by Dan McAlister
Imagine if Mario got lost. This doesn’t often happen; most of his games are linear obstacle courses, and even his more freeform ones like Super Mario Odyssey make it pretty clear where he should be going. But if Mario did get lost, his immediate goal would shift from “how do I get over this obstacle?” to “where do I go?”. VVVVVV is a platformer like a Mario game, filled with Mario-like obstacles, but its main character is lost. Also, its main character can’t jump.
VVVVVV starts with Captain Viridian and their crew (Violet, Vermilion, Victoria, Verdigris, and Vitellary) getting stranded and separated in a different dimension. You take on the role of Captain Viridian, exploring this mysterious place to rescue your friends and find a way back home. And you’ll do so with a strange new power: Captain Viridian can now flip the direction of their own gravity. You may not be able to jump, but you can walk upside-down across the ceiling with the press of a button.
VVVVVV is a platformer where you can’t jump and you don’t know where to go. It’s a brief experience, clocking in at just a few hours, but it’s packed with smart design that makes the most of its deviations from platformer norms.
What struck me most on a recent playthrough was the game’s environment. Most platformers feel intentional in their design, each obstacle put in your way to test a specific skill or concept. But when Viridian leaves their ship of neatly rectangular rooms, the ground outside feels uneven and erratic. It feels less like an intentional platformer level and more like a natural occurrence of rock and debris.
And yet, with Viridian’s ability to reverse gravity, the uneven terrain does provide a valuable gameplay function. Viridian can only reorient their gravity when standing on a solid surface, so even the smallest vertical obstacles force them to sail through space until they make contact with a floor or ceiling. This makes exploration a necessary part of traversing the terrain; to get around some obstacles is, by default, to take the long way around.
This naturally uneven environment contrasts with the smooth, functional spaces of the abandoned facilities you’ll discover in this world. Each facility has its own theme, like crumbling platforms or beams that automatically flip your gravity, and each facility challenged my understanding of those concepts before yielding deeper secrets. Also, each facility was hard. But rather than discourage the player, VVVVVV often lets you restart a challenge right next to the moment of failure. This makes for the rare game that’s frequently difficult, but always encouraging of your next attempt.
As you set out, your map of this dimension is empty and intimidating, but try not to sweat it. The game’s lack of direction may feel like a barrier, but the space here is dense with things to do. If you’re heading into an unexplored section of the map, you’re almost certainly on the right track.
While you’re searching for Viridian’s crew members, you’ll also find 20 mysterious trinkets hidden across the environment or protected by treacherous obstacles. Finding each trinket is an engaging challenge, and also an optional one; beating the game only requires rescuing Viridian’s missing shipmates. If you find yourself stumped by a trinket challenge, don’t sweat it and maybe give it another shot later. As you near the game’s end, you’ll be given a tool that makes it easier to locate any trinkets you passed on before, so feel free to tackle these optional challenges at your own pace, if at all.
If you enjoyed this game, ask yourself what it was that you liked. If you appreciated the twitch-action challenge of getting through obstacles and death traps, consider other platformers like the Mario series, or VVVVVV developer Terry Cavanaugh’s own arcade-style reaction game Super Hexagon. If you enjoyed exploring a large, open space and are comfortable with something more complex, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is considered one of the best games of the last few years.
Or you can strike out on your own and try something new, strange and different. Terry Cavanaugh released VVVVVV as an independent project into a market that was unused to minimalist, abstract platformers. Itch.io is today’s best repository of independently developed games that skew non-traditional, if you want to find yourself exploring unknown space.
The opinions in this post are expressly the views of the author and do not reflect the views of their employer(s) or any entities that they might otherwise be affiliated.
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