Review: Spelunky

“Why?” is the obvious question. “Seven months after release, with so many articles and streams of it, world records set and fans made, why write a review of Spelunky HD now?” There’s been no shortage of people offering their opinion of this title, from internet personalities like Idle Thumbs’ Chris Remo espousing its virtues on a near-daily basis, to the countless awards it won from gaming press. What is the point of throwing in my two cents at this point, when so much has been said and shown?

Maybe there is none- maybe I won’t say anything that hasn’t been said anywhere else. But after twenty hours with this game, dozens of Daily Challenges completed in this game, tweeting high scores at my friends to rile them up only to get beat down when they topple me from my throne of dross, I have to say something. I have to do my part to spread the gospel of Spelunky. And maybe, just maybe, someone will read this and realize the mistake they’ve made in passing it up.

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Many people who haven’t played Spelunky (and even some who have) think they know what it is, and are wrong. Yes, it’s a platformer, with procedural level generation to keep the challenges fresh. Technically accurate, but that’s not really what the game is. Play this game like a platformer, moving on reflex and hurrying through levels, and not only will you fail, you will never see what makes the game incredible. Slowing down reveals the details that blurred like passing scenery before, bringing the game’s true nature into the light.

All the systems you saw before, and didn’t fully grasp, interact in completely logical ways. Anything that hurts you will hurt an enemy (unless it makes sense for them to be an immune to it), any moving object will set off a trap, any impact will detonate a powder box. It’s not a game of reactions, it’s a game of learning- you learn how an obstacle works, and you learn to bypass it. And sometimes, you learn the hard way. Can shotgun pellets set off an arrow trap? Yes. Can a rock propelled by an explosion hit you in the head and kill you? Yes. Do the shopkeepers have any patience for you messing with their store? No.

This is the game- learning, and implementing these lessons. Nearly every death in Spelunky teaches you something. It may be something you already knew, but if you’d taken the lesson to heart before you’d still be alive, so clearly a refresher was in order. Lessons are repeated over and over until they take hold, and slowly you notice improvement. You develop good habits, you take smart precautions, and you get patient. Bit by bit, you see yourself getting better, through sheer knowledge and preparation. The only bummer is when you feel like you’re getting the short shrift because of bad luck in level generation.

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That’s what makes the Daily Challenge mode turn Spelunky from a good game into a great game. In the Daily challenge, instead of randomized level generation, it uses the date as the “seed” for the level generating algorithm, ensuring that everyone gets the same level on any given day. The game’s generosity still varies wildly- on some days there are crates everywhere full of free goodies, and on some days the levels are just out to murder you. But when everyone is in the same boat, this variance becomes a rallying point- friends commiserate over the rough seeds, and celebrate the generous ones. Compete for high scores, against the world or just close friends, and watch yourself grow. The Daily only gives you one chance per day for a score, and at first you find yourself wishing you had another shot at it, but this limit quickly becomes liberating- you stop fretting about what might have been, and accept that your run for the day went as it was going to go, and that you’ll do better tomorrow, or the day after.

Early, I said that “nearly” every death in Spelunky was your fault. This is one of the game’s few major flaws- the level generator has some odd quirks sometimes that can screw you over in deeply unfair ways. Having a venom-spitting snake spit on a powder crate which explodes and damages a shop sounds like fascinating cause-and-effect, but when it causes a shopkeeper to immediately declare you a terrorist and assault you with a shotgun before you’ve even done anything, it’s pretty rage inducing. Some enemies will rob shops, leaving you to take the heat because the game cannot tell when the player has caused an event or not, so assumes that everything is the player’s fault.

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These cheap deaths only happen maybe 5% of the time, but when it happens, they make you livid. They make you never want to play the game again. After all, Spelunky is entirely about learning and preparing- how are you supposed to be react to something that cannot be handled with either tactic, or indeed any tactic? It’s frustrating, it’s offputting, and there’s no sign that it will ever be fixed. The makers of Spelunky have gone on record saying that it’s too much work to fix such deep rooted issues, and they’re not going to bother. It’s understandable, but it’s a blemish on an otherwise fantastic game.

The art is vibrant and charming, the music is incredible and catchy, and there are tons of secrets to explore. I haven’t even beaten the game the traditional way, let alone the secret bonus path- I barely even play the normal mode anymore, just the Daily Challenge. There’s so much to learn, even after twenty hours… and that’s what makes it so special. It’s a flawed game, and there is no fix coming… but warts and all, it’s one of the most captivating games I’ve played in ages. When I first got my hands on Spelunky, I wrote it off as an overly random, punishing platformer. Don’t make the same mistake. Take the dive, and realize why Chris Remo calls it “The Great Game.”