Spelunky, a masterstroke of gaming, two years later

By Colin McInerney

If every single person on the planet could be given a video game to play, that game should be “Spelunky.” Masterful in its design and execution, its flaws can be counted on one hand. How a game can be so good lies within its origins.

 “Spelunky” continues to be fresh and playable no matter how many platforms it shows up on, and PS4 is no exception. It takes what should be derivative chunks of other games and delivers them so masterfully that gamers cannot help but be enthralled.

“Spelunky” originally premiered as a PC-exclusive on Dec. 21, 2008. It had a retro, pixelated art style like a Super Nintendo game and achieved a sort of cult status due to its satisfying gameplay and exploration themes. Fast-forward to July 21, 2012: The game re-released with updated graphics and gameplay on the Xbox 360, where it could readily be discovered. It was consistently rated one of the top games on the Xbox Live Marketplace, Microsoft’s primary outlet for indie games at the time.

On the surface, “Spelunky” plays similarly to a 2D Mario game. Players can move left, right and jump. This is where the similarities to Mario end. “Spelunky” has procedurally generated stages. This is sometimes referred to as “random generation,” but this is a misnomer, as true randomness is never fun. The levels are created in real-time by the game based on an algorithm, meaning that no stage will ever be exactly the same. If the levels were truly randomly generated, they would be a jumbled mess, and there would be no coherent gameplay.

In addition to moving and jumping, the player has a limited number of ropes and bombs. Ropes can be climbed and descended, and bombs can be thrown or put down to blow up walls. These items can be used in a violent or utilitarian capacity, which is really the whole point: “Spelunky” has no useless items. Everything in the game has multiple uses, even if they are not readily apparent. There are objectively better items but these tend to be more expensive.

On the subject of cost, the game has shopkeepers scattered throughout that will sell items in exchange for gold throughout the course of the game. The items go up in cost the further the game progresses—for example, the cape floats the player down gently as opposed to falling faster and costs 12,000 gold at the first shop. The jetpack carries the player upward for a short time and costs 20,000. Alternatively to these costs, you may opt to attack and kill the shopkeeper, rendering all items free to pick up. This comes at a price: There will be a shopkeeper at the end of every level, shotgun at the ready. Although it is important to weigh these options, do not spend too long doing so. Spending more than 2 1/2 minutes in any level summons a ghost, who will slowly pursue the player, killing instantly upon contact.

“Spelunky” is, without a doubt, a difficult game. Players have limited health and resources, the levels are intended to be completed quickly and there are only 16 levels in an average playthrough. Unless the player reaches the secret levels—there are 20 in total—the game should only take reasonably skilled gamers 20­–30 minutes to complete. It is a game that is simple to understand yet nearly impossible to master. It is a game that is not afraid to let players fail. Even though the tutorial will teach new players the basics of movement and equipment, the subtle nuances in the game’s mechanics will not be made apparent until they have died numerous times.

Actually beating Spelunky is one of the most satisfying experiences in video gaming. It should be a testament to its popularity that two years after its initial release on Xbox 360, it is now available on PS4 and is a free game for PlayStation Plus members for the month of October. Its cartoony graphics and simple controls will make it seem like a cakewalk until death after death leaves gamers shouting expletives at their TV screens, swearing that they will never touch the game again. But they should. It is a game that teaches through its gameplay and no other means, and that is worth celebrating.