I'm just going to jump right into this one, so feel free to check out the game trailer on YouTube for some audio-visual context.
The playing experience in VVVVVV is built around a simple game mechanic that replaces traditional jumping with gravity inversion. By hitting the action button, the player character flips upside down (or right side up) and gravitates toward the ceiling (or the floor). Functionally, this works similarly to a jump, but not quite. It's actually a fall. With a jump, we know that what goes up must come down. A gravity flip in VVVVVV, however, cannot be reversed until the player character's feet have touched solid ground. Therefore, each flip is a—sometimes scary—vertical commitment, although the player can move freely left and right mid-fall. Getting across an obstacle, such as a room of spikes, isn't a matter of momentum or running speed. It's about finding a safe path of alternating surfaces.
The overall structure of VVVVVV bears similarity to the early Metroid and later Castlevania games, wherein the action unfolds on a single sprawling 2D map that reveals itself only through exploration. But that's about where the similarities end. While the game, like Metroid, takes place in a mysterious space setting, the aesthetic of VVVVVV isn't one of loner-ism or desolate isolation. As the captain of a scientific research vessel trapped in a strange dimension, the player must seek out and rescue five lost crew mates. So, while the player does venture out solo for the bulk of the game, the motivation is one of friendship and reunion. There are no standard enemies in VVVVVV. The player's only foe is the dangerous environment itself, one that will require both logic and dexterity to overcome (that's another way of saying the game is a puzzle platformer).
This may sound strange and/or effusively sentimental, but the narrative framework and retro art style encompassing the action of VVVVVV is kind of adorable—the way the characters appear, like six happy little golems, identical save for their color swaps; their friendly dialogue and the manner in which they face their predicament with such positivity, such enthusiasm for the opportunity of scientific discovery. It's an attitude reinforced also in the chiptune soundtrack, with song titles that include “Passion for exploring,” “Positive force,” and “Potential for anything” (the soundtrack—available here—is titled “PPPPPP”). Again, this is almost the aesthetic antithesis of Metroid or Castlevania.
One thing that I found refreshing about VVVVVV was the way in which the entire map, although initially hidden, is completely accessible from the get go. There is no predetermined path for the player to follow. Why is this so wonderful? For one, it eliminates the need for backtracking. Progress is not incumbent on flipping switches in one part of the map to access another part of the map, only a matter of platforming skill. In this way, the game functions like one grand (but humble) experiment in asymmetrical level design, with each map section built around a particular exploit of the gravity flipping mechanic.
And Cavanagh certainly makes some interesting design choices throughout the game, one being his use of color. Each of the six characters, for example, is named after their associated color (and since each name starts with the letter “V,” this leads to some pretty creative names). These six colors are the same ones used throughout the game world, which for the player is composed of individual, interlocking screens (a method sometimes called flip-screen), kind of like in The Legend of Zelda. While a few areas of the game experiment with screen scrolling and wrapping, most of them are just your standard, static location screens.
I think one of the most profound sensations of the game happens while traversing the large, open-space areas just outside the spaceship. Unlike in the corridors that make up most of the game, these sections of the map become quickly disorienting. Out here a single flip can send the player character floating across several screens before ever touching ground. This means a player falling to the bottom of one screen will immediately appear at the top of the next screen. Because of the swift and constant falling speed, the part of the brain that processes these spatial shifts has a difficult time keeping up and making sense of the larger map. This is only further compounded by the fact that Cavanagh—through his playful experimentation with color—does not maintain color consistency between screens. In other words, a yellow surface on one screen might be a red surface on the next.
I think one reason why this setup works well is because it also reinforces the notion that each screen represents a standalone idea: a particular platforming challenge, an interesting visual layout, or an unusual flow or pattern of movement. Notice how individual screens have individual titles that comment on these very ideas. And isn't this the way more games should be designed, with meaning and expression in every detail?
Taken as a whole, VVVVVV represents a fantastic vision and a gem of a game. Playing it is like taking a leap of faith, a joyous plunge into the unknown.