- Spelunky (2012 on Xbox 360, 2013 on Windows, PlayStation 3...)
Spelunky is a platform game about an explorer who discovers a cave in the desert and ventures inside to loot for treasure, reminiscent of Rick Dangerous and La•Mulana. The game consists of sixteen levels, but for each playthrough the entire level layout (general structure, enemies, traps, items) is completely randomized, making it an entirely new game each time. There are also some fixed parameters, such as certain sets of enemies and level themes that are introduced only from a specific level. The game features four separate "areas", each of which contains four levels and is set in a different environment and has different enemies.
The main goal is to finish the sixteen levels by locating the exits, but players are encouraged to collect jewels and other types of treasure. The main character can move around, run, jump, hang off ledges and attack enemies with his whip (jumping on top off them works as well). He begins with four "hearts" (health) and when these are used up, the entire game needs to be replayed. The explorer also suffers falling damage when the distance is too high. The other basic equipment includes a rope to climb up and a number of bombs. The latter is not only used to dispose of enemies such as spiders, bats, snakes, cavemen and the undead, but also to blast through certain parts of the level. They can be used to create a path and often expose treasure hidden in the ground and walls.
In certain sections the explorer can carry a lost girl or an idol (that triggers a trap, such as a huge rolling boulder) to the exit for additional points (or, in the case of the girl, for an additional heart). Sometimes a key can be located to unlock a secret item in a chest, for instance to restore health. Money can be used to gamble for a secret rewards or in shops for weapons (bombs, a shotgun, a pistol, a spider web gun, a knife) or other items (a flying cape, climbing gloves, springy shoes, a parachute, an axe, a compass). The explorer can also pick up items and smash them to reveal a reward or an enemy, or use the items as a weapon against enemies. Certain levels are set entirely in the dark and in those sections a box of flares needs to be carried around. Should the player spend too much time on a particular level, a ghost appears that chases him and kills him on contact.
While traveling between the areas, the player can come upon the friendly "Tunnel Man" who - for a price - will dig a shortcut, allowing the player to start the game from one of the later levels rather than from the beginning. Next to the regular game there is also a number of secret rooms to unlock.
Credits (Windows version)
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Average score: 83% (based on 13 ratings)
Average score: 3.9 out of 5 (based on 17 ratings with 1 reviews)
Before I begin, I should mention that like many other Roguelike games, Spelunky contains a lot of secrets and tricks that you are meant to discover for yourself. To thoroughly review the game, it becomes necessary to reveal some things which the player is meant to find on their own, so don't read this review if you don't want anything spoiled. Ideally, perhaps you'd have already played the game before reading this review, but how are you going to know whether the game is worth playing unless you read the review first, right? Catch-22. Fair enough, although I might abbreviate this process by simply stating that if you consider yourself any kind of a gamer at all, you should probably just go ahead and play Spelunky now. That said, let's continue.
A few weeks before I played Spelunky for the first time, a friend of mine remarked to me: "Sometimes when I ask people what their favorite genre of music is, they answer 'Indie.' I don't understand that; that isn't a genre of music." At the time, I had to agree. "Indie" defines a mindset in terms of production and marketing, right? It has nothing to do with the actual content.
In recent years, there's been a surge of interest in indie computer games, perhaps as a result of the backlash against major-label games which are widely derided as rehashes of existing concepts and dismissed as valuing dazzling graphics over fun gameplay. I put myself in this same camp; I'm all for gameplay, and great graphics are secondary to this purpose. When I played Spelunky and began to think about it for a while, then, I began to understand the mindset that "Indie" is its own genre: There's a certain feel to indie games that cannot be captured by today's commercially-produced games. Regardless of whether the game is a third-person Sierra/LucasArts-style adventure (like the Chzo Mythos series), a jump-and-run platformer that recalls 8-bit NES classics (like Cave Story/Doukutsu Monogatari), or even a first-person psycho-horror series that's equal parts adventure and action (like Cactus' Mondo series), there is a certain joie de vivre in independently-made games that transcends their play mechanics. Regardless of whether the games test your reflexes or your puzzle-solving skills, these games are bursting with the sheer joy of exploring new places, a simple atmosphere that's innocent and pure, and cannot be captured effectively by any game that is produced from the ground up with the intent to sell itself.
