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Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV is a game in love with being a game. The sci-fi tale of six space-dwelling scientists (whose names all begin with the letter V) getting displaced in another dimension is silly, but the bare-bones premise is fitting for the 8-bit retro aesthetic. This nostalgic presentation allows Cavanagh to look at common conventions with a deadpan sense of wide-eyed wonder.
When it's discovered that walking to one end of the screen causes you to emerge out the other side it's explained as "inter-dimensional interference". The first time a scientist sees a checkpoint he suggests it be brought back to the ship to be analysed. Where Atari games like Asteroids and Centipede seemed embarrassed by their stories, Cavanagh builds one to complement the medium's preposterous designs. These analytic musings and low-fi visuals brings to mind classic sci-fi yarns like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, from an era when computers were the size of apartments and even the most basic video games were the stuff of dreams.
VVVVVV is sharper and more modern than its inspirations, sidestepping the archaic trappings of actual games from the eighties. The design vaguely resembles Metroid, but where Samus' debut presented players with an open world to explore, it was really only somewhat open, with a series of barriers blocking off much of its real estate until the proper piece of equipment was found.
VVVVVV doesn't bother with upgrades. You only have one ability throughout the entire game. By tapping a button you can flip gravity, effectively transforming ceilings into floors and vice versa. Where most games today lead players by the nose or place locked gates indicating they should be revisited later, VVVVVV's condensed maze is entirely accessible after a brief tutorial. This lack of guidance means you're literally lost in space, but the manageable scale and a bevy of warp point alleviates needless backtracking while you boldly go where no one has gone before.
Whichever way you go, you'll be greeted with fiendishly difficult platforming challenges. Much like Super Meat Boy, nearly every jump requires precision and one wrong move will see your space captain's pixelated body reincarnated at the most recent checkpoint. Thankfully, these are mercifully frequent, cropping up in almost every single screen. It's not unusual to fail dozens of times on a single jump, but the penalty for dying is so minor that it seldom frustrates.
Each area is distinct too, with new ideas offering neat twists on the one-button gravity play. In one section the edges of the screen lead to its opposite end until the correct exit is found, while another offers an escort mission where your charge will run towards you when you're on the ground but ignore your presence entirely when you're on the ceiling (clearly they come from the Arkham Asylum school of observation). Another level places you on a vertical scrolling elevator lined with spikes.
Amusingly, the more hazard-prone screens come with their own witty title written by QWOP creator Bennett Foddy. A screen following a dive off a cliff is called "I Changed My Mind, Thelma" and possibly the game's hardest optional challenge is a multi-screen spike-filled corridor entitled "Veni", "Vidi", and "Vici".
VVVVVV premiered on PC in 2010, and this 3DS port is a mostly solid conversion. Having the map simultaneously in view on the bottom screen is a major boon in a game about charting the unknown. Other additions include a selection of user-created levels, some of which are by notable indie designers like Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson. 10 of these were already available on PC, but eight are new to this edition.
Regrettably, there's no level editor (though Nicalis, the publisher of this port, has stated that it would like to add this) and the 3D is underwhelming in a game with primarily black backgrounds. Between that and the pillar-boxed top screen, VVVVVV takes so little advantage of the system's unique capabilities that it's a little troubling it wasn't released on DSiWare for those who've not taken the plunge on Nintendo's latest handheld.
Elsewhere, at the time of writing Flip Mode, which is supposed to mirror the world vertically, is busted and presents the player with a blank screen. This is a well-known glitch that will hopefully be fixed prior to the European release, which is scheduled for this month.
Despite these niggles, this is a fine port of a splendid platformer. Switching effortlessly between sadistic punishment and boundless freedom, VVVVVV provides more moment to moment pleasure in its scant two or three hour campaign than most games do at four times the length. While not flashy, long, or for the faint of heart, those with an affinity for old-school difficulty and newfangled mollycoddling checkpoints will find Cavanagh's tribute to the past could teach its high-definition contemporaries a thing or two.
