I first played Super Mario World at the tender age of three, and when I did my mind was blown. Since my introduction to the genre, only three platformers have had a comparable impact on me. All three are indie titles. The first two, namely Spelunky and Braid, redefined what could be done within the platformer framework; they innovate to the point they seem like games from the future. The third title is VVVVVV, and it plays like a AAA title from the past. If this was pressed into a ROM back in the heyday of the NES it would be considered a seminal platformer, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mega Man 2 and Super Mario Bros. Like the best of the 8-bit era, the game takes a single mechanic, builds upon it, and polishes it to perfection. VVVVVV is superbly designed and immensely fun, and has surprising length for an indie title. This is Terry's opus, a labor of love that put him in debt developing it. I know this is going to sound like bombastic hyperbole, but this is old-school design at the height of its craft; I sincerely hope you don't pass it up.
Jumping is so 1985. In a genre forever indebted to Mario, it's rare to see anything that breaks free from the hop-and-bop paradigm. Insane games like I Wanna Be the Guy take this spatial manipulation to an extreme with exacting challenges and a seemingly masturbatory level of difficulty. Conversely, atmospheric titles like Knytt or Small Worlds use the platformer verbset as a vehicle for beautiful landscapes and a relaxing ambiance. Both extremes keep the core experience intact, however, as do the countless imitators and knock-offs. Only on rare occasions, like Glum Buster or the underappreciated NES gem Mighty Bomb Jack, do we get to experience something refreshingly new. Enter VVVVVV.
Your verbset consists solely of inverting gravity and moving left and right. 'Up' and 'down' are now relative terms, and gravity is no longer an unrelenting singularity. VVVVVV twists your perceptions in an interesting way and has you thinking of 2D space in an entirely different fashion. Wrapping your brain around each room's dual setup is devious fun, and the gravity-swapping mechanic lends itself to twistedly elegant level design.
The narrative starts with a literal bang which has you separated from your comrades. Your overarching goal is to rescue these five friends, each located at the end of the game's levels. Each level adds a different twist to the core gameplay, and new challenges are constantly thrown at you. Despite the limited verbset I never felt like any of the rooms were a retread of a previous one. The game is challenging but fair, straddling the fine line of not being either overly hard or banally easy. The difficulty curve ramps up nicely, but also has harder (optional) areas you can tackle to earn trinkets. Alternatively, the levels are seperated by a Metroid-like overworld. This low-tension exploration provides both the joy of discovering new areas and a chance for the player to get a breather from the intensive levels. The hybrid structure really lends itself to a fun time.
As of this writing, the game is still in beta, but there is a surprising amount of polish here. If I ever did a presentation on stellar game design I'd include this game; if you grok the interworkings of platformers you'll get blown away at how tightly crafted this is. Take the twenty trinkets you can collect for example. In a sub-par game like, say, Donkey Kong Country, you get overwhelmed by the amount of needless doo-dads that you have to collect. This repetition makes collecting them feel like busywork and detracts from the experience. Here the trinkets are found only in obscure places and as a reward for tricky platforming, so they feel like an actual reward when you scoop one up. Backtracking is always a problem in Metroidvanias, but this title circumvents that by having a teleport system that lets you zap about the expansive world once you discover an area. The story is unobtrusive, as you choose to initiate all of the narrative after the opening. Backstory is told through recorded messages a la System Shock 2, and also is activated only at your whim. I could go on and on, but hopefully you get the idea. This is platformer design at its peak, and really shouldn't be missed. Play this thing, you won't regret it.
******Yes, this game costs a couple bucks. Hear me out though, as it will be money well-spent. If you check the page I'm linking to you'll see that Terry is having some financial problems. The man gave up his job to make games full-time, and has spent the past two years doing what he loves. His funds are running low, however, and might not be able to continue to make awesome games. If you donate $10 you can pre-order this, and if you donate $20 he'll give you a copy of the game and the current beta. VVVVVV is still in beta, but the main game is complete except for two short intermission levels. The final game will have tons of cool extra features and all of the requisite tweaks and minor changes. For full disclosure Terry was kind enough to give me a review copy of the beta, but I'm definitely going to scrape the money together to purchase a copy of the final version. Even if you aren't going to buy this you should at least drop him an email and wish him the best of luck at IGF, as Terry is good people.