are most frustrating and annoying.
The music in this game is incredible. Suffice it to say, I already purchase the soundtrack (interestingly called PPPPPP) over at SoulEye's site. Amazing stuff worth paying for. Zero, a portion of this review is used by him on that link I posted. Go down the page and you will see what Zero said about the music, cool!
I bought this on Friday when it went on sale, and I've now completed the main game with most of the shiny trinkets found. It is so much fun, and well worth the $5 I spent on it, and it sounds like I've only scratched the surface since I haven't even touched the user created levels.
@roykoopa64 His album "Adventure" is also really awesome. Some really great remixes of some of the VVVVVV songs on there as well.
Yeah, if you're playing this on 3DS, pop in some headphones. Having played this on PC (and having listened to the soundtrack in my car), it's a game that requires some loud volume and some thumpin bass.
I finally finished the game today, and my impression of the game hasn't really changed: it's clever and well-designed, but it's not really my thing. I don't think these insanely precise platformers are for me, in which one step (in this case, one millimeter) can make the difference between life and death, and you have to pull several "jumps" in a row with that kind of precision. Dying over and over again while trying. Super Meat Boy is the same.
I don't think I will go for every trinket (13/20), and I started 333333 and it's not doing it for me either. So I'll probably end there.
Sometimes, when I'm in a masochistic mood, I'll pop in Super Meat Boy and run through a few levels. Trying to "A" them is oddly addictive, but I don't think that I'm having much fun while doing so. Feels like work.
Well as you guys can see in my reviews of some of the player levels I'm no fan of "pixel perfect" gaming either. I think. But I also think that is sort of relative to the player. Sure, you die a hell of a lot of times in VVVVVV, but there were only a few parts (usually in the player levels) where I started thinking "ok this is just plain ridiculous..."
I really want a sequel. I played through all the bonus content on the 3DS version and damn if I don't want a new journey with some new traps and puzzles and all that jazz from the folks who created it in the first place.