Spelunky is the greatest game of all time…
When I decided to create this piece, I thought it would be pretty easy, because I have so much to say about Spelunky. But I ended gushing incoherently over a word document, none of which made sense. I was overcome by emotion. Just thinking about this game and what it has done for me over the years really hit me when I was tried expressing it. Every time I would jot down reason why Spelunky is exceptional, it reminded me of five more that I hadn’t even realised until sitting down and thinking about it. and these discoveries made writing this piece more necessary than ever. If this blog is a project of passion, than it would be incomplete without the mention of Spelunky.
I’m going to structure this piece in a way where the most objective reasons behind Spelunky’s success are first, which gradually lead to my own opinions. Because, at the end of the day, everyone’s favourite anything will have some facet of subjective reasoning to it.
Spelunky is a very difficult game. It’s a type difficult that disallows upgrading stats to solve problems. If the player doesn’t get better at the game, they cannot progress, meaning we’re all separated by ability as opposed to the amount of hours we have to grind (though time and skill are linked in some instances). These types of games, in my opinion, are the most fun, because there’s an actual challenge within them.
On top of that, the levels are all randomly generated, meaning each playthrough will be different. This doesn’t just take the form of different designs, but specialised events that may occur in each world. My favourite examples of this are the snake pit in world 1, referencing the cult icon Indiana Jones, and the undead event in world 2, which allows you to collect many rarer items. These events can be game changers, and it’s up to the player to adapt their strategies in order to succeed. And on top of all that, the terrain that makes up most levels is destructible. If you had the resources, you could just bomb your way through every level. It’s harder to have two playthroughs that feel even remotely similar than it is having two different ones.
In the last decade, it has become apparent that most games don’t do difficulty well. One reason for this is they can’t get the balance right between difficulty and player progression. Games that are to easy are less rewarding to play through, because player progression is high but difficulty is low. But games that are too hard have are more challenging but rarely leave the player with any progression to satisfy themselves. If you are unable to leave even a dent on the game, why would you want to continue playing it? While Spelunky is a randomly generated, perma-death game, there are still some things that make the player feel like they have made progress. This includes unlocking characters, creating permanent shortcuts by completing sub-missions, and getting jewels on the entrance of the game by beating it in different ways. While the shortcuts do provide players with an advantage, they’re more for training than anything. Players who are unlikely to make it to say, world 3, on a regular play through can now create a shortcut where they can become more familiarised with the layout. After developing their skills, they can go back and play the game from the start with a higher chance of making it, and beating world 3. This method not only provides an unlockable for a player to feel good about, but also gives them the opportunity to explore the game’s difficulty in a way that still feels like they are progressing. All the other unlockables are aesthetic things that don’t provide any stat boosts, but give the player small rewards for their efforts.
The controls of this game are very precise, and once the blood has drained from your head it’s quite easy to acknowledge Spelunky is a fair game. It can be ridiculously hard sometimes, but possible nonetheless. Just running around with your character can be a fun experience because of how responsive the controls are. When you first think of Spelunky, and about its difficulty, it’s easy to assume the game relies on difficulty as a gimmick. You play the game for a bit, acknowledge that it’s bullshit, and then you move on to something else. But you can’t do that with Spelunky, because everything about the game is amazing. The art style is beautiful, with every biome truly feeling like its own world. It plays on the now oversaturated pixel renaissance; taking pixelated graphics, which were an indication of graphical limitations at the time, and using advanced technology to make them look hyper realistic. Or as hyper-realistic as pixel graphics can get. Whether it’s to play on nostalgia or create a new trendy style, this art form is everywhere, but few get as stunning as Spelunky. With most pixelated games, when discussing them to a friend I will 9/10 use the term “pixelated”. But Spelunky’s art is so unique I don’t use that phrase to describes its art. It’s just so… Spelunky. In fact, reaching a new world, and having that visual sense of progression is rewarding enough for some players. Each character is meticulously designed, and even the most generic of characters feel unique thanks to sometimes overlooked characteristics.
What makes the characters so special aren’t how purposeful they feel, but rather how their existence mirrors that of our own. Lots of game characters feel purposefully placed in their environment, which, I’ll admit, does makes sense, because that’s how games are created. But the characters in Spelunky are almost indifferent to your presence. They would be there, spitting acid or crawling around caves whether you were in that level or not, and that makes them just as real as the player.