Into this arena, then, comes Spelunky, a game which describes itself as a cross between La-Mulana and Roguelike RPGs. Right off the top, this sounds like a fairly unlikely combination, as those two games have appreciably little to do with each other, besides the fact that both of them have you doing a lot of exploring dark places full of treasure, and the fact that you die a lot in both of them. Well, Spelunky isn't really very much like either of these games, although it does retain the fact that you explore a lot of dark places collecting treasure, and it does retain the fact that you die a lot. Because it's a platform arcade game in which you play a little Indiana Jones-ish character who wears a hat and carries a whip, it at first seems closer to La-Mulana, but in terms of game philosophy, it's closer to Roguelikes, because each time you play, levels are randomly generated (no two levels are ever the same), death is always permanent (no saved games here; if you die, you have to start all the way from the beginning), and the game is very, very hard, intentionally requiring you to play it many, many times through if you're ever going to beat it.
The goal of Spelunky seems relatively simple, although you can have different goals depending on how you play it and what you want to accomplish. That said, the basic premise of the game is that you're an explorer who simply wants to go through some legendary underground caves to collect the treasure hidden there. You can play Spelunky for money, to simply see how high a "score" you can get, but the game's high-score screen has other attributes as well: Kills, saves, and time, so you could (for example) try to play the game through as quickly as possible to see how fast you can beat it. The game has a total of 16 levels, almost all of which are randomly-generated, although there are a couple of level types that have relatively set forms. These levels are broken up into 4 basic types of areas, each area comprising 4 levels.
The one aspect where Spelunky doesn't measure up to the Roguelikes it's trying to emulate is variety. The primary strength of Roguelikes is their persistent creativity: Their seemingly endless ways to surprise the player with new ways to die, or new strange events that can happen unexpectedly. Although Spelunky starts off strong on this front and has its share of surprises, it has a relatively limited set of enemies and items relative to mainstream "serious" RPGs. It might be best to compare Spelunky to games like System Shock or Deus Ex, and observe that while some fans insist those games are RPGs, at their core they're really first-person shooters that happen to have RPG elements blended in. Spelunky, then, really is just another platform action-arcade game in terms of its basic gameplay, but it has aspirations to something a little different, and to that end, it breaks a few conventions regarding how platformers are supposed to play.
Take the shopping experience, for example. Occasionally in Spelunky, you'll encounter a shop inexplicably placed in the environment that sells tools to help you on your journey. You can buy things at these shops, but there's also a twist: If you're feeling up to it, you can try to kill the shopkeeper, which, if successful, allows you to not only loot everything in the shop, but also make off with the shopkeeper's money and shotgun (which is one of the best weapons in the game, although you can also buy shotguns at some stores without having to kill for them). Shopkeepers in this game are shockingly capable of defending themselves despite their appearance as genial elderly men, and so you might at first conclude that this kind of pursuit is suicidal. However, eventually you'll realize that there are a couple of little "tricks" that you can utilize to maximize your chances of looting a shop, and for a while you'll think that this is a clever way to make the game easier. Then, after trying it several times, you'll realize that while it is a rewarding experience when it succeeds, robbing the shops in Spelunky remains just risky enough (a single blast from the shopkeeper's shotgun means instant death if it hits you) that you'll reverse your earlier decision and decide that "serious" players don't rob the shops. This somewhat mirrors Roguelikes, in which shopkeepers are also usually fierce defenders of their wares.
As a person who appreciates depth in games, I do enjoy the physics model that Spelunky brings. The greater processing power of today's computers has made more lifelike physics models relatively commonplace, and as in many other games that have polished physics models, the mere act of picking up an object, throwing it, and watching it trace a lifelike arc is one of the game's silly pleasures. Amusingly enough, thrown objects can even bounce off walls or ceiling and come back to hit you, taking off 2 points of damage; while this is annoying, one must admit it's at least fair. The presence of the physics model means that you'll need to spend some time getting used to how thrown objects behave, since the game does allow you to throw rocks and bombs to attack enemies, set off traps, and blow up parts of the cave.
Indeed, Spelunky is one of those games that takes a while to get really "good" at, but which rewards diligent players. Death lurks around every corner, but the reality is that for all its brutality, Spelunky tries to be fair. It's apparent that great effort has been taken to balance out the game and keep it playable, but challenging. Obviously, with a random level generator, this is not consistently the case, but in general the levels here are survivable by the player who knows exactly how to handle the various traps and enemies that litter these caves. Yet Spelunky also has that greed factor that sometimes bedevils even experienced players; in caverns filled with gold and gems, there's often the temptation to bear a little extra risk in the hopes of finding greater gain. One thing Spelunky players need to bear in mind is that health is always your main concern; the player starts with only 4 health points, and when they are lost, the game ends. Although extra health points can be gained by rescuing people in distress, they are still scarce enough that they're more valuable than almost any in-game item. Yet players who know this fully well will still often feel tempted to take risks--which, I suppose, is fitting, since the premise of Spelunky itself is a treasure-hunt, undertaken for personal gain rather than some noble mission.
