By Harris Allgeier
Back in 2008 when Derek Yu first created the modest freeware game “Spelunky,” he could scarcely have anticipated the immediate cult following it would amass. The premise of “Spelunky” was simple, control an eight-bit Indiana Jones type in his descent of a series of underground tunnels laden with traps, voracious wildlife, and most importantly, treasure. The twist on this simple-seeming game being that “Spelunky” is a Rougelike. Rougelike’s began life as a subdivision of traditional role-playing games, wherein levels, equipment, and enemies were randomized, and death was permanent. “Spelunky” applied those principles of randomized unique environments and perma-death to the tried and true model of the 2-D platformer. Fast forward to 2012 and Yu’s creation is re-released in an enhanced edition for the Xbox live arcade and subsequently in 2013 for the PC.
“Spelunky” presents the player with a simple objective: Go deeper. Along the way you’re free to amass as much gold and equipment as you can, but your pursuit is always to push downward, further into the seemingly bottomless depths. Fortunately for such a grim prospect, “Spelunky” has a charming cartoonish visual style which adds a layer of humor to the game when contrasted with its brutally unforgiving difficulty.
“Spelunky” is hard. It’s incredibly hard. You’ll die and restart over and over before you even clear the game’s first section, the mines. Maybe you’ll be hit by an arrow trap, or swarmed by spiders. Either way you’re going to die a lot. Fortunately, the randomized design helps abate the sense of frustration from getting impaled on a spike pit for the tenth time in a row. The difficulty is never unfair though, from the outset every one of your deaths becomes a learning experience. Frustration turns to satisfaction when you realize you can trigger an arrow trap to take care of a pesky snake, or steal an idol to trigger the classic rolling boulder to clear out a large section of the level.
“Spelunky” is all about universality of mechanics; it’s one of those rare games that seems to account for all possible player behavior. If something should work, then odds are it does. There’s a rare satisfaction in understanding a game so completely that you can manipulate various threats against one another. “Spelunky” manages to let the player feel as though they’re gaming the system.
The game controls tightly too and does a good job with providing clear and logical paths to the level exits. While players begin the game only with a modicum of bombs and climbing rope as well as their trusty whip, there are plenty of shops and hidden crates which allow the player to obtain helpful trinkets like shotguns and even a jetpack. And for those who enjoy poking and prodding at the corners of a game, “Spelunky” is chock full of secret levels, characters, and items to find and unlock.
Most importantly though, “Spelunky” is fast-paced, high stakes fun. Every run is fresh, the disasters that await around every corner are unknown, and the satisfaction that comes from clearing a level is always savory sweet.