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?
So it is my opinion that the main game of VVVVVV is the best content in the package, but many of the player levels are worth playing as well. And a few are, perhaps, not so worth playing. I decided to break it down a bit and do mini-reviews of each. My memory of a few of the stages is a tad foggy, but I shall try my best.
And before getting into each stage individually, let me define a term here. “Pixel perfection required” is a term I use, usually in a negative manner, to describe when a stage requires you to basically do some insane thing with almost no margin of error. An example would be say... bouncing between two ropes while dodging moving enemies and having to time it so you bounce exactly through the tiny gap in between the enemies. Or flipping up and down between platforms that require you to flip at the exact edge of the platforms else you get a faceful of spikes. I love a challenge as much as anyone else, but requiring this kind of perfection can be ridiculous at times, especially when some of these things get chained together.
Anyway, if you're eager to try out some of the player levels but don't know where to start, now you know!
333333- This was definitely my favorite of the player levels. I kind of look at it as a sequel to VVVVVV... it has the same basic gameplay but with new ideas behind it, the same sort of difficulty (if a bit more punishing at times), and the same length. Essentially it's a very well designed ode to VVVVVV. The map is a bit more confusing, but that is a minor complaint. If you are only going to play one player level, this should be the one. 5/5 stars.
a new dimension- I kind of really disliked this one at first, but once you get past some frustrating / confusing stuff early on, it starts to hit its stride. It has some serious length as well. Ultimately I think it was pretty excellent, barring a few pixel perfection required parts. 4/5 stars.
golden spiral- Oh gosh. This stage is the very definition of pixel perfection required. It is the only stage that I did not finish. I got 21 screens into it... after 1 1/2 hours and 1,225 deaths. I finally admitted defeat. This may be fun for some people, but I think it's just plain silly. 1/5 stars.
gordian knot- This one wasn't too bad, but it was ultimately short and kind of forgettable. I was actually kind of relieved that it wasn't uber difficult though, as so many of the others are too pixel perfect required for their own good. It managed to (mostly) avoid that, and had a few neat ideas. 3/5 stars.
line wrap- I liked this one a fair amount, which surprises me because it was created by the guy who created golden spiral. Anyway, lots of neat ideas, good pacing, a fair amount of content. 4/5 stars.
pyramid of doom- Short, and easy. Not really too much of interest in this one either, most of the concepts involved were done better elsewhere. 2/5 stars.
quantum tunnel- This one plays more on the “exit a screen in a certain place to come back to the same screen” mechanic to create a maze than it does any real platforming challenges. This is sort of interesting, but I prefer this mechanic when it is mixed into the platforming challenges as it is elsewhere. 3/5 stars.
roundtrip to the moon- This one has a lot of fun parts with a fair amount of challenge and creativity, but is dampered a bit by a few really lame pixel perfection required parts. 3/5 stars.
seasons- A very short and simple stage. I think it is supposed to be more relaxing than challenging, just a nice decent trip through the seasons. I enjoyed it, for what it was, but it seems kind of ultimately pointless. 3/5 stars.
soul searching- This was another pretty good one, with a fair amount of content and a lot of good ideas. It has a few really unique artsy things as well. 4/5 stars.
the dual challenge- An otherwise decent stage that is severly hampered by one of the worst pixel perfection required parts in the game. You will know what I mean when you get there, the damn beast. This stage is ok if you can get past that part. 3/5 stars.
the tower of power- This one forsakes having multiple checkpoints to have a single checkpoint in your ship. This might sound insane for a game where you die so much, but it sets up the challenges in a manner where all of them are quickly and easily accessible from the ship. I thought it was pretty good. 4/5 stars.
variation venture- A very short stage that has a few neat ideas and is set up in a logical manner, but feels like it could be so much more. 3/5 stars.
variety show- To be totally honest I couldn't remember much about this one so I had to go back to play it again and... well, it's not very memorable. But it is alright. 3/5 stars.