Revered, rock hard indie platformer VVVVVV is on its way to the 3DS eShop, publisher Nicalis has announced.
The handheld version of the PC original (trailered below) adds 3D visuals, six unique levels and a level map on the 3DS's bottom screen. Future content updates are also promised.
The game is due for release in late 2011, with no price set as of yet.
Originally released back in 2010 on the PC, Terry Cavanagh's retro-fabulous jumper picked up a glowing 8/10 endorsement from Eurogamer's Oli Welsh. Peruse his VVVVVV review for details.
It's Wednesday, and that can only mean one thing: I'm back with yet another selection of the finest discount gaming offers to tempt your wallet with. Throughout the week you can keep your finger on the pulse of cut price gaming by checking SavyGamer.co.uk. Read on to find out what's cheap this week.
Here are this week's deals:
Batman: Arkham Asylum - £3.75
Cracking price for what I reckon is The Batman's finest hour in the field of games. Don't just take my word for it; Dan granted it a a highly sought after Eurogamer 9/10:
"Most of the gameplay concerns are minor when taken in the context of how much Arkham Asylum gets so gloriously right. Rarely does a game do a character justice in such a satisfying way. Arkham Asylum finds room for every major aspect of Batman's enduring appeal, and it does so in a game compelling enough to work even without its masked star. Fans of the caped crusader really shouldn't hesitate - this isn't just the best grown-up Batman game, it's the best superhero game, bar none."
The sequel is looking good too.
Duke Nukem Forever, Xbox 360 - £14.13 delivered
This is the Asian version, but it is in English, and totally region free. You probably won't be able to trade it in, but it's a saving of nearly £6 compared to the next best price.
The only real problem is that it's not very good. Dan dissected it in detail in his scathing 3/10 review:
"In the end, you feel every year of Duke Nukem Forever's ridiculous, fractured development seeping out of each unsatisfying frame. With four studios sharing title space in the opening animation, and end credits which run for almost 10 minutes, the weight of so many false starts, dead ends and endlessly revised design documents proves too much. For all his muscle and bravado, Duke Nukem is actually a fragile creature. His legacy is based on a specific combination of time and technology and a mercurial element of fun that simply doesn't lend itself to repetition, especially after so long in limbo."
But maybe you want to see this car crash for yourself. This is certainly better than paying full price for it.
Star Wars: The Old Republic, PC - £27.29 delivered
EA is having a laugh with its price of £45 for this from Origin. The retail price represents a saving of 40% compared to buying it direct from EA, so if you are dead set on jumping into BioWare's Old Republic MMO on day one, I'd suggest getting your order in now.
John previewed this back in May:
"Once again, we've been treated to an awfully generous slice of this long-awaited online world. But inevitably, and with so much potential on show, we find ourselves asking the nagging question that lingers after every preview of The Old Republic. Where exactly is the long-term MMO in this most epic and infamously costly of MMOs?"
Where indeed. Stick with Eurogamer for the latest on The Old Republic, and you can always cancel your preorder if it looks naff.
Mount & Blade Complete, PC - £8.74
Here you get all three entries in the wonderful, but messy, Mount & Blade series.
Here's Tim on the latest entry, With Fire & Sword, which he scored at 6/10:
"The worst accusation I can hurl at With Fire & Sword is also the kindest compliment I can pay it. Despite the new setting, infernal weaponry and bespoke story quests, most of the time the game plays just like Warband or the original Mount & Blade. The majority of the bread-and-butter activities are nigh identical, as is the pace and pattern of play. Once the novelty of gunpowder has worn off, series veterans may find themselves wandering back to familiar pastures - or wondering whether one of the tastier Caravanserai offerings (some of which also supply musket action) wouldn't have provided as much pleasure."
Dan covered the first one here.
Crayon Physics Deluxe, Cogs, VVVVVV, Hammerfight, And Yet It Moves, PC/Mac/Linux Pay what you want
It's the Humble Indie Bundle 3, and it's an excellent selection of some of the best games from the last few years.
