VVVVVV • PC/Mac (Linux forthcoming) • distractionware • www
According to early Internet opinionating, VVVVVV — the essentially unpronounceable commercial debut of Don't Look Back creator Terry Cavanagh is either a groundbreaking platformer that has already instantly redefined indie gaming in a way that we haven't seen since Jon Blow's Braid, or "a bland exercise in confusion and frustration".
The truth, as usual, is somewhere quite comfortably and happily in between. Designed around giving the player only one switch (beyond left and right movement) to interact with its world — a switch which flips the gravity of its interstellar station — VVVVVV isn't hiding any particular mechanical tricks up its sleeve.
It doesn't boldly dare to upend time itself or bend inter-dimensional space or throw plot twists asking you rethink everything you thought you knew about free will. What it does instead is simply craft an enormously cohesive experience around — and allow a fantastic sense of exploration through — that one simple interaction.
VVVVVV doesn't draw its charm or its power from its indefinably retro visuals (neither really C64-ish or Spectrum-esque, though clearly inspired by the latter's foundational UK single-screen platformers like Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy), or its even harder to pin down chiptune score (though Magnus 'Souleye' Pålsson's work there is easily worth calling out on its own).
Instead it's remarkable for the way it can consistently provide a compelling experience from screen to screen relying only on that gravity flip, and particularly for how intricately Cavanagh has constructed its twisted caverns and adjoining rooms. It's not until you see your goal sectioned off by what originally appears to be an insurmountable wall only to wind yourself seemingly aimlessly through its rat-maze network and find yourself precisely where you wanted to be that you appreciate just how finely designed the game is.
But even if that might seem to imply a cakewalk tour through its world, VVVVVV is surely anything but: the final death toll for an average run can easily stretch into the thousands, particular rooms in the multiple hundreds, but Cavanagh has made death a learning experience rather than a punishment with liberal checkpoints and zero-time restart.
Certain challenges in the game are so difficult that they become more tests of rote reaction time muscle memory against its one-hit spiky deaths (so omnipresent that they loom even in the game's very title), and it's to Cavanagh's credit that he's made burning through 177 subsequent deaths in a matter of minutes feel like a rewarding puzzle over a maddening flaw.
And so in the end that's "all" VVVVVV is — not a redefinition but rather a confident and novel refinement of simple platform play, a game delightfully self-referencing and -aware, and a fantastic start to the new year of indie gaming.