Recently in a Steam sale, I picked up the game VVVVVV. The name draws attention to two features of the game, the fact that each of the six characters have names beginning with the letter and the triangular spikes that litter the game. The game is a deliberately retro platformer and it wears its intentions on its sleeves from the ZX Spectrum-era music to the loading screen from those by-gone days.
When I tend to think of retro games, I tend to think of games beyond a certain point in time, more than two generations in console terms. PS2 and Xbox games aren’t retro to me yet, but Playstation, Sega Saturn and N64 games (as well as their contemporary PC titles) are. What I’ve seen, however, is a lot of people use the term retro gaming to refer to games specifically from their childhood days. Now, my first gaming machines were from the 16-bit era and, as such, long after the video games crash of 1983. As such, when I see VVVVVV it really harkens back to an age of gaming where I was not alive, let alone playing games, but I have played video games from the 70s and 80s and do consider myself a bit of a retro-gamer, but playing VVVVVV made me think.
It presents itself as a very hard game and it really is. It also presents itself as very frustrating and, perhaps that is true for the hardcore fans who saw their first games before I was born and are pushing towards middle-age or have reached it by now, but I never found it frustrating. There’s this one bit where the game puts you through a series of levels where you have to dodge carefully placed spikes to reach a platform which you bounce off to get to a trinket on the other side and it almost seems to gloat (given the screen names) about how frustrating, unfair and, ultimately, how unrewarding the trinket is at the end.
And that’s something that bothers me. It’s not frustrating me at all because there’s no real challenge there. It’s simply a matter of time and death is barely a setback. Sure, I died a few hundred times getting through that puzzle, but the point is I got through that puzzle.
What do we actually want from older games? The fact is their difficulty alone wasn’t enough to make them good games. Castlevania on the NES was hard, but it was possible to do it first run, you just had to sit and think about how you were going to approach each task rather than learn by rote what you needed to do at what moment in order to get further. VVVVVV isn’t like that, there’s a lot you learn to do simply by rote and getting your timing right can be very hit and miss.
It’s not an awful game, it’s got a lot of charm to it. What it does, however, is make me very thankful that games have blossomed beyond the very limited set of genres and ideas that games in the 70s and early 80s had. In Charlie Brooker’s Gamewipe, he gave the example of a programme from the early days on computer gaming where one presenter dismissed games as lacking any long-term or mass appeal. He criticism wouldn’t stand today because, at the time, games only came as aesthetic variations on one of a few concepts.
My point to all this is we should not harken back nostalgically to a supposed golden era of gaming where things were better, because games are much better today than they have ever been. It’s fun to play some of the older games that were good at the times, but can we really compare classics like Space Invaders to the best of modern day gaming? No, Space Invaders bores me to tears quickly because it’s the same level repeated for the sole achievement of earning an increased number near the word ‘score’ that does not appeal to me as much as it did to those gamers. Pac Man is a little more fun because there’s a bit more balanced challenge and variety but, again, modern gaming wins out. After the NES came out, the face of gaming changed radically and grew into new forms; it still does.
The problem is every time a Brink or a Dungeon Siege III or a Duke Nukem Forever comes out, players are rushing to praise how older games had it right, but they are comparing the better games that they remember to any game coming out today. The fact is that there was plenty of crap coming out then, why does anyone think the crash of ’83 happened? But people won’t remember Custer’s Revenge or E.T. on the Atari 2600. People remember the first Castlevania more than they remember Simon’s Quest and we don’t realise that we do this all the time (and not just in gaming).
So I have a criticism of VVVVVV and that’s the assumption that pins a lot of the talking that games are too easy, too soft on gamers today. They’re not, because the difficulty of games like VVVVVV aren’t a complex, satisfying challenge; they are just arbitrarily difficult to extend game length and we should not condemn modern games for cutting this out. What’s worse, I don’t get irritated or give in to the frustrations of VVVVVV because death is so trivial and arbitrary that it’s turned itself on its head and become fairly easy to complete.