While Spelunky's physics are considerably more advanced than those of platformers of yore, they still feel a little dodgy from time to time. In most games like this, occasional glitches of physics usually aren't a big deal, but in a game as "tight" as this, where a single small mistake can quite readily lead to instant death, everything must work perfectly. More than once, I've died in this game because of the game's own failure to model a certain physical response consistently. To Derek Yu's credit, glitches like this have been actively worked on as the versions of Spelunky have progressed, and the latest versions feel much more "stable" and predictable, which is good--surprises in game environments are a good thing, but surprises in how your character handles are not.
One thing people tend to complain about with regard to Spelunky is the ghosts. These ghosts appear 2 minutes and 30 seconds into each level. They cannot be destroyed or hindered in any way, and touching them means instant death. There is no way to "turn them off" or prevent them from showing up, except through the acquisition of a very special item which can only be obtained near the end of the game. This means that for most of the game, you are required to finish each level in under 150 seconds. While this is more than enough time to simply blitz through each level if you're attempting a speed run, I (along with many other gamers) prefer to play games slowly and methodically, exploring every nook and cranny rather than blazing a trail directly for the exit, and rather protest the idea that things must be done with any kind of haste. Some have said that the ghost is the one thing that completely ruins the experience of Spelunky, and while I wouldn't say it ruins the game altogether, there's some merit to the idea that it makes absolutely no sense to impose a time limit on a game that is all about exploration. Regardless of what people think, Derek Yu has stuck to his guns; the ghost is no mere lark, but a serious design decision, a deliberate choice to restrict how long players can spend in each level, and although this choice may be debatable, it stands as-is. The time limit is still enough to collect most of the treasure on most levels if you hurry, but players who diligently try to collect everything from everywhere will usually find themselves coming up a bit short before they need to run to the exit.
Spelunky's music also gets old too quickly. Although the music itself is very good--a fine composition of neo-chiptunes--most of the tracks are only about a minute long and then loop, meaning that if you're going to actually take up Spelunky and commit to it for the time that it will take to get good at, those tunes will haunt you in your sleep. The music comes in .OGG files which can be changed, but a bit more variety in the music that comes with the game might have been appropriate. The game's graphics, at least, are flawlessly delightful in their cheerful retro exuberance, as are the sound effects, which appear to have been composed with authentic 8-bit waveforms.
The REAL problem with Spelunky is not the enemies, the player-character, the plot (of which absolutely none is either present or needed), the graphics, the sound, or even that accursed ghost that keeps popping up; the real problem with Spelunky is its environments. The game gets off to a very promising start with its initial environment of boring, featureless caves. The caves may seem uninspired, but at least they and their enemy inhabitants of snakes, bats, and spiders are wholly appropriate to the game's setting and theme. After the first 4 game levels, however, the spelunker is suddenly cast into a jungle environment, and things start to go downhill from here. The whole "jungle" theme has sort of been a tired, overused gimmick in video games since forever. Yeah, okay, it worked in Pitfall because it was fun to have ONE jungle game, and the idea has failed pretty consistently since then. The whole setting, from the jungle vines to the monkeys that swing on them, just doesn't quite work. I suppose it's meant to be appropriate given the idea of raiding ancient Mayan/Aztec/Incan tombs a la Indiana Jones, but it still just doesn't feel right, particularly considering the way the difficulty level suddenly ramps up; the jungle is populated by man-eating plants who are one of the game's few instant-kill enemies, and the "totem pole" structures take off 4 points of health, meaning they will usually result in instant death as well.
Players who persist through the jungle area get to watch Spelunky go completely off the rails, as the third level in the game is the "ice" area. Now, we've known for a while that no one likes ice physics. This was another clever idea that turned out to not be so clever, a gameplay mechanic which should have been tried once and then forgotten, but which has been faithfully placed at least once in seemingly every platformer that has ever been made. The ice alone would be ridiculous, but perhaps even more ridiculous are the enemies that the game suddenly trots out at this point. The vast hordes of yeti are ridiculous but at least understandable given the "icy mountain" setting; completely beyond absurdity are the alien spaceships which populate this area of the game, shoot at you if you pass underneath them, and persistently hound you so closely that it becomes difficult to move around even before you factor in the fact that this ice area has no floor. Yes, you read that right: Spelunky picks the ice-physics portion of the game to suddenly decide to have a bottomless pit at the bottom of every level, meaning that if you slide off a platform that doesn't have anything under it, you're as good as dead. Really, Spelunky? An ice area with no floor? REALLY? The game started off so well; why did this have to happen? The jungle and especially the ice area completely break up the flow of the game, taking an indie title with great promise and turning it into yet another knockoff of stale ideas that are pointless and not fun.
