Although few and far between, video games have many luminaries: Shigeru Miyamoto, Tim Schaefer, John Carmack and the like. While their visions are often in most people’s head space, the reality is they’re more like captains steering a ship on a certain course than actual auteurs.
Few can lay claim to the title of auteur, but there have been a handful, particularly back in the day when it was technologically feasible to build a game from the ground up by themselves. While creating something by committee has its pratfalls, creating something by yourself puts your neck on the line when you succeed or fail.
I’ve been a fan of Terry Cavanagh’s work for some time; from Don’t Look Back to Super Hexagon to VVVVVV I always eagerly await his next work. What I find striking about his games is how he can build complexity out of simplicity. Tiny Heist has you trying to sneak your way around corridors in increasingly tougher challenges that never change your methodology, just the intricacy of the stages. Moving your little arrow through the rushing maze of Super Hexagon sounds easy in theory until you crush it against a pulsating wall literally seconds after starting the game.
My favorite by far is VVVVVV, which is Cavanagh’s biggest endeavor by far. In it, bobble-headed hero Captain Viridian is separated from his space-faring crew in an interdimensional accident of cosmic proportions and must seek them out in a curious world in the hopes of getting home. At first blush it’s very much a platformer, but one that relies on the player changing Viridian’s gravity rather than jumping. With the press of a button you flip the gravity and walk on the ceiling, and vice versa. There’s no catch to it; it’s all entirely seamless. While the first area warms you to the idea of it, the thrust of the game will have you careening down hallways, caves and otherworldly locations by bouncing back and forth from the ceiling to the floor.
The only thing the game really tasks you with is finding your crewmates, with a side order of shiny trinket collecting, and Viridian’s repertoire never expands beyond being able to flip. And it doesn’t need to. Rather, the game ramps up through its level design. The monochromatic, Spectrum-like world is open to you at the onset, with the game hunkering down into more focused challenges when you find dimensional warps to the areas your friends are stranded in. The expectation is that you’ll fail. A lot. No, seriously – this game has a death counter to remind you how many times you’ve f***ed up. The point is that you learn from it; check points are generously placed so that you’ll instantly be back where you were in moments to try, try again. It helps to minimize frustration; without loading or backtracking you can keep bashing your head against it until you succeed.
While the fail state is lessened, winning still feels supremely satisfying when you realize you’ve accomplished a crazy set of finger-gymnastic-inducing traversal, even if it is for a worthless trinket. Its challenge feels fair in every regard: not once did I feel like I was cheated out of anything, only blaming myself for not being better. The sense of betterment is strong in VVVVVV, assuredly the crux of what makes it so wonderful.
While the bulk of the programming for VVVVVV was Terry Cavanagh’s, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the stellar soundtrack by Magnus Pålsson that amps up the action in a fantastic chip tune fashion – I actually picked up the accompanying soundtrack, it was so good. Also worth noting is that even when you’ve soaked in Cavanagh’s opus, there are a set of special stages built by Cavanagh’s contemporaries and friends based on the framework of VVVVVV that’ll keep you playing for hours if you want. Some are better than others, but most are worth at least checking out.
VVVVVV on any platform is worth playing, but the bright, poppy screen of the Swich and the portable nature of it makes it feel at home on Nintendo’s latest console. The haste with which you can pop in and out of the game as well as the brevity of picking yourself up after failure and getting back to it lend itself to the system. It deserves a place in every gamer’s library because for every epic, all-encompassing AAA game made by massive studios there should be something equally as grandiose made from the blood, sweat and tears of an auteur.
VVVVVV is available on Switch, PS4, PC, iOS, Android, 3DS, Vita and practically everything else. We reviewed the Switch version.
Disclosure statement: Review code for VVVVVV was provided by Nicalis. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.