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Spelunky Review

Spelunky is a fickle beast of a game. It lures you into its sprawling depth with the promises of victory and glory. It tempts you to keep trying, no matter how many mistakes you make. Until you have no more time to spare, or else get so frustrated with bleak and sudden outcome after outcome. And by that, I mean all manner of deaths that can occur in Spelunky. There really seems no limit to it – to the number of ways your Spelunker can possibly die. It could be as swift as miss stepping onto a pile of spikes, or your health could be nicked away bit by bit, until a mere bat takes your adventure hardened Spelunker out.

That’s the problem with Spelunky; or rather that is part of the problem. There is an extreme skill and learning curve in play. Then exacerbating that issue, there is no form of true and solid progress. In the vast majority of games there is always some type of progress, where you move forward in the game, no matter how little. This hails back to eight bit games on consoles like the regular Nintendo, where there was no save cartridge.

To elaborate, you made it to a certain point in the game, beat some bosses, but lost. The game would spew out a passcode, or a password. This code would then be used when you restarted the console system. You would have to input the code with the often unwieldy use of the directional pad, and then you’d start approximately where you left off.

Now, this was not present in every single console game back on the eight bit consoles, but it did exist then. Neither was it so sophisticated that it would hold all the items and upgrades you earned during that instance of the game. Sometimes they did though, as that could translate into the passcode.

Obviously this method of recording progress in a game became more advanced as video games grew greater in technological prowess. The option to choose to save a game has henceforth become rudimentary. Many games would be near unplayable without the feature, as RPGs can last an average of forty hours; some of the more immersive and in depth ones lasting hundreds and hundreds – like the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. But Spelunky just is not that kind of game. There is no in between with Spelunky. You either make it to the end, where you win, or you don’t. Sure, there are two points in which you can ‘win’ at the game; but these two places are deeply entrenched in the game. And in most cases, you are not going to make it there – whether that’s from a fault of your own, or rotten luck.

Where’s the Mercy?

The game is so unforgiving it is harsh. Sometimes the hope for your playthrough to make to the light at the end of the winding tunnel – where glittering treasure awaits - is not even determined by you, but rather by how the game generates the level. Granted the cases for that are slim in number, yet still they happen. I do not mean a level generated is just too difficult to be reasonably surmounted. I refer to when the game’s random generator for content constructs such an environment and situation that it is either impossible, or near impossible, to not end in your demise.

  • Your demise can be prevented if you just had that one thing…

Sometimes this can be prevented by having just something you do not at that point in the game. For instance your Spelunker could be wedged between a mummy and a stack of tiki traps inside of a two tile hall, broadly stretching corridor. Beyond those tiki traps, as if from a cruel twist of fate, is the boss anubis. Though the clearance above those tiki traps is slim, you might just be able to make it past them by timing when your Spelunker scales them. Really, you should be able to. That’s a hazard right out of the Jungle zone, if a bit worse.

Except you can’t, or else you would be very lucky to succeed, precisely because of both the mummy and anubis. The mummy is shuffling down the corridor after your Spelunker, like a slow and inexorable countdown to your Spelunker’s death. And when that mummy gets close enough to Spelunker, when he is in range to attack, his mouth will open wide and he will spew out vomit coated flies. They don’t fly in a neat and orderly line either. They spread out wider than the shotgun’s spray. Where are you going to go, when those flies cover nearly the entire height of the two tile tall corridor?

You might say: ‘Well, you’d just go over the tiki traps obviously!’ Sure, you can try that, but remember the precise timing you need to get across those tiki traps? Yeah, you still need that. And how are you going to do that with anubis twirling like a ballerina with his godly scepter that pew pews those psychic rays. Those psychic rays will pass right through the tiki traps, and entangle your hapless Spelunker. You need a certain window of time to get past the tiki traps unscathed and alive. You just don’t have that with psychic rays passing through tiles, right through the tiki trap even.

The end result is either your Spelunker impales himself on the protruding spikes of the tiki traps trying to avoid the psychic rays, or your Spelunker crumples to the galling swirling disc from anubis’ scepter. A third, less likely outcome would be that your Spelunker succumbs to the mummy’s attacks, as you struggled too much with the obstacle before you and took too long to die a death that’s only difference was its feeble scrabbling at survival.

And what did you need to survive that? Bombs. One bomb could have been enough, and two bombs would have been ample. You could have blasted a hole in the terrain to escape, or attacked the mummy directly. You might have even been able to blast apart the tiki traps and speed your way by anubis, but that would be the riskier route. Alternatively, a shotgun would work against the mummy with a quick enough aggression, but the window to possess the weapon is slim with a playthrough intended for the City of Gold, or Hell.