John gave Crayon Physics Deluxe a loving 7/10 review, saying it was "well worth the USD 20". Cogs got an 8/10 from Kristan. Oli gave VVVVVV a solid 8/10 - and that was before it had mod tools, an updated engine, and bonus levels from Notch and others. Kristan reviewed the WiiWare version of And Yet It Moves here, but you're on your own for Hammerfight. Sorry.
All these games are DRM free, cross platform on PC, Mac and Linux, come with a code for activation on Steam and/or Desura, and all at the price of your choosing. It's a must have deal.
Also of note this week...
Hard Lines, iPhone/iPad Free
The third Humble Indie Bundle is available now, offering five cracking titles for PC and Mac: Crayon Physics Deluxe, Cogs, VVVVVV, Hammerfight, and And Yet It Moves.
The pack is worth around £30 in total but, as is standard HIB practice, you decide how much you pay. Your donation gets you DRM-free downloads that you can install on as many machines as you desire. All five games are Linux, Mac OS X and Windows compatible.
According to the official site, the average purchase currently comes in at a rather pitiful $4.38, though Minecraft man Notch is doing his bit, handing over $2000, while Braid creator Jonathon Blow has stumped up $2718.28.
Your money will be split between the developers, the Humble Bundle organisers and two charities: the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Child's Play Charity. You get to decide who gets what proportion of your donation.
We're delighted to announce the return of Eurogamer Expo's Indie Arcade, which this year will be presented by publishing giant Sega and in association with Rock Paper Shotgun.
The Arcade hosts more than a dozen of the finest independently developed games - showcased for the Expo's tens of thousands of gamers.
Now entering its fourth year, submissions for 2011's Indie Arcade are now open.
The Eurogamer Expo Indie Arcade is the biggest and longest established public showing of independently developed games in the UK.
Previous years have seen the public debuts of Joe Danger and Hohokum, as well as cult favourites Nidhogg, B.U.T.T.O.N. and VVVVVV.
Submissions are open until 19th August, after which the full selection of games will be finalised and announced. It costs nothing for game developers to submit or to exhibit if selected.
For further information and submission guidelines, please visit the Expo FAQ.
This year's Eurogamer Expo takes place at London's Earls Court between 22nd and 25th September. It's the UK's biggest video games event - set to attract 30,000 gamers with titles such as Battlefield, Ninja Gaiden 3, FIFA 12 and Star Wars: The Old Republic playable on the show floor.
Tickets are selling fast - nab yours now from eurogamerexpo.com!
Video: Hello Games' Joe Danger.
Hard games are enjoying a revival right now. But while Demon's Souls may be notorious for offering a gruelling RPG experience, the most punitive titles are often to be found within the platform genre. And it's indie developers who seem keenest to add liberal dollops of pain to your gaming pleasure.
Super Meat Boy practically makes it the player's business to die. Then die again. Then stop and think for a minute, only to die harder.
Meanwhile, VVVVVV's levels are littered with shiny trinkets which are nigh-impossible to obtain. To some these present a challenge, a big, obnoxious sign saying "No, you can't" which begs to be knocked down. To others trying to collect them is a futile task, generating only additional frustration which is best avoided.
In fact, some of these games are so difficult that playing them could be considered an exercise in masochism. Or could it? This is an awkward question to ask, since players won't always agree on which games are "hard" and which are "easy".
In other words, discussing difficulty is difficult. The creator of Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillen, prefers to see Super Meat Boy as a challenge.
"I wouldn't call it masochistic, because masochism usually means punishment," he says.
"I wouldn't say the game is punishing, because it's kind of my goal to make it not as punishing as old games were. There was a lot of penalty in old games which caused frustration and discouragement.
"Those were things I tried to avoid with the design of Super Meat Boy. It doesn't go out of its way to hurt the player, or to get the player to want to hurt himself.
"I think it's more that people want to push their limits. I wouldn't necessarily say push their limits of punishment or torture, but I would definitely say that it gets people to want to push the limits of their own personal skill. And with that comes dying a lot."
