How the hell did I get this far into 2010 and not have known anything about VVVVVV? Maybe that obtuse title caused my eyes to glaze over it whenever I saw any forum topics, but its appearance on Steam for a mere $5 convinced me to give it a go, and I'm in love with it. If you're like me and didn't know what it was...well, it takes the gravity flipping mechanic from Irem's NES game Metal Storm and turns it into the focus point, essentially making it a puzzle platformer. It's also huge on exploration, to the point where it's sort of a Metroidvania...but not really. There's a central hub where you need to find the other five levels, which can be conquered in any order, but there are no skills or upgrades or anything hidden like that to find. You merely explore.
I find it fascinating how I'm entranced by something so simple. Both Metroid's and Castlevania's exploration is heavily loot driven, in that the reward for heading down a dead-end would be a missile upgrade or a new sword or something. That aspect is mostly removed -- there are still "trinkets", literally named as such, which functionally don't have much purposes other than unlocking stuff, but provide some extra compulsion to take on additional challenges.
But even without those, there's still the the joy of exploration itself. Central to this fun is the gravity-flipping, of course -- he big difference between the hub world and the sub-levels is that the hub world is relatively free of danger, allowing you to reverse your direction and take off into the sky with abandon, and the only thing you might potentially lose is a few seconds. Death comes often, especially in the sub-levels, but the constant checkpoints help keep up the pace.
Indeed, the pacing is central to the experience, because not only is your movement quite expedient, the game world is both small and open enough so traveling never becomes tedious. If you were to run unimpeded from one side of the world to the other, it would take...maybe thirty seconds? Definitely less than a minute, plus the map wraps both vertically and horizonally. Plus there are transporters everywhere, in case you need to reach a far off spot. And yet in spite of how easy it is to travel, there's still lots of hidden niches that can be found through multiple passes. It doesn't hurt that the exploration theme music is one of the standouts of an already excellent soundtrack.
The other major motivation for exploration in Metroidvanias is the promise that you'd come across something cool or unique. The word of VVVVVV is pretty plain, but there are a lot of non-sequiturs throughout. Maybe they're in-jokes?
I like the bullhorn screaming "LIES" in big red letters. They're damaging projectiles, of course.
Crazier still is the elephant. Keep in mind that it's blinking, too, which accounts for the weird coloring when pasting these images together. I also spent too long in this room and apparently it turns your guy sad? I wonder why.
My favorite moment occurs when you walk from this room:
It's hard to see, but this entrance in the hub world leads to a small portion of one of the sub-levels. It's only a tiny room, so you can't actually do much, but you can see parts of it. You can tell you've entered foreign territory because the color scheme on the map indicates as such, and it looks a bit different from the normal hub world area. It's not a secret, per say, because it's out in the open, but it does give the player that they've stumbled upon something they shouldn't have. That's always one of the most gratifying of Metroidvanias -- seeing something you can't immediately access, and the excitement that comes when you to revisit it. It's even better when they tease you with something cool.
Apart from the minor glee that comes with slowly filling out an automap, another one of my favorite things is how video games use their mechanics to communicate in unique ways. My other favorite screen is this one:
All of those little "C" markposts are checkpoints, where you respawn when you die. Obviously putting all of these next to each other is functionally useless, but it sends a subconscious message to the player - something SO CRAZY is coming up that you'd better well be prepared. It's true, too, because the next set of screens is the "Veni, Vidi, Vici" section, which is sort of like those sections in Mega Man where you drop down a narrow series of shafts and have to avoid the spikes on the walls...except done over six screens or so, twice, once upside down and once right side up. The only disappointment in the way VVVVVV handles it is that the name of the room is "The Warning", which makes the message far too blatant when the design itself was beautifully subtle.
There's a certain nostalgia center in my brain that's directly stimulated by the Atari 400 games from when I was 3, 4 years old. I'm having a tough time defining exactly what that entails, but it's rare that modern game rubs that sweet spot. Bangai-O (both of them), probably, because they feature tiny characters running in huge stages (especially the DS game, with its level designer). VVVVVV does too, which is part of why I love it. Part of it is definitely the pseudo-Commodore 64 aesthetics, which is close enough to my own personal history, but all of the above aspects trigger that sense of wonder and discovery that I can't help but be related. It shouldn't bear repeating that it's easily worth the $5.