City 16's Top 10 Games of 2010: #5

Who were we killing in 2010? Zombies? Certainly, but less so than last year. Aliens, evil wizards and even buffalo all found their demise at the hands guns of players as well. The biggest loser, however, was our own species; a series of big-name war-’em-ups making it a bad time to be a human of a different nationality to the protagonist.

Hegemony aside, another trend could be seen developing through a couple of high profile indie releases. A sado-masochistic trend focusing the death-toll firmly on the side of the players themselves…

That was certainly evident in my 5th favourite game of the year:


VVVVVV could well be the gaming equivalent of The Usual Suspects. Bear with me here, I’m leading to a point. I replayed the game recently and one of the things I found was the section I’d previously had the most trouble with – Veni, Vedi,Vici, which I wrote about back in July – was much easier the second time around. Point being, now I’ve done it once, I can never recapture that evening of navigating those spiked rooms just as I can never recapture watching The Usual Suspects without knowing the identity of Keyser Söze. It applies to many of the challenges within the game, once learned the experience is never quite the same.

(The part of my brain that watches too much TV has always quite liked the idea of carrying a little note book around with a list of instructions in case I ever got amnesia; rewatch certain films, read certain books, etc. Not only would it recapture that first-viewing moment, but would probably give a pretty clear idea of who I was as a person. I suspect this game would be one for that list.)

VVVVVV is the perfect challenge game. The generous checkpointing and – most importantly – instant respawn mean that rather than being forced to memorise entire levels, each challenge is based and designed around an individual room. It means however hard the challenge – and they certainly get bloody hard – once overcome you’ll never lose that progress. It’s old school pixel-perfect platforming using modern lessons in difficulty. Accessibility in service to challenge rather than instead of it.

The challenge is never insurmountable either. Its most important design feature is that the limited move set you are given (left, right and flip gravity) keep the controls simple and tight enough that any failure is firmly the fault of the player. Another platformer released this year, Sonic the Hedgehog 4, has loose and cumbersome controls due to its attempt to pile in too many systems but VVVVVV gives perfect feedback from all mistakes. It’s a necessity to keep the player engaged despite the difficulty as it lets them track the progress being made in a very real way; coming closer and closer to perfecting the difficult series of moves needed to reach the next screen.

The toughest moments in VVVVVV are all optional quests for shiny trinkets*. For once these were pointless diversions I embraced wholeheartedly because the game does such a great job of preparing you for the challenge and empowering you to take it on.

*Actually there’s one challenge that is both a little unfair, completely not optional and totally unrepresentative of the rest of the game. It is The Gravitron, and it’s a complete cock:

It’s also a game that manages to do a lot with very little. The graphics aren’t retro in the Hi-Def pixel art style of, say, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game but actually faithful renditions of the C64-era – colourful, blocky and extremely lo-fi. This style allows for great characterisation with nothing more complicated than a few pixels changing facial expression and a despondent sound effect. The bare-bones story framework and character interactions coupled with touches like the naming of each room and, of course, the evocative chiptune soundtrack all add to its personality.

Really though it’s all a lesson in keeping a game free from clutter. The minimalist design adds immeasurably to the game but never distracts from the task at hand. In fact, despite all the retro trappings it’s hard to see VVVVVV appearing at any other time, such is the modernness of the mechanics that underlie the surface elements. It’s both a hark back to gaming’s past and a hopeful look into it’s future. Or, to borrow an expression from the game’s Captain Viridian, :)


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