Thoroughly charmed by VVVVVV


— 12:29 AM on September 24, 2010

My gaming career began at an early age. I don't remember precisely when, but at some point in elementary school, I slid a 5.25" floppy disk into my classroom's Commodore 64, hunt-and-pecked "LOAD *.*,8,1" on its chunky brown keyboard, and was treated to something altogether more magical than what was possible with my parents' old Pong machine. The games were still pretty basic at the time, but i was easily impressed at that age, and my interest was piqued.

We never had a C64 at home growing up. However, my dad brought home one of the first IBM PS/2s. It had a 3.5" floppy disk and, more importantly, Space Quest. By then, I also had a friend down the street with a Nintendo, which was doling out almost daily doses of Mario and then Bubble Bobble and Contra.

Over time, my palate matured with the hardware. These days, with an Xbox 360 and test rigs equipped with the latest and greatest CPUs and graphics cards, the bar of expectations is pretty high. I want luscious graphics, immersive environments, refined gameplay, a strong narrative, and a dollup of originality—something I haven't seen or done before. That's a tall order, I know, but I'm more than happy to drop $60 for a new release if it's going to serve up all five courses.

The thing is, I don't often have time to properly indulge in such a feast. That's why I'm quite enamored with the growing crop of so-called casual titles. This market may be polluted by a deluge of crap, but wade in a little, and you'll come across a tasty nuggets that are perfect for snacking and often dangerously addictive. What's more, the fact that most of these bite-sized digital narcotics are crafted by small, independent developers should make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It's like buying groceries from the farmer's market, minus the hippies and high prices.

The latest quick fix to occupy my spare moments is VVVVVV. Those are Vs, by the way. Pronounced phonetically, it sounds an awfully lot like the drone of a vuvuzela, which is not a good thing. Fortunately, the game itself is loads of fun.

VVVVVV first caught my eye earlier this week I was while cruising Steam's latest demos for a fresh face. The trailer and screenshots immediately stirred Commodore 64 memories long buried under years of Need for Speed, Doom, Command and Conquer, and Counter-Strike. After not even 20 minutes with the demo, I found myself shelling out $5 for the full version. That's less than I paid for lunch, and the 42MB download was installed within minutes.

As you've no doubt noticed, VVVVVV's graphics are pretty simplistic. Fittingly, so is the rest of the game. I'd introduce the story, but it doesn't really matter. VVVVVV is all about one simple mechanic: reversing gravity. Stand on the floor, hit the action key, and you'll "fall" up to the ceiling. That's the only tool at your disposal when traversing the game's various levels, which are littered with hazards to avoid and convenient quick-save checkpoints. There are other gameplay elements—bounce pads, gravity-reversing planes, disintegrating platforms, and even a riff on escort missions—but the core mechanic persists throughout.

Simple controls mean VVVVVV can be played comfortably with one hand while leaning back with a frosty beverage in the other. The game feels like it should be tackled with an original NES gamepad or an old-school joystick; built-in controller support is missing, though.

Basic as they may be, the keyboard controls do take some getting used to. You can generate quite a bit of lateral speed while traveling through the air, and the momentum sticks with you, making it easy to slide off ledges and into hazards.

Some of the levels can also be quite challenging. Working out the right path through a set of obstacles isn't terribly difficult, but nailing that line often requires precise timing. The more I play, the more I find myself trying to flow smoothly through each level with speed. No wonder the game provides an unlockable time-trial mode.

Like in most games, extra modes are unlocked as you progress through the various levels. However, if you'd rather not jump through hoops to gain access to these features, you can unlock them manually through the menus. Developer Terry Cavanagh seems keen on letting gamers take in as much of VVVVVV's world as they like. The level system is effectively a sandbox whose contents can be explored from very early on.

Obviously, VVVVVV doesn't provide much in the way of visual stimulation. I quite like the retro graphics, but then maybe that's because I'm old enough to remember when they would've looked current. The MIDI-style music is another throwback—one that gets a little grating over time, I must admit. That's generally the case with me and old video game music, though.

As you might expect, VVVVVV's hardware requirements are pretty modest. The game runs smoothly on even my year-old Eee PC, which has a single-core Atom CPU and stone-age GMA 950 graphics. Plenty of casual games run well on CULV-class ultraportable hardware, but finding one that's equally friendly to netbooks is rare.

Rarity is par for the course for VVVVVV, because there's really nothing common about it. The game manages to be familiar and unusual at the same time, and I've absolutely been charmed by its simple, clean, and ultimately fun design. VVVVVV may not be as satisfying as a full meal, but it's a delicious and affordable snack, and one that will no doubt bring veteran gamers way, way back.

   
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