When a strange explosion strikes your ship and sends you hurtling through space, it's only a temporary setback... until you realise you're all alone. Luckily, you have the power of gravity on your side! Even luckier, less than ten percent of what you'll encounter isn't instantly fatal! ... wait, wait... that's not lucky at all! No turning back. From Terry Cavanagh comes VVVVVV, a retro platformer not for the faint of heart. Oh, not because of the subject matter. Because it will crush your very soul.
While VVVVVV controls like most standard platformers using the keyboard, it does offer a twist. Tapping the action key of your choice, [Z], [X], or the [space] bar, flips your character's personal gravity to allow him to walk on the ceiling or the ground at a whim. Since he can't jump, presumably due to a lack of knees, this comes in handy avoiding death and other obstacles. The game will auto-save whenever you encounter a teleporter, but you can save manually by hitting [enter] to open the menu. You'll need to be both fast and careful if you want to reunite the Captain with his crew, and VVVVVV is one game where success in every step of the way actually feels like an accomplishment.
Your main objective is to track down your missing crew members, of which there are five, which is easier said than done. The dimension you're stuck in is enormous, and locating your wayward companions requires a lot of exploration. The best way to achieve this is not by careful, measured expeditions but by immediately leaping bodily into the great unknown. Just make sure to watch out for enemies. It's easier to list what isn't dangerous than to compile a list of what is. Deadly encounters include "spikes", and "pretty much everything else". If it moves and it isn't you, a companion, or a platform, touching it means certain death. Of course, death is at most a momentary inconvenience since you'll instantly respawn at the last checkpoint you touched without penalty. Just don't look at your death toll under the menu, and you'll remain blissfully ignorant of your fragile mortality.
Analysis: Let's get one thing out of the way right now. VVVVVV, aside from being fun to say aloud, is pretty great. Sprawling, challenging, and fun, imbued with that old-school charm that those of us who remember when Atari was more than just a quaint collectible will love. The levels are expansive and well designed, with the unexplored void feeling satisfyingly epic each time you hurl your grinning avatar out into it. Each area flows seamlessly into the next and represents its own challenge. Helpfully, each area is also named individually, so you'll know what to scream out in rage after you fail a precisely timed jump the fourteenth. time. in. a. row.
There's also a moderately high level of difficulty present at times, which I suppose can be construed as "retro" as well by those of us who grew up in the arcade or NES era. But there are no quarters to bilk us out of now, so I can only assume having levels that kill you over and over and over before you manage to pass them is Terry Cavanagh's way of saying he doesn't like my face. See, there are times when VVVVVV passes from the realm of "challenging puzzle platformer" to "reflex hardening endurance fest". Since once you pass a certain point you can pick your own direction, the difficulty curve feels like it's all over the place, which can be frustrating. Yes, yes, "Dora is bad at games", bla-de-bla-de-bla. Of course, if you're a fan of Mr. Cavanagh's work for precisely this reason, feel free to ignore this paragraph entirely and pretend it consists of a dissertation on why Jurassic Park is the best movie, ever. (Second Place: Woody Harrelson and the zombies.)
VVVVVV feels like a departure from old form for Mr. Cavanagh. While the visuals are familiar, it feels much more gameplay-oriented than previous offerings such as Don't Look Back. The same confidence-crushing difficulty is present, but the story doesn't feel as if it fits in quite as well. It's hard to really get intrigued by the snippets of dialogue or other exposition when they're spaced so far apart and doled out in such small bites. Man, why are you talking to me about consequences and inter-dimensional travel when I got timed disintegrating platform runs to worry about?
While the main game can be conquered in several hours (more or less depending on how often you feel the tender embrace of spikes, or track down all the secrets), VVVVVV offers several unlockable challenges in case you didn't feel like it was hard enough. I look forward to the comments telling me you've beaten the game without dying once, so I can call you a liar personally.
One thing worth mentioning is that your save files won't survive the purging of your computer's temporary files. Do I speak from experience? You can ask the monitor-shaped hole in my front yard. So unless you feel like replaying all those fiddly little stages you only just managed to beat the first time, player be warned.
Although a bit too demanding on the fingers and reflexes if you're only a passing fan of the genre, VVVVVV is a challenging and rewarding experience if you have the gaming muscle to take it on. Yeah, that's right. I went there.
P.S. If you enjoyed the music of VVVVVV as much as we did, composer SoulEye is offering the soundtrack, awesomely titled PPPPPP, on his website for a small donation.