Spelunky : Death Is Addictive
Let me start this off by being completely honest here: I haven’t beaten Spelunky. I haven’t even gotten to the last set of stages in the game. At time of writing, the amount of times I’ve carelessly sent spelunkers to their death sits at 139. Spelunky is hard. It’s god damned hard.
And I love it.
Death is not just an inevitable, it’s encouraged. The goal of a typical run, especially early in your spelunking career, is not to see if you can make it to the end. Rather, the goal is to see how long you can avoid death (sometimes literally, if you linger in a level too long). It comes sudden, and without warning. This game is special, though, because a spelunker’s death is rarely met with a grimace, but with a smile. Maybe that sounds morbid.
I do fully admit that all those deaths are my fault. Though the challenge is daunting, the game is also entirely fair. The controls are tight and fluid, and all the actions you make are going to be through your own conscious decision. Some confusion may arise when using a new item for the first time, but once you have a grip on the mechanics and how they work together, it’s all on you.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself, though. Here’s the basics:
Spelunky is a side-scrolling platformer. Starting from humble roots as a fairly simple Freeware game, Spelunky has been updated and given a fresh coat of paint for a re-released on most modern game consoles. Every run is entirely different. One of the main selling points and what makes every run fresh is the game’s randomly generated levels. The goal is to collect as much treasure as possible and make it out of the cave with all of your vital organs intact and accounted for. Along the way you’ll be fighting crazy monsters, giant spiders, and all manner of supernatural beings. Though the game is technically pretty short if you know how to plow through it, the required play time is going to be much more massive to obtain any sort of level of skill. Though each run is short, your death imbues just a little bit of knowledge providing you with a better idea of how to not be so awful.
The game starts you off with a tutorial and a little bit of exposition. In it you’ll trace the steps of a past spelunker’s journey and learn the basics of the whip, what bombs and ropes do, and pits you against the first few kinds of enemies. Hell, even the tutorial is hard. Maybe this is a clue that I’m just that bad, but I’m not ashamed to admit I died a few times just in the opening levels alone. After that you’re on your own, with just a whip, some bombs and ropes, and a sense combination of dread and curiosity.
There’s 4 main areas, each with their own 4 stages. Every new area presents you with a new set of challenges. After the first dozen deaths or so you’ll probably be intensely familiar of what the Mines has to offer, but enter the Jungle and it’s like the first playthrough all over again, with that sense of wild bewilderment and fear completely fresh. Get deep enough in and the feeling creeps on that you’re never safe, and that feeling is absolutely correct.
You’ll pick up gold and treasure on your journey, which gets added to the running total of money you possess. Money is the overall score of the game, the game ranks you based on level completion and amount of loot amassed. The money can be spent, though, and you’re going to need to spend it if you want to have any hope of defending yourself, and staying alive.
Shops can be found around in the first set of stages, as well as a hidden black market somewhere in the second set. Your currency is used to buy equipment and upgrades; anything from additional bombs/rope, to the gleefully empowering jetpack. These items are necessary, too. The perils of the cave are made much easier to deal with when you have a shotgun in hand.
If you don’t want to let go of your hard-earned loot and spend the money for upgrades, there’s always the option to take things by force. The shopkeepers are armed and will defend their wares, but they are by no means immortal. With the right preparation, quick reflexes, and a bit of luck, they can be taken out and their stuff on offer will be yours to take. Take heed, though: once a shopkeeper is killed, every area after that will have it’s exit defended by another shotgun-toting man, and they have a thirst for your specific blood. It’s a very intense lesson in risk vs reward.
Along with a few hidden areas, the last set of levels can’t be reached without a little bit of sleuthing and some secrets, but describing the process is something I would actually consider spoiler territory. This is a game built around exploration and discovery, I find that for maximum effect a lot of the ins and outs of the game need to be experienced firsthand.
It all adds up to something that’s fast paced and just downright fun. The game makes you feel good when things play out the way you wanted them to, and gives the sense that when things go wrong, it was your fault and you should know better next time. The dumb mistakes here and there (and there will be plenty) will leave your face in your palm, but restarting the process is just a single button press away.
Spelunky does fantastic job of smacking you upside the head if you’ve been playing fast and loose. Since you never know what’s going to be around the corner you’re forced to at least play it kind of safe and watch your back. Life points are precious and few, and the only way to refill them is rescue the hidden damsel in each level, and even that only adds an extra one health point back. There is no life cap, though, so you can build up a nice buffer at the beginning. Though not every enemy has the ability to kill you in one shot, quite a few of them have the ability to stun you. The anxiety that comes from urging your character up while he or she is lying there completely vulnerable is maddening, and if anything is coming for you you’re completely helpless.
I’ve grown addicted to this game over the last few weeks. I find myself making up excuses to justify “just one more try before I quit”, running the game just to have a go or two quickly turns into a multiple-hour session more often than not. I’m trying to come up with complaints to add for negative points against it, but I’m finding it incredibly difficult. The retail price of $15 may seem kind of steep for something that, at the surface, seems to be pretty simplistic, but given the number of hours I’ve put into it and how much more I expect to get out of it justifies it, in my mind. To get enjoyment out of the game you have to have a desire to learn the game’s rules and be willing to explore, even after more deaths than you were probably expecting.
The game’s arrival on PC has brought the “Daily Challenge” feature. Every day a run is generated, and it’s the same set of levels everyone else gets. At the end, you’re ranked, and you can see how you stack up compared to everyone else who’s tried the challenge before. It’s a feature I find myself “warming up” for before I attempt, since I know the daily challenge run is one that is the exact same for everyone else, I feel like I’ll have less of an excuse if I perform poorly. It’s extra great if you have a cluster of friends who also play, since you’re then competing for bragging rights.
It’s worth noting that Spelunky features both cooperative and multiplayer deathmatch options for up to 4 players. The cooperative is the same experience as the single player with the only addition being more people, and I’ve found that adds more ridiculous than it does help. Obviously 4 people running through the same crazy-dangerous levels as the single player campaign will lead to death galore, it’s more for the sheer fun of it than anything. Don’t expect to make much serious progress this way, since the organization and precision required renders it way harder than it needs to be. The deathmatch, on the other hand, is crazy fun. With many stage layouts to choose from and rules to be customized, the deathmatches get as insane as you want them.
Spelunky is a gem. I’m not assigning a number score to the game, since I don’t like having that hard static identifier attached to the complete quality of the game. I’ll simply say this: it’s worth your time, and your money - even at full price. Play it. It’s good. And remember: always look down.