Review: VVVVVV (* stars)

TL;DR – VVVVVV fits into its “indie darling” status like a glove; supposedly, it’s “unique” gravity switch mechanic and “hardcore” difficulty set it above its peers. However, given the whole history of video games has done both of those before (and better), VVVVVV isn’t going to win awards for anything but its soundtrack. Bad level design, slippery controls, a lack of real tension or challenge, boring and/or unecessary exploration elements, horrible hostage segments, and a rather ugly aesthetic mar the experience further. Simply put, VVVVVV isn’t merely average, but below what one expects from a platformer.

Note: For the record, my death count was 1089. So there.

Although I hate to knock on a one-man project, the game warrants some close scrutiny that hasn’t been provided by any major game journalism outlets. I was surprised to find VVVVVV garner so much critical acclaim for being a simple platformer, but I guess we’re more easily pleased in the modern age. Terry Cavanagh and his one-man development team certainly wanted to create a rather difficult platformer, but I find indie developers don’t know the first thing about creating “difficulty” in the traditional sense. Most games in this subset of action create their challenge through creative use of a simple, yet complex, movement and jumping mechanic. Games like Super Mario Bros., though simple on the onset, prove to require an understanding of their physics in order to effectively traverse obstacles in the environment. Because the controls were perfect, the developer could put you through many, many dangerous hoops to traverse, yet it never dropped into unfair territory.

Additionally, such segments offered a sense of real tension – if I die, I have to start over! Mario could only take two hits, and the same went for Sonic and just about every other  mascot/jumping man or woman on the planet. Extra lives weren’t handed out like candy, but earned through blood, sweat, and tears. They didn’t restrict the player with an unfortunate sidekick – if they did, he wasn’t a barrier to your success (see: Tails from Sonic 2). Exploration was a side-note at best; warp pipes in Mario reward players for thinking outside the box, but vast levels would ruin the taut obstacle courses the designers implemented. The music and aesthetic design, which always work beautifully, complimented the game’s pacing and structure.

Exceptions exist to counter any rule, of course, but that held standard for all the great 2D platforming games of the last three decades. VVVVVV isn’t one of those games. In fact, it cribs many of these ideas while failing to understand what made them great. Rather than give a genuine challenge, it’s content to absorb modern game tropes into its mechanics, creating huge problems.

VVVVVV uses a gravity mechanic throughout as its “jump”; simply put, you press a button, you reverse polarity from up to down, and vice versa. The player character continues to float in that direction until he hits a solid surface (dangerous or no), and can’t change polarities until he lands on said surface (a safe one). However, in practice, the same obstacles apply: evil walls, spikes, flying things, and enemies prevent your progress in readable patterns. I wouldn’t be surprised if Terry Cavanagh took the central mechanic from Megaman/Rockman 5, as Gravity Man’s stage allowed you to do the exact same thing!

Yes, the idea does require you to view the screen in new ways, but it checks off a list of the same tropes of other games. Scrolling screen sequences that kill you if you fall behind? Check! Sometimes, it even kills you if you go too far ahead (that’s new, and dumb). Screen where exiting on one side brings you out on another? Check! Trampoline style platforming? Check! Spike pits/walls everywhere on falling sequences (definitely stolen from more than a few Mega Man games)? Check! Conveyor belts? Of course, why not?

The controls, firstly, kill the experience from the get-go. Some state that they’re “overly sensitive” – well, when one works with an inferior control scheme (such as using a keyboard), running into problems comes naturally. However, it places obstacles in “difficult” patterns that require pinpoint accuracy. Let me be frank: a keyboard just isn’t sufficient for the timing, and may never be sufficient. Seriously – the game’s collision detection, to put it lightly, requires precise inputs to traverse its various levels. However, keys on a keyboard don’t do this well. Sure, I could have used Joy2Key or some other input program to use a joypad, but it was obviously designed for a simple keyboard.