If you have the patience and the determination to see those two disasters through, however, Spelunky comes rocketing back to its former strength with the fourth and final area, the temple. This area is much like the starting cave area, except somewhat deadlier as it has some new kinds of traps and enemies. As if recognizing that this part of the game is arguably the best, Spelunky pulls out some of its best music for this region, a groovy little chiptune-esque ditty with some Egyptian/Middle Eastern-sounding influence. Some players have complained that this home stretch of the game is too hard, but I find it easier than the ice caves at least, and perhaps easier than the jungle as well. Besides, if you can get the golden sceptre (the most powerful weapon in the game, which is only available on level 13, the first temple level), the rest of the game becomes much easier, because the sceptre is the only weapon in the game that actually homes in on your enemies. There's no aiming, no hesitation: Just fire it, and a magical ball of energy comes out that goes directly towards the nearest enemy. It can even go through walls and floors, making it by far the most powerful weapon in the game.
If you make it all the way through, one other relatively minor criticism bears mentioning: The ending of Spelunky is rather anticlimactic. However, this is understandable; once again, it's supposed to be that way. In the true spirit of old games, there isn't a 10-minute full-motion video sequence showing the spelunker in a pillowy den of pleasure surrounded by the treasures and women he's managed to collect. It's little more than a simple "Congratulations, you won!" sort of sequence. And clearly, that's how Derek Yu believed it should be. I can't argue with him on that. In Spelunky, it's definitely about the journey, not the destination.
On that note, I should point out that winning the game isn't the greatest or the most difficult challenge to be found here. There are at least a couple of other sub-challenges that you can shoot for, including four unlockable rooms that have mini-games inside. However, these mini-games are rather boring and you probably won't play them for more than a few minutes tops; the satisfaction of having unlocked them is probably greater than the fun of being inside them. Unlocking the rooms is tough, to be sure: One of them requires you to finish the entire game, from start to finish, in under 10 minutes. Yeah, that's right: 16 levels of rather brutal difficulty in less than 10 minutes, meaning an average of 37.5 seconds for each level. The reward for doing so is definitely not worth it, but the point in trying it is just so you can know that you did it. There's also one other big challenge to shoot for in Spelunky, a secret level in which every block of the level is literally made of gold, and laying a bomb anywhere results in torrents of gold pieces being extracted for your taking. Getting to this secret level is pretty tough and practically requires you to play the whole game through from start to finish, but if you get there, make sure you go in with lots of bombs, because it would be incredibly disappointing to get there and then not have any bombs to blast that gold out of the walls with.
I'm also somewhat annoyed by Derek's constant re-working of the game with each new release. I mentioned previously that obvious effort has gone into Spelunky to make it neither too easy nor unfairly difficult, and each new release of the game tends to tweak some details of gameplay which players had just enough time to get used to before they were changed. Some of these changes are welcome, some are questionable, and some seem downright spiteful. For example, in version 1.0 of Spelunky (the first non-beta version), a new reward was introduced for unlocking all four of the game's secret rooms: The ability to play as the "Tunnel Man," a guy with a pickaxe that could be used to dig through the level. This was a vastly different experience from playing as the whip-equipped main character, and was an entirely fitting and appreciated reward, making it almost seem worth the trouble to unlock all those secret rooms. In the next release of the game, feeling that the Tunnel Man was apparently too easy to play as, the Tunnel Man's starting life points were set to only 2 (!), and all his bombs and ropes were taken away. Now, I can maybe understand the bombs since the pickaxe can tear through terrain more effectively than bombs in most cases, but leaving our poor Tunnel Man without so much as a rope to climb? Come on, we've already played the game hundreds of times to be able to unlock this special character, can't we just enjoy it?
The Bottom Line
Where does all this leave Spelunky, at the end of the day? Squarely in indie territory. For better or for worse, this game is very much the work of one individual. This is the product of Derek's ideas, decisions, and hard work, and while some might question those decisions, and to be sure, Spelunky is a somewhat flawed game, it is still probably the most innovative and just-plain-fun game of 2009. That leaves us, the gamers, with the most enjoyable independent activity of all: Playing the game and forming our own opinions about it.
Windows · by Adam Luoranen (92) · 2009
1001 Video Games
Spelunky appears in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die by General Editor Tony Mott.
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Game added by Sciere.
Macintosh added by Pseudo_Intellectual.
Game added December 13th, 2009. Last modified August 16th, 2023.