What started as a modest, intentionally simple Flash game wound up blossoming into something much more ambitious: Perhaps the best Commodore 64 game never made. The crude graphics in the unpronounceable game VVVVVV make Pitfall look like the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, but the aesthetic goes hand-in-hand with its devotion to returning to basics. Games are becoming increasingly and unnecessarily complicated, which doesn’t correlate with quality. The opposite isn’t true, either, but it’s refreshing to have only one button to manage when some console controllers have a button for every sweaty finger on both hands.
Arguably, a prettier VVVVVV would distract from what it’s all about: exploration and defying gravity. As Viridian, a happy-go-lucky grinning teal space captain, you must rescue your shipwrecked crew members, who are strewn about the titular dimension. Fortunately, Viridian is able to leap from floors to ceilings to navigate the terrain. Though at first, VVVVVV patiently holds your hand in showing you how to use this skill effectively, before long, you’re thrown out into the harsh, enemy-free hub world, with no clue where to go next, which is something that’s been lost with gaming’s boner for prettier graphics and restrictive, linear game design. Though you continually discover teleportation pads that can be used to hop around the mini-map that gets filled in as you travel, you temper your constant environmental deaths by happening upon levels containing your crewmembers, or being marooned on an area that isn’t even on the map.
The color-coded levels build on the possibilities of gravity-flipping by infusing an additional element that makes them all feel truly apart from the rest of the world. For example, one level throws bouncy lines to reverse your flipping, and another terrorizes with the addition of vertical scrolling and accompanying spikes on the edges of the screen. Leading your compatriots back to the ship afterward yields another type of face-reddening frustration not felt since the 8-bit era—and here, feels about a hundred times fresher than the average throwaway escort mission.
Though it might take roughly two hours and some thousand deaths to finish, the additional unlockable modes and optional 20 shiny trinkets to collect (in lieu of the Banjo-Kazooie school of countless collectibles) are well worth the extra time. It’s just too bad VVVVVV didn’t come out 25 years ago.
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