When mainstream blockbusters are put through testing and players get stuck, the temptation for the designer is to rip out whatever is interrupting the flow of play. But there must be balance. The problem might not be an inherent flaw in the game. Maybe the tester is still learning.
Developers must then decide why something is hard to achieve. It could be that the mechanic is unrefined. It could be that the objective wasn't clear. It could just be that the tester is rubbish at jumping over pits.
The issue of players getting stuck doesn't seem to bother the indie crowd as much. "Most independent developers do make games pretty difficult, because they want their games to be challenging," says McMillen.
"There's something to be said for a game which can challenge you and make you feel good about it."
In these terms, a game is not masochistic when it presents a challenge accompanied by a reward. The result is a purging process which makes the player feel accomplished when they unlock the coveted "You died an awful lot" achievement.
As with so many similar titles, the sense of satisfaction which comes with completing even one level in Super Meat Boy is payback for hours spent fine-tuning your muscle memory.
But what about those games which are so hard they can't be finished? "I will say this: you can beat Super Meat Boy. You can't beat Canabalt," observes McMillen.
Canabalt, Adam Saltsman's one-button game about leaping from rooftop to rooftop, does in fact have a killscreen built-in. But, Saltsman says, you'd have to run "like, a hundred million miles" to see it.
Surely you'd have to be a masochist to take on that kind of challenge. Setting yourself a gruelling, repetitive and impossible task is definitely masochistic, as is spending so long attempting to complete the task you end up feeling bad.
A masochistic gamer, then, must be someone who is defined by failure. Who cannot win, who knows they cannot win, yet carries on regardless and, most importantly, enjoys failing.
But the argument doesn't hold up. Constant loss is not why most people play Canabalt. It can't be completed in the traditional sense, but it still offers rewards in the form of a high scores list.
In a way the achievement comes from pushing your limits, just as it does when playing Super Meat Boy. Though Canabalt is as simple a video game can get in terms of mechanics, Saltsman argues that the spectrum the titles sit on is complex.
"It's just not a single axis, is the thing... I feel there's this completely invented idea that there is a challenge axis and the challenge axis has masochistic, hardcore games on one end and it has accessible games on the other end.
"I actually think there are two axes. There's an axis of accessibility and there's an axis of challenge. And inaccessible games will affect the challenge axis. Like, a game that's hard to physically interact with... Is going to increase the challenge of the game, but I think that's just kind of a crappy challenge.
"Whereas something like Super Meat Boy, it's just move and jump. That's how you interact with the game. So I feel that Meat Boy, despite its high challenge level, is highly accessible, in the same way Canabalt is fairly challenging game."
If you find talk of "axes of interaction" hard to follow, try out this exercise. Go back and read the above paragraphs again and again, until you understand perfectly what Saltsman means.
Done? Did you give up after a few tries, or press on and draw yourself a diagram? This should give you some indication of the kind of person you are.
If you pressed on, the question remains as to whether you're a masochist or just a determined learner. The answer depends on how arduous you found the process.
Difficulty in games usually comes in two forms and elicits two responses. Firstly there's: "I don't know what to do!"
Secondly: "I know exactly what to do, but I can't physically do it!"
Platformers like Super Meat Boy and Canabalt generate the latter response. You know how to avoid the spinning blades or sudden drops; it's just a matter of practicing your timing to perfection.
But the former kind of difficulty breeds an altogether more trying type of masochism. It's not another platformer which comes to mind here, but a game called Dwarf Fortress.
For those who aren't familiar, Dwarf Fortress is a management game which puts the player in charge of a band of seven dwarves, out to establish a new colony. The simulation is immeasurably detailed. Goblins besiege your settlement, your dwarves go mad from lack of alcohol and wildlife is a constant threat.
The whole thing is presented in ASCII. The indecipherable menu system alone probably causes many players to give up minutes into their first game.
"I don't consider Dwarf Fortress to be strictly "masochistic", in the way I'd describe a platformer," says its creator, Tarn Adams.
"But they are similar in that they include elements of user torture. In the case of DF, it's not a good thing, but rather an interface flaw. In the case of, say, a hard platformer, it's a fine thing for people who like it.
