Review: VVVVVV

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Honestly, I could never remember if it’s 6 Vs or 7. There were plenty of other things I forgot about this little platforming gem in the decade since I last played it, but the name is definitely the hardest part to stick. I can’t overstate how glad I am I revisited it, though, because VVVVVV is one of the best balances of challenge and chill you can get from indie platformers. It can confound and mystify without frustrating, and always offers you something new to do if you’ve come across a particularly tricky section. And even if you do find yourself starting to fume, the thick layer of charm laid on by the adorable characters and retro stylings is sure to put you back in your comfort zone.

It’s a disaster…IN SPAAAAAACE! Captain Viridian’s ship has crashed in an unknown sector of the universe, and his crew has been scattered by a mysterious disruption. It’s up to him to reunite the team and figure out what the heck happened to the ship, and fortunately, he’s the perfect person to do it. Not only does he have a winning smile and a can-do attitude, he can also flip his personal gravity at will. That’ll prove invaluable when facing the twisting corridors and yawning voids of this enigmatic place. Each new challenge will push him in different and unexpected ways, and ultimately lead to some big revelations about where his ship ended up, and where it’s going.

VVVVVV has a perfectly serviceable story for the kind of game it is, a framework to hang fantastical platforming and exploration upon. There are terminals dotted about that give a little more context to the story beats that happen from time to time, but again, plumbing the depths of this strange space is the real attraction here. The map is wide open, with a vast Super Metroid-esque landscape sprawling in all directions just outside your ship. From here, tunnels and passageways lead to more discrete sections that present thematic challenges like moving platforms, edge-wrapping mazes, and a particularly harrowing tower ascent. Your crew tends to be tucked away at the ass-ends of each of these areas, and each adds their own little colorful observations about the predicament you find yourself in.

The platforming is the real star of the show here, because it takes a wonderfully Bionic Commando approach to powerful yet limited mobility. All you can do is run left, run right, or reverse your own gravity while on solid ground. With no discrete ability to jump, a single-tile obstruction can be a greater obstacle than a yawning laser-filled chasm if there’s no clear way to gravity-flip over it. And trust me, the game makes incredible use of this dynamic in all of its areas. Platforming takes on a whole new dimension here, with ceilings becoming just as important as floors and nominally simple jumps turning into an entire process when you can only flip around the extremes of the problem. Some of the challenges are infamous, such as a multi-screen ascent and descent through a spiked gauntlet just to clear a tiny ankle-high wall.

Most importantly, though, is that nothing here is particularly stressful. Aided by the simple, charming art style, VVVVVV is ultimately a very inviting game, even when facing you with a twisting passage of death. Checkpoints are dotted practically every other screen, and retries are instantaneous, meaning you can fling yourself to your doom as much as you want and waste very little time doing it. The hardest challenges are also reserved for the optional collectibles scattered across the world, and even then don’t reach the same heights as some modern metroidvanias in difficulty. A wealth of fast-travel teleporters on top of all this makes it clear that this game can be taken at your pace, as far as you want, as long as you’re having fun with it.

That was the biggest feeling that flooded back to me when I replayed VVVVVV recently, just how outright fun the whole thing is. I never got stuck anywhere, never raged at any of the challenges, and always had a huge smile on my face when I rescued one of my wayward crewmates. I don’t want to hear any complaints about the pixel art, because the clean lines and stark colors really help emphasize the platforming. The sound design is a perfect match to the retro feel, with big boops and beeps that I love (and I cannot lie). VVVVVV is regarded as a classic for good reason, offering timeless challenge and exploration without ever really pushing you out of that cozy, comfortable space.

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