And while you may say that’s not true because creatures like bats freak out when you go near them, some of the characters do that with everyone. I’ve seen a piraña plant eat various creatures around it on multiple occasions. In fact, I’ve seen a piranha plant eat an exploding frog, explode, and kill another frog who was collateral. That type of interaction between an environment and the actors in it is very rare to find in this medium. But when you think about it, this interactivity is what make games so special. Why many people prefer them over movies, or archery. You may walk past one of these events and laugh at how silly it is, but when you really think about it, you don’t get moments like these in many games. To understand what I’m talking about, check out the NoClip documentary on Spelunky, in which programmer Andy Hull describes leaf physics.
This discussion was about leaves falling from trees, essentially background art. Something that won’t affect your journey throughout Spelunky in the slightest. When I think about it, there are some instances where the creature programming in this game is more complex than in Pokemon, in which creatures are the focal point. These small and often overlooked interactions between the creatures in this game and the environment is indicative of the effort put in this game.
The music in this game is another standout. I should probably stop using words like standout, because that’s how I start every new point. As I mentioned previously, one thing Spelunky gets right is playing on the pixel renaissance that is utilised by most indie developers, while adapting it to create genuinely beautiful landscapes. A similar approach has been used when creating the music. The chip-tunes used sounds straight out of the 90s, filling even the coldest of hearts with nostalgic warmth, but still laces the gameplay with an atmospheric sound. I will never forget the first time I made it to the temple biome, and I lasted a total of 3 seconds. Why? because the frantic music that began as soon as I regained control of my character filled me with such urgency that I propelled myself off of the starting platform and into a crush trap. This type of music gets in your head. It tells you where you are, that you’re not safe, but that this world can still be beautiful when it wants to be. But also don’t stand around to long champ.
I’ve never judged a game based on its achievements before, but Spelunky, without a doubt has the best achievements ever in a game, and that’s primarily because they stick to what achievements were designed for; to encourage players to explore games a little more deeply, and differently to how they may have gone about it the first time. There are no flashy or ridiculous achievements that seem pointless, each one is a challenge, a *cough* achievement. They encourage you to play the game in multiple different ways, which gives a really good look at the amount of extra content the game has, that may have been overlooked in your first viewing of the game. I’ve beaten Spelunky; using shortcuts, without shortcuts, without getting and gold, getting a lot of gold, in under 7 minutes, with a co-op partner, blindfolded, only speaking in clicks, with the TV turned off (Note: The last three methods, believe it or not, are not actual ways to obtain achievements in Spelunky).
Each achievement required me to shift my play-style, and view the game in a completely different way. And they were incredibly effective in getting me to continue playing the game, as well as appreciating more of the details that went into this game. I’ve gotten all achievements in this game, and when I look at the timestamps I have at least one achievement from 2013, 14, 15, and 17. The only reason I didn’t get one in 2016 was because I speck of gold dicked me at Olmec. I have been consistently coming back to this game every year for over 5 years, and no other game has incentivised such a high rate of recidivism in me.
Now, my affinity for this game also comes from my personal experiences with it. In high school, one of the only hobbies I could bond with people over were games. And when I found someone as passionate as me, my connection with that person became subjectively attached to the game as well. I remember at one point, after having the game for about 6 months, telling my friend about this game, and playing with him at my house for the first time. At this point, the only person I knew who had played the game was the Jwittz, but I didn’t actually know him. So, in hindsight I didn’t know anyone who played the game. When my friend told me he loved it, and then proceeded to play the game as much as I did when I first got it, It sparked a Spelunky renaissance for me. Other friends got into it too, and we all bonded over our experiences with the game. This was a few years ago, and we still discuss the game regularly, particularly after the announcement of the sequel. In fact, a few months ago we sat down and played the Spelunky deathmatch mode for 3 hours, until I finally got 99 victories. Being passionate about something makes life worth living, but having someone to bond over these passions with makes life beautiful.
What makes Spelunky perfect is that it doesn’t set out to please all viewers. It doesn’t intend to take a niche genre and add mainstream elements to it, nor does it accentuate facets of that genre to create a gimmick game. It takes a genre, perfects it, and adds groundbreaking and unique elements to it, creating the perfect experience. Everything it does, it does perfectly. Some may say that the co-op for the game isn’t perfect. Now, if this is you, you’re a *stupid idiot.
I love you Derek
*Note: Just kidding, I’ll be writing another piece in which I discuss all the improvements that can be made in the upcoming Spelunky Sequel.
https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/VideoGame/Spelunky, https://store.playstation.com/en-us/product/UP4407-NPUB31288_00-SPELUNKYKEY00000, https://steamcommunity.com/app/239350, https://www.giantbomb.com/forums/spelunky-3140/the-secret-society-of-spelunky-s-rankers-1471235/, http://www.gamesfoda.net/2012/06/spelunky-ganha-trailer-engracadao-e-chega-dia-4-a-xbla/, https://www.usgamer.net/articles/spelunky-review