What I'm Playing - VVVVVV
Being the platformer junkie that I am, I was pretty surprised when I found VVVVVV, a platformer where the player can never jump. Instead, the player can invert their character's gravity with a push of a button. This was nothing more than a neat throwback to Sonic 3 & Knuckle's Death Egg zone for me until I realized just how refined the level design of the game is.
VVVVVV has a simple, if barely existent, premise: your ship goes boom! Rescue your crew members! The graphics are very Atari-esque and goes along with some nice sounding chip-tunes. The gameplay is just good design from start to finish. Not being able to jump makes some very simple obstacles - a few spikes in the way, even some upward stairs, impossible to traverse. By inverting gravity you'll have to cling on to whatever's on the ceiling (sometimes on another screen entirely) to get across. The other trick is you can only reverse gravity while on a surface, so you can't just alternate gravities in mid-air to essentially levitate.
What I loved about the level progression is it's similarity to Braid . Braid examines one particular element (reversing time) and expands on it in ways you wouldn't conventially think of. At first you merely reverse time to undo a mistake, but in later levels some objects are immune to time reversal. Later on reversing time creates a shadow of yourself that re-does what you just undid. In another level walking forward increments time, while walking backwards reverses it. In VVVVVV, like Braid, the first level serves to introduce the concept of controlling your gravity. In another level you'll have to deal with lines that, when touched, automatically reverses your gravity. Then there's the level where you have to deal with other obstacles while racing the old faithful scrolling-screen-of-death, complete with spikes on the top AND bottom. There's an (only mildly annoying) escort mission where your partner moves toward you when you're upside up, but not when you're on the ceiling. Tricky stuff.
Another nice part of the game are trinkets. They are no-nonsense optional collectibles, right down to their shininess and self-proclaimed uselessness. They follow the solid design principle of "make the core game tough enough, but make some of the optional parts hard-as-hell for obsessive players who enjoy a little masochism". Don't get me wrong, the main levels are plenty challenging, and you will die many times (the game even has a death tally at the end...I had 703). But nothing compares to how hair-pulling difficulty of a certain cursed trinket. What's great about the game is it never feels cheap - all obstacles are plain in sight and messing up feels like your fault. The game offers no easy ways out of a challenge, so you feel genuinely satisfied when you finally get to the next checkpoint (another parallel to Braid, where you needed to solve every puzzle in the game before doing the final stage).
(BTW, if you were wondering, VVVVVV's title references your best friend throughout the game - lots and lots of spikes)