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07 April 2016 @ 09:21 pm
Game Review: Spelunky  
Spelunky is one of those games like Minecraft that first came to public light while I was living in Japan and spent almost all of my video game time playing World of Warcraft. Unlike Minecraft, where I played the in-browser alpha and didn't understand what was so great about it, I didn't even hear of Spelunky until years later, after I quit WoW and so had more free time. The original version of Spelunky is still free online and available here, but I played the HD version.

When I first bought it, I was absolutely awful at it, mostly because this was before I had bought a controller and so I was trying to play with the keyboard and did...okay. It wasn't until I tried playing it with a controls scheme better suited to platforming that I actually managed to get anywhere, though. And then I played, and played. There were weeks where I'd play a game of Spelunky every single day. Just load it up, play until I died, and then try to get through as far as I could, which usually wasn't very far. And then the next day I'd play it again, and over time I got farther and farther down into the caves until, at last, I won.

I wonder how much I'm paying those porters...

I'm not sure quite what it is that makes Spelunky so addicting. Maybe it's the gradual mastery aspect, where as I played it more I started to recognize the room configurations and the patterns of the enemies and so was able to get further. Maybe it's the daily dungeon, where a single random map is served to everyone playing that day and it's easy to dip in and try it out. Maybe it's the game's leniency.

Yes, leniency. For a permadeath roguelike, Spelunky is relatively tolerant of failure at the beginning. Having a life meter instead of everything instantly killing the spelunker allows you to make a few mistakes, even stupid ones, and still win. There are runs where I've survived being blown up from my own bombs due to extra health from rescuing damsels for several levels straight. There are runs where I piss off the shopkeepers accidentally and manage to live through their wrath for at least a few levels, and one where I did it and managed to clear out the Black Market. The run where I won, I lost three life early on due to stupid mistakes with bats and not checking pots before I broke them and still came out on top.

It's true that there are a lot of things that kill you instantly, but I'd argue that they're expertly implemented. For one, the proportion of instant-death hazards starts off very small--mostly just falling on spikes in the first level--and gradually increases over the course of the run. For another, instant-death hazards reduces the impact of health. Whether you fight Olmec with 1 health or 99 health doesn't matter, because Olmec falling on you is fatal either way. As such, there's no requirement that you have to play the early levels perfectly to have a chance in the later levels. Bad play will kill someone who rescued all the damsels just as quick as a speedrunner, and conversely, a "bad run" can be the one that wins the game for you.

Right before I committed grand larceny on the Black Market.

That win came with a lot of prior knowledge behind it, though. Spelunky is a roguelike and that means that death is accepted and should be treated like a learning experience. I don't remember my first death anymore, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if it came at the hands of an arrow trap. Then I died dozens more times until I finally made it to the Jungle, where a tiki trap murdered me. When I finally won through the Jungle and arrived in the Ice Caves, a mammoth froze me solid and I shattered into a thousand pieces. At the very end, when at least I finally made it to the Temple after many trials, I stepped out of the entrance and was almost immediately murdered by Anubis.

Of course, once you know all of that it's much easier to deal with. After that first mammoth death, it only ever happened to me once after that when I mistimed my jumping. Generally when I died, I could point to something that I did specifically to cause it--if not in that moment, than in a previous decision chain. When the shopkeeper blasted me off into the Abyss, it's because many levels earlier I had decided that the jetpack was valuable enough to my run that I would kill the shopkeeper who owned the shop for it, putting a price on my head. Or as listed above, simply because I didn't know enough about the upcoming dangers. Unlike Tales of Maj'Eyal, though, dying at best loses you twenty minutes or so, and often less than that.


I still have room for improvement, because at the moment both the first time I got to Olmec and the time I successfully beat it, I had the jetpack, the climbing gloves, and the compass. In a randomized platformer with a time limit, it's really hard to beat the ability to fly for short distances and always know exactly where the exit is.

Speaking of the time limit, that's one of the few parts of Spelunky that I really don't like. I understand why it's there--it's a way to prevent people from scouring every part of every level and picking up all the treasure, since the nominal point of Spelunky isn't just to win, it's to get the highest score possible--and I can see why it fits in to the pace of the game. The time pressure from the ghost means that you can't proceed at a snail's pace through every level, trying every possible path and carefully scouting around before committing. You have to make your decisions at a relatively quick pace, which means Spelunky ends up with more action and less shuffling forward.

Some of this is just because of the way I play. I never use the available shortcuts, because like Super Mario Brothers III, I rely on the powerups I get in earlier levels to get me through later ones. That means that while I've seen the Mines a ton of times and the Jungle a fair bit, I've spent very little time in the Ice Caves and much less in the Temple, but the time limit and the higher amount of instant-death traps means I feel like I can't really explore. What I need to do is use the shortcuts to get more comfortable with those areas so that I don't feel like I'm losing as much when I die.

...how did she get in there?

The shortcuts are actually a really good idea. You don't start with them, but eventually by bringing the right materials to the Tunnel Guy, you can unlock passages directly to the Jungle, Ice Caves, and presumably to the Temple, though I haven't unlocked that one yet. That allows you to get more practice in an area that gives you trouble, and I actually used the Ice Caves shortcut for a while to get me more used to that area before starting again from the Mines in a bid to make it all the way through. I guess it worked.

There's still a lot I haven't done, though. In 40 hours, I've probably spent more than half of that in the Mines. I hear people talk about Hell or about the City of Gold, I've seen the Mothership but I've never been inside it, and I still have characters to unlock. I've played Spelunky every day since I won the first time because the moment-to-moment gameplay is fun. That's pretty much the bottom line.

And I haven't even played co-op yet. There's plenty of life left in this game for me.

You are liable to be eaten by a grue.

It's a good roguelikelite(?) where winning the game just makes you want to play more to see what else is out there. Spelunky definitely falls into the category, along with The Binding of Isaac and DoomRL. I've been playing Spelunky for years and I'm probably going to be playing it for years more. I played a game of it literally right before I posted this. It has rules, and with practice you can master the rules, and that allows you to progress and, eventually, win.

And there's always the free version linked above if you want to try it out.
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