So, there I was spelunking in Spelunky, with one bomb and a rope at the bottom of a snake pit carrying a much needed damsel. My current situation is less than ideal, yet fair. I’d used all my bombs and ropes in a previous level, and thanks to an arrow and a surprise snake I have one heart left. I could use my bomb to blast an adjacent wall, but I might need it later. I could use my last rope, but it can only go so high, and I might need that later as well. Climbing is my only option. The first two jumps are executed perfectly, but I get comfortable. A brief lapse in focus leads to me unexpectedly falling towards spikes, damsel still in hand. My untimely death isn’t a result of Spelunky being unfair. Blame is solely bestowed upon me. I should have used my bomb. It would have been easier. I should have been patient, and not leapt from ledge to ledge so quickly. I was impatient, and impatience is rewarded with punishment in Spelunky.
A game hasn’t demanded this much attention from me in a while. No game has ever made me cycle through the range of emotions that Spelunky has. One second Spelunky is repulsive, abusive and unforgiving, the next, it’s kind, congratulatory and charming. All while being wrapped in an art style that plucks at my nostalgic heart strings.
Spelunky is a 2D platformer roguelike with a procedurally generated cave system developed by Derek Yu and Andy Hull of Mossmouth. Every time a player dies they will start from the beginning, and the game will roll a new set of caves. There is a loose narrative explanation for the reason why the caves act this way, but it is a contrived explanation. Plus, who plays roguelikes for the stories? Players always start with four hearts (hit points), four bombs, four ropes, and a whip. Bombs and Ropes are scarce, and should be treated as such. Needing a bomb, and realizing you wasted one on something frivolous is infuriating. The whip is the players primary means of defense and offense. Players must use their wits to preserve integral resources while descending further into the cave. Maybe even surviving long enough to face the game’s final boss.
There are three main worlds in Spelunky, and each world is made up of four levels. Varying in theme, enemies, traps, and layout. After repeatedly playing The Mines, the first world in the game, they became easier to spelunk through. The Jungle and Ice Cave manage to keep any confidence attained from mastering The Mines at bay. The Jungle is filled with man-eating plants and pools of water replete with piranha. Ice Caves have slippery platforms and Yetis that render your whip useless.
The Tunnel Man provides some of the only relief in Spelunky. If players are able to reach level four of The Mines, you will meet The Tunnel Man. He’ll tell you that he’s digging a shortcut that players can use to skip The Mines, and go directly to The Jungles. Only caveat is that he will ask you for some resources. Using The Tunnel Man’s shortcuts are fine for experimenting, and getting acquainted with unfamiliar territory. For serious runs I advise players start from The Mines so money, and essentially supplies can be gathered.
Gamers have been chasing that “Nintendo hard” high, as of late. Spelunky is just that; it is brutal. Everything is dangerous and everything is to be feared. Mossmouth has taken the nostalgic feel of “Nintendo hard” and combined it with the rougelike genre to create a masterpiece. Typically games like this frustrate me. However, Spelunky is the exception to that rule. Spelunky does something great, something rare. Players learn from their mistakes. Progression stems from the mastery of the solid controls. I never once plummeted to my death and subsequently felt the game was to blame. Spelunky isn’t afraid to let players fail, but the game is afforded that luxury, because players fail due to impatience or greed, not the lack of accurate input.
A lot of the difficulty of NES era games has to do with the controls. Fluidity was lacking in a lot of those games, however, characters in Spelunky glide and respond to the simplest flicks of an analog stick. Jumping feels precise and accurate, characters don’t float or feel weighed down. Sprinting feels immediate, characters transition from walking to sprinting at the press and release of a button. Certain objects can be picked up and thrown in Spelunky. Memorizing the trajectory of throw-able items results in players being able to throw a rock, and hit a spider precisely where they want. The control scheme has been constructed with ease of use in mind. No action requires more than two button presses, further stripping away convolution in favor of simplicity. Simple controls allow for the complex procedural caves, and the systems that make them up to shine.
As previously stated, Spelunky teaches through mistakes. Spelunky never says, “Hey, you shouldn’t do that, it might kill you.” It lets you make a mistake, then shows you the replay in hopes that you learn from it. Wanna know how much damage a fall does? Fall. Wanna know how much damage a man-eating plant does? Let one hit you (the answer is instant death). Curiosity and progression constantly clashed while I played. I wanted to know what the boomerang-throwing masked man would do to me if we tangoed, but I also wanted to progress through the level. I found myself having sacrificial runs just to experiment with enemies, items, or traps I hadn’t previously encountered just so I’d be better prepared for our next rendezvous. The game’s journal records the types of enemies, traps and monsters for easy reference later.
Once a basic understanding of the intricate caves of Spelunky is achieved by a player. Traps and monsters can begin to be used in the player’s favor. Spiders cling to ceilings, and if a player gets within a certain radius the spider drops. Arrow traps are triggered by anything that comes within their radius. If a spider is directly above the firing range of an arrow trap a player can inch themselves into the the trigger radius of the spider. Causing the spider to fall from the ceiling into the firing range of the arrow trap, at which point the arrow trap will fire destroying the enemy spider. Thus, eliminating two threats with a few simple steps. Since resources are so precious and finite, manipulating the game’s mechanics is the best course of action.
Taking advantage of these mechanics never wears thin. Algorithmically generated caves ensure that every play through feels fresh. When I am able to manipulate Spelunky’s systems and get them to work in my favor they are some of the most gratifying gaming moments I’ve had in quite some time. Nothing is celebratory about the gratification, though. Progression to the next level is enough.
The game can be frustrating with its procedural cave system. Sometimes you roll a cave that just seems overly cruel, or inescapable without depleting precious resources. These instances are rare, and I used them personally as an excuse to kill myself the dumbest way possible. The trickier parts of Spelunky are in the beginning hours of the game when the learning curve is at its steepest. It’s difficult, it doesn’t hold your hand, and the cute art-style and replays of your death almost seem to be mocking you at times.
There are a multitude of items found in the shops and spelunking caves. Items require the same level of exploration that the monsters and traps do. A cape can be purchased at one of the many shops scattered throughout the cave, or it can be found. Items are usually hidden away in crates, or pots. Like monsters and traps the game doesn’t tell you what a cape will do if found. You have to jump off a ledge and float down to find out that the cape acts as a parachute. Further forcing players to experiment.
Risk and reward is a big part of Spelunky. Players need gold in order to buy items from the shop, but most of the gold requires you to use precious resources, like bombs or ropes, and may very well put you in an encounter with monsters you aren’t equipped or skilled enough to handle. Damsels, if carried to the exit, will regenerate one health point, but this is very risky as they are often in nefarious areas of the cave. Players can take the risk to save her, and receive that extra health point, however, losing two health points while trying to do so negates the reward. Players also can only spend a certain amount of time in each level before, “A chill runs up your spine.” At that point a ghost chases players until they reach the exit, or the ghost catches and kills you.
Most gamers may never reach the end of Spelunky‘s labyrinths. In fact, I am one of them. Over 500 deaths and the farthest I’ve ever gotten is the Ice Caves, but I keep coming back daily, and that is a testament to how well-crafted Spelunky is. It was just recently released on the PSN store for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita for the price of $14.99. It is definitely another fine example of how the indie scene is capable of pumping out gems.
[+Solid controls][+Impeccable mechanics][+Progression is rewarding][+Great art style] [-Procedural generation seems broken at times]