When I finally, triumphantly, beat Spelunky, I thought I was done. I thought that stranglehold of an addiction was bound to be loosened, releasing that grasp that kept me hooked even when I had plenty of other games to be playing. I thought I would feel satisfied with how much I’ve seen, experiencing all of what that randomly-generated underground gauntlet of horrors had to show me.
But wait; I hadn’t really seen anything, had I? I mean, I practically barreled through the final levels, hands shaking and deathly afraid of anything that moved. Surely I could keep playing, increase my skill, and improve the quality of my runs? And what about those insane achievements, requiring stupid precision and finesse? I’m not going to just let those sit un-achieved, am I?
So it was back down in for me, squeezing in a daily challenge here, a handful of attempts there. Maybe someday I’ll be able to stop, but it definitely isn’t today.
Spelunky is, for those unaware, a rather difficult roguelike platformer. Equal parts exploration and survival, the game pits you against a randomly generated levels that drastically change with every dive into it’s depths. Instant death lurks around every corner for anyone not careless enough to look out, and it takes a bit of knowing what could be coming up to properly prepare.
This isn’t a review, though. The game’s been out long enough to make that kind of explanatory information abundantly available. For some education, watch a video or read a review (and definitely play it), and come back. The mechanics of the game come together to make an experience that doesn’t let go, and I’ve been looking back to explain how exactly the game accomplishes that.
I’ll be going through ideas in sections. Ready? Let’s go Spelunking.
1. The Controls Are Smooth As Butter
This is the foundation. A game is nothing if it controls poorly. I’ve given up on games based on just this factor. For a game like Spelunky to demand what it does of you, the player has to feel completely in control.
Every movement, every jump, whip, bomb toss, and reaction, has to be 1:1 in line with what you had intended to do. Like in retro Castlevania games, the whip takes a half second to push forward, the delay from button press to attack leaves a sense of vulnerability, and adds a bit of strategy to the combat. The most satisfying kills are those made while in motion, and planning out the trajectory and position before striking is crazy rewarding.
Rushing forward is the worst possible thing. While replaying the Mines over and over gets tedious, traps and enemies are constantly lurking offscreen to catch the player unawares. I quickly learned to look first, my eyes following where the Spelunker will be, rather than where the Spelunker is.
I can honestly say, for all of the ~1000 deaths I’ve racked up over the various versions I own, each and every one of them was completely my fault. I may have fell on spikes I couldn’t directly see, or have been shot from offscreen, but a little preparation goes a long way and those could have been avoided.
Everything is my fault, and that feels great.
2. The Walls are Shifting
Since every Spelunky run is different, some of the freshness is always present. I mean, there’s probably a limit to how many times you can look at the same tilesets, and the levels aren’t exactly that big, but for a game based on exploration, it presents that in endless abundance. The player never really knows exactly where to go, and this lack of bearing keeps the spelunking spirit alive.
What kind of treasures could be waiting for me if I just bomb this wall and get around it? Only one way to find out.
In addition, the randomness of the equipment available to grab keeps the stress up. Each run starts with the same 4 hearts, 4 bombs, and 4 ropes. Everything else has to be procured or bought on-site, and the cave can be both generous and cruel with how it gifts these to you. Some runs can be depressingly bomb-less, leaving many walls sealed with no way to explore, which is maddening. Other times you could be jetpacking around on the third level, with a pile of bombs and equipment, without a care in the world.
That is the cave’s gift, that is it’s curse.
3. Just Once More
This is probably the most obvious. The roguelike genre is one quickly growing in popularity, and with good reason. It’s hellishly addictive. While some games demand a few hours or an evening of time commitment, a Spelunky run can last anywhere between an hour down to 5 minutes.
I get to squeeze it in here and there around my schedule, and it’s always there to fill in some empty time gap. It’s like a mobile game like that, only for the masochistic and hardcore. The game is available for a ton of platforms, with the portable Vita version being the pinnacle of convenience. I own the game for 3 systems, and it gets equal play between the Vita version and the Steam version.
Spelunky can work around your schedule, and while there’s comfort in knowing you can squeeze in some quality time in about 20 minutes, those minutes can quickly turn into multiple hours, because a restart is just a single button press away.
4. Wait, What Was That?
Secrets. You want ‘em? Spelunky’s got ‘em. There is a lot to learn about the mystical shifting caves. There’s secret paths, alternate routes, piles of items, and all sorts of intrigue. Alien motherships hidden down in the ice caves? Why not! A living worm tunnel that hides an unlockable Meat Boy character? You got it! A string of collectibles that unlock the final stages? Boy howdy, they’ve got you covered!
This is both a strength and a weakness. There’s so much to learn and discover, and almost none of it is disclosed at the beginning. Here’s your equipment, go nuts, kiddo! But the superior feeling acquired when discovering something new is unmatched.
And it keeps happening.
5. The (Lack Of) Music
This is mostly a personal point, and I fully expect some disagreement here, but one of the things I like most about Spelunky is the fact that I play it with it’s music turned off, and insert my own music.
As someone who’s all about game soundtracks, this might sound like heresy, but hear me out. Each set of levels only has a few music loops, and after a dozen or so hours of play, they start to wear on a person. And, like most people who live an adult(-ish) life, I don’t have a whole lot of time, so if I can catch up on the music I need to listen to while simultaneously playing a game I’m all about, well, that just sounds like a bonus to me.
The sound effects are really all that’s important, and while there are a few music cues that change based on the action on-screen, they’re mostly unimportant if you know what’s going on. So, I recommend in-game music for the first bit of playing, but feel free to turn it down for your own tunes. It makes the experience a bit nicer, and allows for some media indulging multitasking. In a busy lifestyle, one can only ingest so much media, and when I can kill indulge twice over at the same time, I’m going to take it.
Spelunky, to me, is one of those “desert island” games. One of the games I would pick if I could only have a select few to play for the rest of my life. It’s as demanding as you want it to be, and because of the factors listed, creates a hold that turns it into something endlessly addicting.
The learning curve for some may be kind of deep, but for those with the patience to push through, it opens up into something immensely rewarding.