Spelunky is an abusive husband and you are its poor, battered wife. Over and over again it will hurt you, but each time you will go back because it will promise you that things will be different next time. Your friends will tell you to stop going back, but you won’t listen to them because what do they know? You know Spelunky better than anyone, and you know it’s not Spelunky’s fault. It doesn’t want to hurt you, you just make it hurt you…
Spelunky is a 2D platform game with one single enemy – yourself. Sure, there are bats and spiders and all manner of other things looking to do away with you, but they don’t matter. They’re there to make you lose your concentration as much as they’re there to kill you. You see, Spelunky is a game that requires concentration at all times. You begin with four hearts of health and these can be whittled away in seconds on the very first level if you’re not paying attention, even if you’re experienced. Drop off a ledge without checking what’s beneath and you could lose a heart to a long drop, or two from an arrow trap, or one to a venom shooting snake, or a combination of all three that takes away all your hearts at once.
Then it’s back to the start to have another go, on another randomly generated level, which means you need to concentrate over again. You’ll never know where anything is unless you pay attention, because nothing is ever in the same place twice.
This is where you’re your own worst enemy. If you take Spelunky slow you’ll have a decent amount of success. Though as soon as that success occurs you’ll start feeling cocky. You’ll complete one of the games incredibly hard dark levels without losing health and you’ll feel that this run is the one – then a snake will kill you on the next level. You’ll take on an enemy that you should have left alone, or you’ll go for that one extra piece of treasure, and it will end badly. You’ll use RT to sprint where it should be used sparingly and you’ll rush right into the path of something that shoots you.
You’re rewarded for patience but at the same time urged to go quicker. After two and a half minutes on a level, a ghost appears with the sole aim of finding and killing you and if you don’t make it to the exit quickly, it will succeed. It creates the perfect balance of risk and reward gameplay, where the quicker you go, the more treasure you can collect, but the more risk you’re at from enemies. You can try and collect that treasure slowly but how long have you been playing now? How far away is the ghost? Is it time to get to the exit yet? Where is the exit, anyway?
Spelunky taunts you, always putting temptation in your path and seducing you into mistakes, but they’re always your mistakes and always hilarious at that. The controls are tight and solid, even on the analogue stick, and you will never, ever die as a result of the controls letting you down. In a game which is focussed so much on killing you, this is an incredible accomplishment.
And then, of course, it’s back to the start.
Short cuts can be opened to the beginning of each of the four areas in the game (each containing four levels to traverse) but these are not easy to open. Tunnel Man will greet you at the end of each area with a demand and you must meet these demands three times before his short cut will be finished. It takes time, see, he’s a builder. What did you expect? This always keeps the player somewhere comfortable, though. Giving a player a shortcut to the jungle after one fluked run through the mines would see them out of their depth there. Making sure they’re okay with the mines before letting them skip them is a great touch. Unlocking the short cut to the fourth area is particularly difficult, but achieving it feels as good as it would feel to complete most games, and the skills you learn and perfect whilst doing it put you in a great position for future runs where you won’t even want to use the short cuts.
Spelunky is entirely about learning by doing. You can’t learn the level layouts since they change every time you die ( so on average as quickly as 1.6 seconds then) and so instead you have to learn the constants. You have to learn when a bat will attack you and how it moves, you have to learn when it’s safe to attack and when it’s safer to run, and you do this by being killed repeatedly by bats. In three hundred games so far, we’ve been killed twenty four times by bats directly, and countless other times where we’ve panicked and jumped onto some spikes. We’ve gone back to the start and tried again every time.
Some will find that frustrating and if you lack patience then Spelunky is not the game for you. It’s a game that rewards slow and steady. It’s a game that rewards you when you die by giving you the opportunity to go a little bit further next time, but there’s a type of person that will see that as punishment. The type of person who has grown complacent and is used to activating checkpoints every twelve seconds. Spelunky is a game that takes you back to a purer time of gaming when games were hard and the thrill of completing them came from that one perfect run from start to finish, rather than fumbling your way through that final twelve seconds on the ninth attempt.
It’s the kind of game that could have been extinct in the year 2012, and we think ourselves incredibly lucky that it isn’t, even when it hurts us.