"I think it is the user interface, more than the content, that would get somebody to call Dwarf Fortress a masochistic game... Because it troubles you at every turn, even as you try to do easy things."
Adams doesn't believe everyone should copy his model. "I don't think that's a good goal for [designers]. I like games with depth, but depth doesn't imply inaccessibility. In the end, though, developers have to prioritise their time, and we've all got different things we hope to get out of the process."
Like Canabalt, Dwarf Fortress is designed so that there is no endgame. It just continues until the player gets fed up and quits playing, or their fortress is ruined. So does this lack of completion make it masochistic?
"Nah," says Adams. "There are plenty of simulation-style games, such as Life, that don't have an ending, but which you wouldn't label masochistic by themselves. You can set impossible goals for yourself in many games, but then it's less the game being masochistic by design and more the player being a masochist.
"The more the game induces or blatantly railroads the player down difficult paths, the more masochistic the game becomes, I think. Provided it crosses a certain threshold of addiction and replayability."
According to Adams, setting difficult goals doesn't automatically make a game masochistic.
"There's more to it than that. Take I Wanna Be The Guy, for example. There's an extreme, unavoidable, repetitive element to the failures. A game that induces a player to try something over and over again, while giving just a little bit of progress in return, is a good example of a masochistic game.
"Dwarf Fortress lashes you repeatedly with the interface while you struggle to extract pleasure despite all the pain, without the same kind of repetitive element."
Adams says that the satisfaction to be had while playing Dwarf Fortress comes "despite the torments", rather than overcoming repetitive failures. "Perhaps in this sense the repetitive, linear game can be said to be properly masochistic, whereas Dwarf Fortress is just torturing you while you are trying to have a good time."
It is true that in Dwarf Fortress you can set your own goals - deciding what to mine, what to build and what to trade with outsiders - but the only possible future for your fortress is an often frightening, more often amusing, but always tragic one.
It may then be fair to say, then, that the game attracts a certain type of player. Masochists. Madmen and madwomen. What other way is there to describe a person whose idea of a good time is to erect an underground fort via the use of a torturous GUI, only to see it crumble in the face of any one of tmany potential catastrophes? It is fitting that one of the possible downfalls of a dwarven outpost is that the inhabitants go berserk.
When you suggest this to the playerbase, the response is a jubilant scream, a terrifying rally of bloodied, grinning faces laughing into their pus-filled rags while holding aloft a banner made of dismembered torsos. It's adorned with the community motto: "Losing is fun!"
"Given that it's the dwarves who are suffering when you fail, perhaps it's more sadistic than masochistic," Adams laughs. "I wouldn't see it that way though, since the demise of a fortress can be enjoyable in many ways.
"I'm not sure it's masochistic, undertaking a process in which you know something you work hard on over time is going to fall apart. The game is easy enough once you learn it that this might not be an expectation anyway.
"For me, a fortress loss can bounce between being hilarious, being bittersweet and causing panic. And it can have a longer term feel to it, like an embrace of fate or entropy. As the game's development progresses it should also feel like becoming part of history or leaving a legacy."
Video: Meat your maker.
"It'll be necessary to encourage losing in full, rather than reloading saves, to allow the player to experience the full breadth of the game."
In conclusion, then. When a game incorporates excessive or extreme loss into the core gameplay, and not only remains enjoyable but becomes more enjoyable as a result, it becomes masochistic.
Developers have begun to realise this and are now creating game features which subtly reward death. It's why, with Super Meat Boy, you get a video replay when you finally complete a level, showing hundreds of your death-splatters and failed attempts.
This is a reward for overcoming the odds. It's also a means of making you associate all those bloodstains and failures with a sense of victory.
Maybe there are no such things as masochist games, just masochistic gamers. Regardless of mechanics, Meat Boy and Captain Viridian are undeniably masochistic characters. Despite thousands of deaths they each sport a constant grin, crazed and joyous, enthusiastic and unsettling.
Look closely. It's a grin you might wear yourself.