Terry Cavanagh‘s seminal platformer VVVVVV dropped last January, and I gave a brief heads-up noting its brutal difficulty and audacious $15 pricetag. Since then the game has hopped onto the Steam bandwagon and has had its price slashed to a much more reasonable two-thirds less1, which makes it an irresistible indie option for platformer fans. And as I mentioned in my recent summary of 2010, VVVVVV turned out to be one of my favourites of the year.

You play as space Captain Viridian whose crew is scattered across a space station in a strange alternate dimension. The controls are extremely simple, you can move left and right, and switch the direction of gravity. There is no jump or changing direction in between a la And Yet It Moves - you can only either fall downwards or upwards. The mechanics don’t change or become more complex than this; within this basic framework Cavanagh pits you against the environment and enemies in ways that will test your reflexes and your muscle memory. The game is compatible with a controller, but the keyboard is absolutely sufficient. The acceleration curves may take a little getting used to; while the controls are responsive, your affable avatar carries momentum which may leave some players grumbling about his delayed stop.

The initial few minutes of the game have you negotiating a series of rooms with traps and creatures, but the game soon opens up and you are given much more freedom in your exploration and the order in which you rescue each crew member. In addition to the main objective, there are various trinkets placed around the world, requiring you to do the near-impossible to reach them. Believe you me, some of them are a downright bastard to get. Getting them all unlocks a postgame feature, but I suspect the self-satisfaction and bragging rights will be reward enough for your persistence. Every now and then you may encounter a computer terminal that will impart snippets of story or reveal a new area on the map. Talking to your crew once you have rescued them also expands on the story, which is surprising.

What makes it surprising is the fact that VVVVVV has all the appearance of a game from the Commodore 64 era. Pixelated graphics with elemental colours and patterns, a chiptune soundtrack - all in seeming tribute to the 8-bit aesthetic. And yet these ‘retro’ stylings are in conflict with the more modern additions to the package such as the story and meta-features, making its faux-retro nature slightly startling. There is a clash between aesthetic and content, though I don’t say that as a knock to the game - for that matter, it was intentional2. The minimalism doesn’t detract from the game’s ability to exude personality; Viridian traverses the hostile surroundings with a determined cheerfulness, until something goes wrong and that smiley face turns to a heartbreaking frown. The psychadelic music by Magnus “SoulEye” Pålsson adds an upbeat sense of exploration and discovery.

It can be aggravatingly, hair-pullingly difficult at times. Just watch the video above to see what I mean. That one multi-screen puzzle is for a trinket, a trinket, and yet I retried that area over and over again until I landed on the other side unscathed. VVVVVV’s brand of difficulty has somewhat of an addicting quality, so rather than throwing the controller at the wall and ragequitting the game, I found myself trying ‘just one more time’ to reach the next room. There is in fact a statistic that keeps track of your deathcount, and die many, many times you will. Checkpoints are very generously given every few screens, ensuring that you don’t lose much progress, and teleports help you get around the map much quicker.

At any one time if a particular route is too challenging, the openness of the game lets you come back to attempt it later. There is no filler, puzzles don’t repeat themselves and there is always something new to see. Total playtime will be around a couple of hours, but there’s more to get out of the game with the achievement-like trophies, which offer ironman and speedrun challenges, and unlocks such as Flip Mode, which, as you can probably guess, is the whole game turned upside down. It’s more devious than it might seem.

VVVVVV is available on the official site, as well as other outlets such as Steam for $4.99. The soundtrack, entitled PPPPPP, is available for purchase separately at SoulEye’s site for $4.

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