I challenge anyone to say that games are getting easier. Sure, the typical AAA boxed releases typically attempt to cast their demographical nets as far as possible with a challenge level to suit everyone, but there’s so much more to the gaming landscape than this. If you’re getting nostalgic and misty-eyed for the days when games punished you with the tenacity of a Victorian-era headmaster, then look no further than the indie scene. VVVVVVV, Super Meat Boy, and I Want To Be The Guy have all delighted and infuriated players in turn, usually in their niche as internet freeware games. However, such a list would be incomplete without mention of Spelunky, a procedurally generated platformer, just as brutal and sadistic as the rest of them. Just like Super Meat Boy before it, Spelunky has dug its way out from its freeware niche and brought its own blend of tactile torture to Xbox LIVE Arcade.
Don your rose-tinted specs with me for a second. Remember those 8-bit days when beating a game was considered, in of itself, a gargantuan feat? Those were the days when telling your friends “I beat that game” deserved as many kudos as saying of today’s games, “I beat that game on its hardest difficulty, and I got all the achievements too… while playing upside down.” Don’t get me wrong, most games today are more accessible than ever, and that’s a great thing, but sometimes I crave a real challenge. The only problem with this is when you hit the wall – when you slam against a tough part in the experience that you just can’t get past. Sure, you’ll probably eventually overcome it, but in the meantime it can mean hours of horrible, agonizing grind. Spelunky, on the other hand, is procedurally generated. It doesn’t have this grind. It has this challenge, for sure, but not the grind. Playing Spelunky is easy. Progressing in it is hard. Spelunky is a game for the ludic masochist who appreciates variety.
The first time I delve into a cavern in Spelunky, a message reads, “The walls are shifting,” before placing me at the top of a cave. Around me, dozens of hostile creatures wriggle, and traps demand patience and care at every step. At the bottom of the grotto is the path to the next cave – an endless rabbit hole, thick with enemies and fraught with danger. I don’t even mean “endless” in the figurative sense, either. The caverns of Spelunky really are infinite. By some kind of cyber-voodoo, Spelunky crafts its levels on the fly and every new cave is a completely new sadistic machination on behalf of the game code. Everything from enemy placement, the walls and floors, the location of shops, traps, and treasure are all randomly determined.
Spelunky is played over four distinct areas, each one a grab-bag of enemies for the computer to draw from when crafting its levels. The mines are owned by snakes and spiders, and subtle arrow traps can end your life in an instant. The jungle sports boomerang-wielding natives and pools of piranhas. The spacey ice caves are bottomless, with more of an emphasis on precise platforming… and aliens. The temple? I’ve only seen it once, on one particular playthrough where the stars aligned and my allotted four hearts managed to last unnaturally long. When I die, its back to the beginning of the mines to start again. Frustrating? No, it’s just the start of a new adventure. It’s possible to unlock shortcuts that can take you to the first of the four levels in each areals, but this is just a concession – one that feels almost condescending. Real spelunkers do it in one whole run. Maybe one day I’ll become a real spelunker.
The game’s diversity is astonishing, but never stupid. It knows all too well that I’d never forgive it for randomly generating me into an impossible situation. Cyber voodoo indeed, but the kind I’m only too happy to condone. Every square of dirt I destroy could give me a fantastic new weapon, hitherto completely unknown to me. More likely it’ll set off a hilarious sequence of events that lets loose a destructive boulder that in turn rolls over a shop-keeper who, up until this misunderstanding, had been only too happy to sell me a brutish man as hired muscle. Post-boulder incident he calls me a terrorist and kills me with a shotgun. The inherent variety lends itself to wacky and wonderful happenings. Spelunky, meet the water cooler.
This procedural insanity gives the impetus to carry on playing. What makes that play plausible is the control. Spelunky is a scrappy, light-to-the-touch platformer, and like all great games based around their challenge, it controls flawlessly enough so that failure is only ever my own fault. The result is satisfying play that is simply bolstered by the unlimited space to explore.
Streamlined co-op and the obligatory local death-fight-kill-brawl-match rounds out Spelunky, but it’s still all about the variety and challenge of its single-player adventure. I allow myself to become hopelessly absorbed in its caverns, spending hours probing for treasure, for secrets, and for funny stuff to happen, which it invariably does. I explore for stuff to collect, for stuff to fight, and more often than not, for that stuff to kill me, so I can restart from the beginning and do it all again, uncovering constantly. A bottomless pit of secrets and cool little stories as yet untold, Spelunky is as effortlessly playable as it is intrinsically limitless.
Review based on Xbox 360 release.