VVVVVV by Terry Cavanaugh is a very simple and straightforward platformer. After an emergency evacuation players take control of Captain Viridian and must rescue his scattered crew. As I described in my series Linearity. Emergence. Convergence, the game is composed of straightforward level challenges that can be accessed in a non-linear order. Despite its simplicity and short length, there's a lot to say about this title. So I'll jump right in to the gameplay analysis. (Play the demo in browser here)
Though well designed, VVVVVV has that indie feel all over it. And its simplicity starts at the core. Players only have 2 mechanics to work with; MOVE and FLIP. As is common in indie platformers the acceleration and velocity of the character movement are a bit too high. It can be frustrating to fly off of platforms when I only wanted to move a small distance. With such high character movement speed and just a touch of momentum, it's harder to successfully react to obstacles and platforms.
Another design element that maintains the same level of kinetic action is the instant screen transitions. Most rooms don't scroll like in Mario or freeze-pan like in Mega Man. Instead they jump cut in a very jarring fashion. The level design is generally well tuned so that players don't careen into danger because of a screen transition, but it still happens. Between the movement mechanics and the screen transitions the game speed pushes slightly beyond what I consider to be comfortable reflex (see reflex range).
The vast majority of the challenges are extremely straightforward with some even being linear (requiring a fixed sequence of actions with little variation). The goal is to navigate the environments to locate your crew mates. Though there's no gravity opposing jump mechanic, FLIP is a great alternative. Some of the platforms are tricky to land on and maneuver around, but the majority of the challenges in VVVVVV are designed around enemies. All the enemy elements are just one-hit-kills obstacles. Spikes are the stationary hazards and the rest come in odd shapes that move in simple, repeating patterns.
What makes the gameplay very straightforward is that there is not an ounce of interplay (outside of dodging) between the player and the enemies. Nothing is dynamic. You can't kill, redirect, trick, or do anything else to enemies. You simply avoid them and move on. I should stress that there's nothing wrong with this straightforward design. A lot can be done with a little, as I explain below. Still, because the core gameplay design lacks interplay, dynamics, variables, and mechanics the gameplay cannot emerge to be of interesting choices. To compensate for the lack of engaging or "interesting" gameplay, Terry Cavanaugh did what many indie platformer developers do. Like Super Meat Boy, Jumpman, Flywrench, Liferaft, Flood the Chamber, Give Up Robot 2, Tower of Heaven, and so many others, VVVVVV is designed around one-hit-KO hazards to increase the difficulty. To compensate in VVVVVV's case the game is filled with frequent checkpoints. Such a design puts a lot of stress on a gameplay experience by lowering the skill floor. Because the encounters are broken up into bite-sized checkpoint chunks with unlimited retries, players can somewhat mindlessly bang their heads against challenges or develop solution-rhythms instead of building more widely applicable skills and techniques.
With seemingly very little design space to work with, you might think that VVVVVV isn't a very good game. I certainly didn't think much of it when I first played the demo on PC many years ago. But from its somewhat questionable design core, VVVVVV does everything else right. Its variation, feedback, and polish are all excellent. The second screen on the 3DS is used for a map. I liked this feedback design feature back in the early days of DS design, and it's still good today. The stereoscopic 3D is very nice. Though it's subtle and mainly used to push the deep-space-background deep into the stereoscopic background, stereoscipic 3D helps the interactive elements (enemies, level, and player) pop. This is just one simple feature that helps the cleanness of the design. After so much ba3D in 3D games and visual clutter in 2D games where I can't tell what I can interact with and what I can't, the sharp vector design of VVVVVV made sharper by the 3DS technology is the kind of innovation that inspires me to push how stereoscopic 3D can enhance retro/pixel style graphics (which are some of my favorites graphical styles in games).
Spoiler Alert: This is a speedrun of the entire game.
The level challenges in VVVVVV have a surprising amount of variation. Between the wrapped sides, the clever escort mission, the line barriers that force players to FLIP when touched, the auto scrolling areas, and the area that combines everything as video game climaxes commonly do, there's a lot of gameplay variety. Considering how simple the game is, this is remarkable.
Because the gameplay is very straightforward, it doesn't feature a lot of optional challenges or layers. Though the game doesn't have coins like Mario, it does have 20 secrets trinkets hidden throughout the world. Some are tucked into places off to the side of the straightforward path (example). Others are cleverly hidden in area that seem inaccessible (example). A few are placed at the end of difficult timing challenges (example, example2). And the "prize for the reckless" trinket is masterfully placed requiring the nuanced use of the checkpoint system. And thankfully, the general location of trinkets can are displayed on the map to help in the hunt.
Beyond the main campaign and its optional challenges, VVVVVV features a time trials mode that goes the extra mile to encourage players to strive for mastery. There's a mode in Mega Man 10 where players can practice against bosses and mini bosses at any time without penalty. In addition to practice this mode challenges players to push themselves toward mastery with awards given if players beat the bosses under specical conditions (see videos here). The time trial mode in VVVVVV is similar in that it breaks down success into 3 categories; time, deaths, and trinkets. The idea is to get the highest V-rating players have to get below the par time, not die at all, and snag all the trinkets in an area. While the main game can be considered easy and forgiving because of the checkpoint design, getting V-ranks in time trials and all the other achievements is very difficult.
Well done VVVVVV. Well done Terry C. But the real hero of VVVVVV is the Super Gravitron, an extra mode that sticks players inside an endless tube of hazards and flawless game design.
It took me 3 hours to beat VVVVVV and collect all of the hidden trinkets. It took me seconds to navigate to the Super Gravitron mini game in the Secret Lab It took me minutes to realize just how genius the Super Gravitron is in terms of game design. And it took me another 17 hours to build up the skills necessary to survive for longer than a minute. There is much that needs to be said about the Super Gravitron. Its design is simple and straightforward, yet it's design fixes many of the issues I had with the main game. It's the perfect game to show why straightforward game design is amazing.
If you thought that VVVVVV was simple, the Super Gravitron is even more so. I believe I can explain all the complexities of the game in one paragraph. The Super Gravitron is an endless tube where players control Captain Viridian using only the MOVE mechanic. That's right, out of the sparse two mechanics from the main game, players now only have the one. The tube is made of two thin line barriers on the top and bottom that reverse gravity when touched. The left and right sides are connected and thus warp the player back and forth. Small square hazards flow in through the tube horizontally from the sides, each preempted by a small white arrow. These hazards come in specific patterns but the sequence of patterns is random. That's all there is to it. See for yourself.
So far the Super Gravitron (SG) doesn't sound like much. Just go in, pay attention, and dodge some stuff, right? Well, yes. The low level of complexity to the design makes it pretty easy to figure out the general tactic for success. But we need something better than "don't get hit." The reason we need something better is because your best efforts to pay attention and play tactically by avoiding hazards will be effective for about 3 seconds. Trust me, I'm being generous here. From my personal experience and comments I've read, it's unlikely for beginners to go even 6 seconds without dying. Does this mean that the Super Gravitron is one of those super strict, straightforward indie challenges that's as punishing as it is unfair? Does this mean that players will need super human reflexes or a bit of luck to be successful? Of course not.
I explain everything in part 2.