vertex vortex- This one relies a bit overmuch on crumbling platforms, which can be especially frustrating when you are switching between screens and barely have time to even see what is going on before you die. 3/5 stars.
vertiginous viridian- Does a good job of splitting the world up into some unique feeling areas, but in the end it's just a bit too short and has a bit too much pixel perfection required going on for me. 3/5 stars.
victuals- This isn't really a gameplay stage so much as I dunno... a weird little story-telling concept. Or something. I don't even know how to score it. I guess that it is worth checking out? N/A stars.
vvvv 4k- I liked this one a fair amount. It has a nice sort of feel with a middle overworld and then some branching stage-like areas, as well as just enough of a maze-like nature to add a bit of mystery. 4/5 stars.
Yes, but if you already have the system (like Zero has a PC which he could have played VVVVVV on in an imaginary world where VVVVVV didn't come out on 3DS) then it seems odd to me to not have games for that system on your radar. It seems clear that VVVVVV was not on Zero's radar until it came to 3DS. Just a teaching moment!
But yes, I know, it's a sad fact of life. I'm resigned to the fact that I will never heard some bands that would be among my favorites if I did.
Well I technically have a PC, but it's a cheap one and the few times I have tried to run anything on it, they run terribly. I know PC gamers claim it is simple, but it still seems like voodoo to me. Is setting A, B, or C holding me back? Who knows.
Whatever the case I just don't like the format. I'm on a computer way, way too much for work / Negative World programming / music / etc. and I use video games to get away from that. I like laying back in a lazy chair and watching a TV or playing a dinky little easy to hold handheld. Now I know you can run a PC on a TV, but again, that'd require a bunch of set-up I don't care enough about to figure out.
Still, you're probably right, there are games I'm missing out on. But there are games I'm missing out on with the platforms I play as well. If I didn't have enough games to play I might think about it, but I can't keep up with the games I have! I'm still like barely halfway through Skyward Sword, and that came out months ago!
I'm with Zero on this one. I hate playing games on a PC, and guess what, I do have my pc hooked up to my plasma, which is the same tv I play my wii games on. But like Zero mentioned, anytime i try to play a game on a pc, it never seems to run smoothly and my pc is not even 2 years old, so, its not like its outdated and the specs are pretty good, only thing is, its not a gaming rigged up pc.
I will always be a console/handheld gamer, cause those games play the best without any extra input from me. I just want to insert game and play game without having to change all these variables, ect, ect.
Anywho, great read. Also regarding the music - it's amazing how inspiring the music is. There's something oddly motivating about the music. Even despite the difficulty of some of the sections, I almost hear lyrics in the background saying "You can do it! Just keep going forward!" Souleye is awesome.
I really want this game but its not out in Europe which is a shame. I may actually get it on PC to play in work on my lunch breaks.
Great review by the way, lots of information and you are obviously really passionate about the title, makes me want to buy it. Maybe one day us Europeans will be able to pick up Mutant Mudds and VVVVVV.
As someone that owns both, it's really a matter of preference. If you have the money, get both. They're both excellent for different reasons.
VVVVVV is a challenging, fast-paced, old-school game through and through. Not frustratingly challenging, but you will die a lot (but there are a lot of checkpoints). There's also a lot of extra content, which include the 18 user-created levels and the possibility of a stage editor added in a future update.
Pushmo is a more relaxed puzzle game that has a great difficulty curve. There are 248 levels built in, plus you can build and share your own puzzles. Some are easy, some will require you to study the puzzle for a while before attacking it. It's also one of my favorite 3DS downloadables.
@ploot I didn't know I didn't have the means until you just now explained it to me! Theoretically there might have been another way. I can stream my videos from PC to TV through my PS3, for instance. I suppose it would be a bit odd if Sony let you stream PC games.
Whatever the case, I'm certainly not buying a new TV just to do this. I have enough gaming on my plate as it is!
@HammerLord Both! They're two very different games and both well worth owning.