Note: This article is also available at D-PAD Magazine here
Spelunky is a game which epitomises the joy of videogames – the frustrating tests of skill and patience that anyone who grew up playing games, or remembers the early days of the medium, will be familiar with.
It is not a game you play to see through to the end, even if you manage to complete it; it is not a plot-driven cinematic experience but instead a pure, simple game. The progression mechanic is improvement at Spelunky, not gathering experience to unlock content. For a game to be so unashamedly game-like is a great thing, and Spelunky does this while still being instantly accessible and avoiding the sometimes pretentious complexity of some cult games. The player’s potential actions are largely limited to the barest essentials of platform gaming; they can initially move, attack, lift objects and use one of two types of consumable item, the bomb and the rope, whose functions are immediately evident. It is then down to the player to master these simple actions, develop them with items discovered through play, and apply them to ever-changing challenges. The tutorial explains the basic mechanics, but any other discoveries are left to a constantly-updated journal which explains the mechanics of any given element, but not the strategy to use or avoid it.
The basis of the game is derived from classic platform titles like Commander Keen, Crystal Caves and Jet Set Willy; the player has to negotiate a maze, collect score-enhancing items and useful tools, and proceed. Death returns them to the beginning of the entire game. What context and theme there is is the simplest, easiest-to-understand it can be; they are playing a barely-disguised parody of Indiana Jones by way of Mario, exploring underground temples. Everything is either a trap or a boon, and it is in almost all cases simple to work out which is which. Pretty much everything about Spelunky can be learned within a few minutes of playing it – and the tutorial provided explains what cannot.
Furthermore, Spelunky is a nigh-endless game; its levels use common items and puzzles, but arrange them differently each time it is played. This controlled randomness, ensuring that any two iterations are similar mechanically (and solveable with the same knowledge) but at the same time different in terms of level design, is perfect – it bridges the gap between memorisation-based arcade gaming (and the sort of pattern-recognition that games like Demon’s Souls require to succeed) and the constantly changing game-state of a multiplayer game. Indeed, the comparisons with the Souls games are particularly apt; in each, death is common and improvement requires in all cases better knowledge of playing the game rather than understanding simple scripting. Some may find Spelunky‘s constant death-and-restart structure to grow tiresome, but it is this which is its fundamental strength; there are no easy ways out. Indeed, the only “shortcut” the player is granted is a tunnel which allows them to skip to later stages; this is a double-edged sword. In one way, time is saved since the player skips the easier initial levels. In another, the player now enters far harder challenges with less equipment. Even making life easier for the player in Spelunky is difficult.
If the solo experience of playing Spelunky is a charming and compelling survival challenge, in multiplayer it takes on a life of its own. There are two game modes, a frenetic deathmatch in which the spot-on physics and platforming mechanics are put to competitive use, and a co-operative adventure. The co-operative mode is the main attraction, and it does the one thing any good co-op should; add competition. Players compete for score towards a shared pool, but at the end of each screen they are compared, ala Rayman Origins – the desire to outdo the opposition will then lead players to take more risks and thus put the entire game in jeopardy. The one downside is that it is local multiplayer only (despite being a game which would work very well online) but this is a sufficiently rare feature that its inclusion can only be a good thing. Fans of the original PC version may question paying £10 or so for a remake; however, the inclusion of multiplayer, and the general polishing of the engine, mechanics and graphics makes it a sound decision; if Minecraft for the Xbox was lacking in features compared to its bigger brother, Spelunky is certainly not.
To conclude, Spelunky is a strong candidate for the game of 2012. It is arguably a perfect example of the potential of video games as entertainment – an easily understood, rapidly-learned set of rules which govern a game which can only be improved at by practice and mastery of those rules. The utter rejection of compromise, while still incorporating modern developments like effective tutorials and help files, makes it an ideal modernisation of the hardcore platform game. Even for players who do not have the nostalgia of classic PC and earlier-format games that Spelunky plays on, it is a game which needs to be played and which restores faith in the 2D platform genre. As a game, it is perfect; it does nothing wrong in itself and the only criticism that can be levelled at it is the lack of online capabilities – although the games which it hearkens back to so closely had no such thing.