To understand Spelunky, one has to know a little bit of history.
In around 1980, Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman developed a little game called Rogue. Rogue was the first of what we now call roguelikes, a genre defined by a top down ASCII view and turn-based gameplay. Defined also, by randomly generated worlds in which to adventure. The procedurally generated world idea has been used pretty extensively since then, most notably in the Diablo series to lend replayability and variety to a fairly boring game, Minecraft to provide an excuse to play the damn thing, and of course the rogue descendants like Nethack and Stone Soup.
Completely unrelated to rogue was a little NES game called Spelunker, released in 1985, in which one played a little fellow in a miners helmet who died if he fell more than three tiles, regardless of whether he hit anything or not. Rogue is still played by classic games enthusiasts today. Spelunker is played by nobody because it aged very poorly. I guess Derek Yu played them both because he mashed them together and called the result Spelunky, and he cannot be praised enough for it.
Spelunky is a sidescroller in which you play a little fellow in a mining fedora who can fall much further than three tiles without injuring himself. Your goal is simple: With the aid of bombs, ropes and whatever items you discover on your journey, make your way ever deeper into the earth in search of treasure, be it coins, gems or crystal skulls. On its own, this kind of game would make for an afternoon’s diversion, but when its roguelike ancestry comes to the fore it really shines.
The game takes place over 15 levels (plus the final boss room) divided into 4 worlds, and every one of them is generated anew each time you play. What this means initially is that you have no goddamn idea what you’re doing and will die, a lot. But after a while you learn how it works, and you see the brilliance. Each world has a unique set of enemies and traps to overcome, as well as a couple of unique events that can occur in some, all or none of the levels contained therein. What this means is that any of the levels in world one could contain a snake pit. The snake pit is a long, narrow hole with arrow traps in the walls and a bunch of snakes and gems at the bottom, and a useful pickaxe concealed under the floor for you to blast open and take.
Each event has a specific text tag that appears when you start a level that contains it “I hear snakes….why’d it have to be snakes?” in the case of the snake pit. What this means is that you’ve gone from knowing nothing about the composition of the level you’re about to play to knowing one useful piece of information. Believe me when I say that this makes a hell of a difference. In particular, if you’re in world two and you get told “the dead are restless” then you know that level probably contains both a cape and a shotgun, two of the game’s most useful items. In addition to the world specifc events there is one generic event that makes the level pitch-black. Your only source of light is a box of flares next to the level entrance and glowing bugs that give you money when you grab them. Many of my deaths are due to darkness levels.
Unique events aside, every level of Spelunky contains four common elements: An entrance, an exit, an idol and a damsel. The damsel is a woman in a red dress who, if you take her to the exit alive, will reward you with a single additional hitpoint. This doesn’t sound like much, but you only start with four HP and there is usually no other way to regain them. The other thing you can do with damsels is sacrifice them to Kali on altars that spawn in some levels. Doing so once will net you a free item, doing so many times will give you the ability to regain health by killing things, an extremely useful ability. However, you missed all that health from damsel rescuing so who knows if you’ll even get that far?
Spelunky’s platforming is its just about perfect. The Spelunker walks at a decent clip and really books when you hold down the sprint key. You only jump about one and a half blocks high, meaning that the deepest hole you can get out of (by ledge-grabbing) is 2 blocks deep. This sounds like an annoyance but in practise it leads to fantastic dilemmas. Do I waste a rope to get that crate? If I go down there to get the key will I be able to make it back up? The snake pit mentioned earlier takes at least one bomb to escape from, go in with none and you’re boned. While you can’t jump high, you can jump long. A sprinting Spelunker can jump much, much further than a walking one, rendering seemingly inaccessible areas accessible.
Like his NES ancestor, the Spelunker takes damage if he falls too far, roughly 1 screen is enough to hurt you. Landing on an enemy or grabbing a ledge will negate that damage, however, and capes and parachutes make you fall slow enough to avoid damage as well.
Your basic weapon is the whip, simultaneously the best and worst weapon ever. It has a tiny reach, only one square in the direction you’re facing, and does the least damage of anything in the game. It also takes a split second to deploy, there’s a short wind up animation that will get you killed over and over until you get used to it and figure out that you can start the attack and then walk forward, ramming the offensive hitbox into whatever you’re trying to fight. I cannot articulate how satisfying it is each time I deliver a perfect whip attack, and there isn’t even a tangible reward for killing things most of the time. The reward is that you get to live, and to whip more things.When you get bored of whipping things (and dying because the thing you tried to whip moved forward and ate your face) then you can move on to the other items the game lets you use. This range from the terrible (the machete) to the amazing (the shotgun) to the bizarre (the teleporter). You can only hold one item at a time, however, meaning you can’t carry both a weapon and a pickaxe from one level to the next. From such dilemmas is the joy of Spelunky built.
Like most roguelikes, Spelunky includes shopkeepers and also like most roguelikes, shopkeepers are the most powerful creatures in the game. They have 15(!) HP, a shotgun (which will kill you instantly) and can throw you around and stun you. Tangling with a shopkeeper is almost always a death sentence, but it gets even worse if you manage to kill one. If you do that, a shopkeeper will spawn at every level exit for the rest of the game. Meaning you have to, at worst, repeat the impossible another 14 times.
I almost always kill a shopkeeper. There are a couple of ways to take them down easily, remember you can use any item in their shop once before they open fire, so gun sellers tend to die pretty easily. Of course, after killing one of them you now have their shotgun, making every subsequent shopkeeper easier to slaughter, but it’s still a very risky gambit. Spelunky is, ultimately, a game about risk. There’s a term the fan base has; YASD. Yet Another Stupid Death. At this moment my scoreboard (on my most recent installation, I’ve been playing Spelunky across several versions and sadly your progress doesn’t carry over) reads 391 deaths and 5 wins. A win, in this case, is the successful navigation of 15 levels and the defeat of the boss. Most of these deaths have been really, really dumb. Misjudging a fall’s height and going splat. Dropping onto spikes I would have seen if I’d taken the trouble to hold down and pan the screen. Running head-first into yet another of the FUCKING arrow traps in world one. Death by bats. Death by spiders. Death by spiders emerging from the pot I used to kill the bat. And oh so many deaths by angry shopkeepers after I made off with their merchandise. And dozens of deaths because I was simply rushing and didn’t pay attention.
There’s two things I haven’t mentioned: First, Spelunky has a time limit. After spending 2 minutes and 30 a seconds on a level, The Ghost will spawn. The Ghost cannot be killed, moves freely through terrain and will instantly kill you with a touch. The second thing is that Spelunky’s only method of keeping score is how much money you’ve amassed. This creates a truly brilliant tension which underpins all the joy of the game. To fully clear a level takes time. If you collect nothing and just run to the exit you can beat a level in 15 seconds or less, but at the end your score will be pitiful. On the other hand if you dawdle the ghost will eat you. Truly succeeding, not merely reaching the end, takes daring and quick thinking and deep knowledge of how the game’s various mechanics work (I haven’t even mentioned the black market and the city of gold).
Spelunky is unabashedly punishing, but if you take the time to play it and look past its simple graphics you will find a surprisingly deep and enjoyable game. Recommended.