Through my two hour play-through, I could never get a handle on how much or how little I needed to press the keyboard to land exactly on one point the designer obviously wanted me to hit. Many times, I would just over-shoot the jump; other times, I would hit  the spikes right before said jump by accident. None of this felt like my fault. It’s obviously slippery and unintuitive if two hours of play bring me no closer to understanding how my character moves in a platformer – it should work naturally, not act totally bonkers from one jump to the next.

There’s no reason to actually LEARN that, though! The “checkpoints” or “Cs” placed liberally in the levels make sure of that. Having a tough time with a segment? Repeat it over and over again until you get it! It’s very easy to do this on most difficult sections – you can learn half the obstacle timing, and then just improvise repeatedly to get through it. Most times, it’ll happen by pure happenstance – you got it right! It’s highly unfulfilling when the best strategy involves total guesswork. In fact, it’s incredibly boring and repetitive doing the segment over and over again until your character doesn’t run too far or hit spikes or any other thing you can imagine – my skill has nothing to do with it, only my perseverance in putting up with faulty design (sounds like a lot of modern games, come to think of it).

To those who say that “if it’s so easy, don’t use checkpoints” – well, they’re there. It’s obvious that Cavanagh wants me to use them, so I will! They allow Cavanagh the liberty of designing unintuitively difficult levels WITHOUT having to tune them. After all, they’re merely short segments in a level, right? And no one will complain if I just put a “C” right here. There’s no downside to my particular strategy at all, other than time wasted. In fact, these show VVVVVV’s problem with pacing – it’s a stop and go, and there’s never a satisfying end to a level with its constant stops and starts (mostly by dying over and over again). I’d call it a puzzle game more than a platformer – in that respect, it’s a pretty poor puzzle game by any measure.

The “hostage” segments exacerbate this problem. If you think guiding someone with these mechanics equals fun, then you need help. Let’s say I had more than my fair share of frustration at how loosely the other person moved. It didn’t matter if I did the sequence in the EXACT SAME fashion; he would move differently every time, usually to his death. It’s frustrating and annoying to deal with inconsistent mechanics. This even extends to the level design. For a game so focused on a central mechanic, it also has a Metroid-style map. This makes no sense to me; why have exploration at all?  It pads the already-short length of the game for absolutely no discernible reason. There’s nothing to find, other than useless collectibles which open challenge maps (and, given the above, I doubt you’d play them).

The music made much of the experience more palatable by being incredibly catchy. At the same time I cursed at the game’s flaws, I was also enthralled by its soundtrack. But, frankly, it’s no more essential to the game than its aesthetic sense. The graphics don’t endear themselves to me at all; they mimic the look of the Commodore 64, and work well to that effect, but was it necessary to make it this simplistic? Even so, some levels have flashing lights and background sprites that obscure the action in front, making even more deaths that aren’t your fault. A cleaner interface would have done wonders to some segments (especially the bouncing wire stuff; it was almost seizure-inducing at times). Overall, though, it’s a case of mixed signals.

VVVVVV doesn’t understand what it wants. It neither captures the essence of old-school difficulty, nor does it marry that style to the modern obsessions with “failure thresholds”. Rather, because of its checkpoints, it’s an incredibly easy game  that anyone can finish with enough time and effort (unlike, say, having millions of monkey writing Shakespeare given infinite time). It’s a shame, given that the game doesn’t even match up to the music at all. It’s a platformer that doesn’t guide the player to new heights, only frustrations. These games, especially in linear experiences, require a guiding hand – give them the tools necessary to overcome obstacles and they will overcome the world.

Imagine a Mario game without its unwritten and apparent tutorial, or Sonic without speed, or Mega Man without precise platforming and weapon choice. VVVVVV takes the form and leaves the content. It presents a challenge, sure, but it doesn’t make this a trimuph of skill – rather, it’s full of frustrations and death. Lots of death. But never victory over death – it turns it into a trivial element. That cannot stand, even in games. If games don’t have gravity or consequences, what do they say about us? That nothing we do matters, and that we can do as they wish? Rather, we should take a cue from Matthew 10:

28 Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.

Without a guiding hand of the game designer, a game fails; so it is in games, so it is in real life.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.