It isn’t often that a video game beats me. I’m pretty good about finding a way to master a game, no matter how long it takes. Spelunky, however, has me licked. I admit it. It’s a fantastic roguelike, and it always keeps me coming back, but I can’t beat it. I can reach the icy caves, but I never seem to have enough bombs, rope or money to further development to create a shortcut to start at that area of the Colossal Cave. Which means when I die in the icy wasteland, I respawn right back in the jungle area again and must fight my way down again.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start again.
Spelunky is about searching for that unattainable goal. Players pick an explorer and head into a Colossal Cave, with chambers that are ever shifting. An incredible treasure is said to be hidden at the end, but no one’s ever actually found it. Fortunately, you just so happen to be a rather resourceful adventurer, and the cave is filled with things that can help or hinder your exploration. More likely, hinder, but you never know when you may find an unexpected boon.
It’s a 2D platformer roguelike, a genre that isn’t often seen. Players control an avatar that is armed with a whip, a handful of bombs and a few lengths of rope. The goal is to get as far as possible, maybe even to the center of the caves. It’s much more difficult than it sounds. Each area is filled with traps, like arrow spitting stone heads, disintegrating floors, gigantic boulders, and oodles of spikes. Monsters are everywhere, from the annoying spiders that drop from the ceilings, hide in pots and make a general nuisance of themselves, water filled with piranha and wildmen armed with boomerangs. I hate the men with boomerangs. That isn’t even mentioning the unkillable ghost that slows down time and pops up if one hesistates too long in an area.
Fortunately, the explorer has resources. Treasure can be found in the cave, and either hoarded because you can, or spent at the rare shop on equipment, weapons, bombs or rope. (Equipment is a lifesaver, especially if you’re lucky enough to get a cape, climbing gloves, a compass or a pick-axe.) Not to mention the even greater treasures, like a damsel in distress or a golden skull, which can be nabbed and brought to the area’s exit for a reward. Still, some resources are limited. You only seem to find so many bombs at a time, and damsels have a tendency to walk away when put down so an enemy can be eliminated. Spelunking isn’t easy.
What bothers me is, Spelunky doesn’t play fair. I mean that in the best way possible, if that’s even possible. Getting through the game quickly and efficiently is as much a matter of luck as it is skill. Sometimes, a level is just going to be against you. You could have the misfortune of stepping into a mine level filled with horrible spiders. A jungle level could happen to have a gigantic pit of water at the bottom, filled with piranha. I don’t even want to talk about the wretched ice caves, with a bottomless abyss below platforms of ice that encourage all kinds of slipping. You could be having the best run of your life, be right near the end of an area, and then BOOM. There’s a trap you didn’t see, an arrow plowed into your explorer, you’ve been knocked back onto some jagged spikes, and you’re dead.
Thankfully, there’s a quick restart button, to dive back in again.
Spelunky is a game that eats away at your very soul. It gnaws at you. I can’t put it down, knowing how close I was to the ice caves. Wondering how far I can get while conserving my bombs and ropes, relying on my whip, stones and luck to proceed further into the cavern. It beats me, and I can’t help wondering if, somehow, it knew it beat me. Like sometimes, after a particularly trying level, I’d find myself starting over in an area that seemed overly easy compared to what I’d faced before. I know it was randomly generated, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was being taunted. “Oh, you can’t handle Spelunky at full strength, so here princess. Let’s make this easy for you.”
Even creating the shortcuts is an ordeal. It isn’t enough to just reach the end of an area, say the mines or jungle. You have to do it three times, making sure you have enough extra items or money, to help further completion of a shortcut into the depths. If you don’t, well, then too bad. Mossmouth wasn’t going to make this easy on you. Which makes it feel even more satisfying when a shortcut does actually get built. It’s a moment of triumph.
I only wish I could have played Spelunky with other people, because I get the feeling that would have not only made the experience easier, but more satisfying. There is a means of exploring the general adventure with people, as well as a Deathmatch mode. I wasn’t able to experience either, but I think I’m going to appreciate the former over the latter. Spelunky is hard enough, with all of the map’s enemies and traps against me. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I also had to compete with other people.
Still, for a game where complete and total annihilation is commonplace, it’s somehow refreshingly adorable. I’m smitten with the pudgy avatars, favoring the cyclops and bespeckled researcher in purple. The tiny, harmless frogs that hop through the jungle are enchanting. I can’t stay mad at the monkeys that hop on my back, stealing my gold and bombs while discombobulating my avatar. It’s whimsical, even when it’s morbid.
In fact, sometimes Spelunky is even funny. The warnings before special areas make me smile, even though I know they’re probably foreshadowing an unpleasant encounter. My favorite, however, is hearing the shopkeepers call me a terrorist if I decide I’d rather bomb their shops and steal their merchandise, rather than pay for it. (When you’re broke in Spelunky, and coming up on the end of a section, you get desperate.
Really though, Spelunky arouses a number of conflicting emotions. I’m frustrated and angered by the difficulty level and the fact that my success and failure usually seems to be up to luck. I’m amused by the taglines and some of the opponents. I coo over the adorable yetis and monkeys. Most disturbing, however, is the fact that Spelunky desperation brings out the worst in me. There are blood-stained shrines to Kali in the mines.
During one dig, I was carrying a barbarian because I (mistakenly) thought I was supposed to carry him to the exit to unlock him as a secret character. I was hopping over the mine and somehow dropped him. He disappeared, I had more money, and a message onscreen appeared to alert me that Kali was pleased. Curiosity lead to further sacrifices. Damsels in distress dropped on the shrine rewarded me with equipment. A golden skull netted me a golden monkey companion for the rest of the stage. Suddenly, the reward for saving the damsels paled when compared to the opportunity to get a free compass, or maybe even climbing gloves. I found myself offering up golden skulls, the boomerang-bearing wildmen, and damsels in the hopes of rewards. (I’m a horrible person.)
One thing is for sure, Spelunky has won me over. It may frustrate me. It may make me wonder if I’m a terrible person. However, I’ve enjoyed every moment I’ve spent playing it. Granted, it may take me a few weeks to reach the ultimate goal, but it’ll be worth it. Besides, even when I do win, I know I’ll just keep coming back for more. Especially on the Vita. It just fits so perfectly on my Vita, ready to taunt me on the go, begging me to get my handheld out for one or two excursions. Yes, Spelunky is definitely a roguelike people won’t want to miss.
Food for Thought:
1. Spelunky is a cross-buy game, so you get the Vita and PS3 versions for $9.99. ($7.99, if you’re a PlayStation Plus member and buy it the week it launches.)
2. One of the achievements is for completing a speedrun of the game in 8 minutes. I can’t imagine completing some levels in eight minutes, let alone the whole game.
3. Unlocking the extra characters is a matter of luck. The coffins holding them to be scattered randomly throughout the levels. I found the sombrero wearing explorer in the mines, and the man with a blue rabbit hat in the jungle. Once one of these characters has been rescued, they will accompany your explorer as an AI companion until they die.
4. You will die in Spelunky. Repeatedly.
5. Special treasures, usually found in locked chests, will bestow powers like the ability to see gems in rock.