When it comes to game design, “simple to pick up and hard to master” is a typical design philosophy that seems to find its way into many games that are widely considered to be “great”. From Tetris to Super Mario, critically acclaimed classics like these rely on easy-to-grasp initial mechanics that eventually increase in difficulty as the game progresses. In Tetris, blocks begin to fall faster the longer the game lasts. In Super Mario, you progress into new areas with new varieties of enemies and obstacles.
As for VVVVVV, the initial simplicity of its core design is just as incredibly easy to grasp as those classic examples. The main controls consist of only three buttons: right, left, and X (or square and circle, they all do the same thing). Right and left move you back and forth, obviously. X however, plays a much less traditional role. Pressing it will change the gravitational pull between the top and bottom of the screen, and you cannot activate it in midair. These controls never change, nor are they ever added upon, so the challenge of VVVVVV must be brought upon by the obstacles around the player.
But let’s back up for just a second. In VVVVVV, you are Viridian, the captain of a spaceship. Out in space you suddenly find that your entire crew (named Violet, Vitellary, Vermillion, Verdigris, and Victoria) has inexplicably teleported away. They’ve scattered across the area, so it’s up to you to go out and bring them back. Each crew member has their own respective area with new obstacles to overcome before reaching and returning them to the ship. The game makes interesting use of typical platforming staples such as moving and crumbling platforms, projectiles, and spikes. Lots and lots of spikes.
While these obstacles and hazards may sound quite vanilla, VVVVVV utilizes them in such a way that the difficulty of the game ranges from fairly challenging to utterly brutal. VVVVVV is a precision platformer, something that thrives on being insanely hard. It’s nice that the game is fairly generous with its checkpoints because I certainly wouldn’t have completed it otherwise. The most difficult parts of the game stem from areas where you have to control yourself during a speedy freefall.
The game moves you from room to room rather than scrolling with your movements, and that makes it much harder to steer your way through consecutive freefalling areas, given the fact that you need to memorize the design of each room because you’ll only have a split second to actually see them as you move through. Areas with devious amounts of spikes are the worst, by which I mean they’re incredibly well designed to be frustrating.
The main part of the game has you running throughout the world map to collect your crew members, activate teleporters for easier backtracking, and find some side collectibles. Aside from that, there are also a variety of modes and extra levels to play through. Time trials and a “No Death” mode are there if you wish to challenge yourself even further, plus 18 player made levels to choose from in the start menu. VVVVVV allows you to play the entire game flipped upside down, and replay intermission levels that you can’t return to in the normal world map.
The visual and sound design are both simplistic in style, just like the gameplay. In both aspects, VVVVVV performs just fine, but doesn’t really come close to being particularly memorable. One thing I will remember however, is that the game had quite minimal but charming writing. The brief moments of dialogue from the crew members help them come off as more than just a grouping of pixels that look like a person. While the characters are in no way, shape or form “deep”, they do at least start to feel like quirky, living people. There’s also comedic writing in the form of titling each room in the game, usually pertaining to the type of obstacle being used in the area.
Unless you are an utter god of video gaming, you’re probably going to die quite a few times when playing VVVVVV. Thankfully, the game’s performance runs quite smoothly and respawning takes almost no time at all. The length of the game is completely dependent on how competently you can run through it. When I first beat the game I died over 700 times and it took me around 2-3 hours, and while there were a few additional modes, there wasn’t really much there that compelled me to continue playing (besides having to review it). For those that care, the trophy list is absolute rubbish, and completely unsatisfying considering the amount of challenge that the game presents. Beating the game once (with over 500 deaths) nets you a measly bronze and the highest level trophy you can obtain is silver, of which there are only two of.
VVVVVV controls simply but soundly, and if you’re only looking for a challenge then this game certainly has you covered. While its very basic aesthetics do nothing to hinder the game as a whole, the same cannot be said about VVVVVV’s inability to feel rewarding to its player, not only with the lackluster trophy list, but also with the lack of a particularly compelling goal. The game carries itself almost solely on the strength of its finely tuned gameplay, and if that’s all you want from it, VVVVVV is sure to please.