Clear your mind: VVVVVV can only really be described as a puzzle platformer, but if that term conjures up a drawing room world of gentle strategy and pure, unsullied thought, think again. Terry Cavanagh’s latest offering is a digital abattoir, a game as brutal as it is clever, as thrilling as it is cruel. Chirpy old-time graphics belie a tendency towards painful deaths, and that unusual title is both a reference to the shared initial of the NPCs you’re charged with tracking down, and smart visual foreshadowing of the many pits of spikes you’ll drop yourself into along the way.
Cavanagh’s previous work encompasses a range of speedily constructed one-bite morsels, with titles like Don’t Look Back and Pathways making an impact not just for their primitive 8bit beauty, but for their clever mechanical contrivances. VVVVVV has a brand new feature – a price tag – and it’s a move that’s allowed the designer to stretch out. It’s an opportunity that hasn’t been wasted, either, as the game constructs the likable story of a spaceship crew scattered far and wide by some oddball dimensional strain of hiccups, while simultaneously taking a simple idea – rather than jumping, a press of the V button will flip you from walking on the floor to walking on the ceiling – and spinning it out to its strangest extremes.
So you’re a jelly baby space captain exploring a jelly baby world – or perhaps that should be worlds, as the game blends elements of Jet Set Willy, Portal, and the Metroid series. Metroid provides the structure of discovery, if not the sense of unfolding progression. As a model of efficiency, VVVVVV has no need for Samus’ regular upgrades, so you’ll end the game using the same tools as you started it with, and Cavanagh wrings most of his magic from nothing more than spike pits and conveyor belts.
Portal, on the other hand, best suggests the state of mind you’ll need to succeed when things get sadistic – a kind of gymnastic inclination towards experimentation, backed up with a thorough appreciation of the game’s unique physics, and a willingness to accept that, once you can walk on the ceiling or the floor, each individual room is actually two rooms, and often more besides.
Jet Set Willy – and Manic Miner before it – meanwhile, has influenced the aesthetic, the rare obscurist enemies, and the structure of individual chambers, each with their own names. Some are clues to the next puzzle, but most are merely comical digs at your likely inability to face any forthcoming challenges. “Plain sailing from now on”, lies one, while another suggests – inaccurately – that “easy mode” has been unlocked.
They’re not wrong. For the most part, VVVVVV is an incredibly difficult game, but the regular checkpoints – and even more regular impalings – are just as much a crucial part of the mechanic as the ability to flip between floor and ceiling. Cavanagh’s title lives in twenty-second strands strung between one regeneration and the next and some sections – a twitchy escort mission, and a scrolling hellhole known as The Tower, in particular – would be gratuitous to face if you knew what was actually coming your way before the end. Generous opportunities to restart en-route give a pleasant shape to the struggle, however, and help to push you through the game in sugary chunks of partial achievement. And while VVVVVV may frequently ask you to do the nearly impossible, it gives you infinite attempts in which to do it, and only requires that you get it absolutely perfect once.
Speed runs and single-life modes are there for those who can face them, but for most people, VVVVVV will be a game to be tentatively prodded through with all the help available. Even so, it would be wrong to let the sheer fiendishness of Cavanagh’s offering overwhelm any appreciation of the ceaseless elegance of the design. In fact, the difficulty and the creative ingenuity work in tandem: the promise of the next piece of cleverness driving you past some of the less lovable challenges, while that challenge itself makes you appreciate the precision and quiet brilliance with which the whole thing has been pieced together. Brutal and rather short, VVVVVV’s also devious and darkly funny. It’s a pedantic classic, and a game for watch-makers as much as speed-runners.