August 29, 2015 Leave a comment
VVVVVV is one of my most requested reviews. It came out a year before I started IGC, and it’s one of those games that come up every time I review a punisher, along with Super Meat Boy and Spelunky. Usually it gets name-dropped in the form of a question, like “how does this compare to VVVVVV?” or “why can’t punishers be more like VVVVVV?” I hadn’t played it, so I couldn’t comment on it. I meant to play it because people wouldn’t shut up about it, but I just never got around to it. Then it came out on PlayStation 4 this last week, and I finally got to see what all the fuss was about. And see it I did. Understanding the continued love for it? I still don’t.
Maybe VVVVVV was special back in 2010 when punishers were starting to become a thing. The problem is, standards have changed a lot since then. VVVVVV has a nifty play mechanic where, instead of jumping, you reverse gravity. It has an open map that be explored at your leisure, since then are no upgrades you’re required to find to unlock areas. Some of the stages are clever, and there’s a genuine sense of thrill when you make progress. So trust me when I say, I wish I could like VVVVVV. Especially considering that people get really mad when others don’t like it. It would spare me a lot of angry responses that usually end with “go back to Call of Duty you pinko casualtard.” Well, I never.
VVVVVV has horrible play control, at least on PS4. I had people insisting to me that the PC version, or the 3DS version, or the iPad version were better. I tried the demo for the PC port, and it felt pretty much the same. Very slippery and imprecise. Unfortunately, space-age technology like analog control doesn’t exist except in the realms of fiction. So even the act of moving forward is risky because it’s tough to judge just how far a press of the pad will take you, often leading to you walking into a spike. VVVVVV relies heavily on precision platforming for level design and “difficulty”, but really, can you still call it difficulty when the challenge is more about fighting shoddy movement? And it’s not like it can’t be done better. Many, many games from this genre have controls good enough that if you die, it’s your fault. Platformers have been capable of better control than VVVVVV for at least three decades now, and indies consistently get it right too. Maybe VVVVVV wouldn’t be as hard if it was more precise, but it’s not as if it would be a cakewalk. You can see thought and mastery of design with some of the stages. It’s a shame that instead of being able to admire that effort, all I could think about was “oh goody, I just barely nudged the stick and walked into a spike. Again.”
To VVVVVV’s credit, the developer got the absolute maximum potential out of the gravity gimmick in terms of level design. I wasn’t expecting a five-year old punisher that inspired many of the games I’ve reviewed at IGC to surprise me with clever design that holds up relatively well, but it still did. And it is for that reason that I can’t give the bad controls any leeway. Because VVVVVV shouldn’t have any relevance remaining after this long, but it retains it to a large degree. Smooth, responsive controls would have unquestionably cemented it as an all-time classic. More importantly, it would have served as much better inspiration for the next generation of indie developers. Now, I can’t help but wonder if some of those bad punishers I played failed because their devs said “well, VVVVVV got away with crap controls, so fuck it, my game can too.” I would love to see developer Terry Cavanagh challenge those he inspired to do better than he did. I mean, there is a pair of stages called “Do as I say, not as I do” in VVVVVV. He’s trying to send you guys a message! What does he have to do, wink at you and nudge your ribs with his elbow? Because I might be willing to pay his expenses to go wink and nudge you guys in ribs with his elbow if you don’t get it. Terry, you’re about to get a lot of frequent flyer miles.
The map isn’t perfect by any means. Much like the EA clearance bin at Wal-Mart, there’s a lot of dead space present. VVVVVV also isn’t consistent with checkpoints. Sometimes they’re so abundant that it feels almost like the game is mocking you, and sometimes you’ll scream “WHY ISN’T THIS ROOM SATURATED WITH CHECKPOINTS LIKE ALL THE OTHERS?” while your family begins moving breakables out of controller-throwing distance. And not all the ideas work. There’s a section where you have to sort of steer an NPC through a few puzzles. The NPC is so worthless and inconsistent in its responses that it makes Yorda look like a fucking genius. During this section, I got stuck on one particular room, had three rage quits during it, wrote a full review for this game, uploaded a pic of the stage I was stuck on, realized I had not been playing the room right, had a run-on sentence like this one only much more swear-filled, and finally finished it. About an hour later, I finished the game properly. I had to think really hard whether I liked VVVVVV more than I disliked it.
I finally came to the conclusion that I didn’t. But it was close. If I had an anti-leaderboard for games I didn’t like, VVVVVV would be at the bottom of the list, or the top, or.. damnit, I’m trying to say that it was the best game I’ve played that I didn’t award my seal of approval to. I just couldn’t get over how badly it controls. I don’t deny VVVVVV’s historical significance. But like many classic games, the formula has just been replicated with better results too many times to ignore. Now granted, I’m not a huge fan of games where the point is you die a lot, but I think it’s safe to say that there are better options these days. Games where failure is unquestionably your fault. I do appreciate that VVVVVV includes an option to reduce flashing/flickering special effects, which makes it significantly safer to play with my epilepsy (if you have epilepsy, DO NOT attempt to play VVVVVV even with the effects turned off before first consulting your doctor). That was classy on the part of creator Terry Cavanagh and he has my eternal gratitude and respect for including it. Yea, he forgot to stop a giant elephant from strobbing that literally became the elephant in the room for my play session, but he’s thankfully pledged to fix that too. So yea, Terry is a class act. I just wish his game hadn’t controlled like shit. No, VVVVVV isn’t in one of my most beloved genres, but the idea that I was predisposed to not liking it is about as far-fetched as Adam Sandler or Peter Dinklage being retro-gaming champions. But hey, I did finish the game, so that makes me different from Sandler. I did progress.
$7.99 loves how Sandler went out of his way to stress how he never got good at the games featured in Pixels, so that his fans would know for sure he’s not one of those loser video game players in the making of this review.