You might argue that it is possible you could do something in that situation, or that you could be lucky enough to surmount all those hazards with the skin of your teeth. Yes, it is possible, in the literal sense of the word, but incredibly unlikely. The point is that the level generated in such a way, with traps and monsters starting at a specific place, that it created a near inescapable hazard with little to none variables for you to influence, but for your Spelunker to possess bombs, or an otherwise specialized item. For the average gamer, this is a cruel and harsh judgment. For a dedicated Spelunky player, this is a stinging thorn in the winding and rough path of many playthroughs.

That was not even a purely theoretical situation either. That happened – the death between a mummy, a couple tiki traps and an anubis, all in a grim corridor. It was a City of Gold playthrough as well. All the necessary steps taken until then; aside from the lack of bombs. You of course need those to acquire the Book of the Dead, and step foot into the secret zone of Hell; the near whole point of venturing into the City of Gold.

  • Your Spelunker will be forced into places where death is the greatest, most prevalent outcome…

Yet it still occurs when there is not much of anything you could do to adequately prepare your Spelunker for a disastrous situation. This is the straining flaw in Spelunky’s unique brand of difficulty, as your actions can become all but futile.

This type of circumstance particularly occurs in the black markets. This secret level is without a doubt the most broken level in the game. I claim it is broken because of how the monsters can spawn in this secret level, and the territorial boundaries the numerous shopkeepers observe and maintain that are present here. In the majority of instances, anything aggressive or harmful that occurs to the shopkeepers themselves or their Shop will have the blame placed on the Spelunker. It matters not if your Spelunker was out of screen when the incident occurred. The shopkeepers will still blame you as if it was done by your hands.

In typical gameplay, it seldom occurs that something will happen to the shopkeepers or their shop that your Spelunker absolutely had no hand in. A level would need to generate in such a way that a domino is set off by the inherent interaction between entities, that results in damage or hazard to the shop or shopkeepers. Usually this is in the form of some kind of detonation, like a fire frog in the jungle zone or a land mine in the ice caves.

However in the black market, the chances are heightened that destruction or hazard can happen to the shop or shopkeepers that is predetermined in nature. There are three whole floors of shops, with a total of ten shops and ten shopkeepers accordingly. The normal environment of the jungle is generated on either side of these shops. This entails the terrain, the traps, and the monsters.

And so, the problem originates from that collection of clashes, with the limited space in between and surrounding. Of all zones, the denizens and hazards of the Jungle might just be worst to be present in the black market, as they have more effective traits at triggering the ire of the shopkeepers. Frustratingly, this place might just be the most susceptible to failure for a City of Gold run, despite that this secret level is at a relatively early point for such a run.

  • Why is the Black Market truly that broken?

If your Spelunker does anything remotely aggressive inside one of the shops, the shopkeepers will all collectively – like a starving horde of zerg – freak out and charge your pitiful rump down, guns blazing. Fighting just one shopkeeper usually is just a fatal encounter. Fighting several is so unlikely that you’ll survive, that each second that passes is something of an achievement. Defeating just one shopkeeper out of the many makes little difference in the outcome. They do not move synchronously, and so they bounce around in a chaotic whirlwind. Taking the chance at one shopkeeper’s blind spot can just as easily expose your Spelunker to another shopkeeper’s attack range.

Enter the black markets enough and you’ll find yourself tiptoeing with extreme caution around monsters, as if they are walking powder kegs, with the slightest prodding causing them to blow. Your priority becomes to deal with any monsters outside of the shop as much as possible, and with at least a tile of berth.

Despite that persistence, there will be many a time where you do not have that choice. A fire frog might be hopping about their shop. Better not touch him, or else he’ll prime to explode. You can pick up the fire frog, when it’s shaking on the ground as its internal fuse is going, but you might throw the fire frog inadvertently at a shopkeeper while you’re trying to get it out of bounds of the shop. That will harm the shopkeeper, and give you the same result as the fire frog exploding inside the shop.

Fire frogs are the general source of the domino effect of destruction in the black markets, where your Spelunker has no direct hand in it. Tiki traps are wont to be wedged against the side of the shops, their spikes protruding towards any living or once living entity. This includes the fire frog. If a fire frog spawns too close to a tiki trap, or happens to idly hop over, the tiki trap will impale the fire frog and cause it to explode. You won’t know exactly what happened when the message plays across the screen, ‘Terrorist!’ after a distant boom, but you can make an educated guess. And when that happens, your playthrough is most assuredly over. You might be able to scramble and sprint to the exit, but chances are not.

My Spelunker has tried to survive such an outcome, when that boom happens and the shopkeepers brand you as a most detested criminal. My frail little Spelunker – who has as much survivability as a balloon with two legs – huddled at the upper left of the level, just by the door. His head was not sticking out and neither were his legs. My Spelunker tossed a few halfhearted bombs. Least shopkeepers can’t get even angrier than they start out, like some sick and twisted ‘karma’ system congruent with Kali’s favor system. There’s no pleasing the shopkeepers clearly.

Despite being in the most immediately safe place, a shopkeeper still got behind there. A few actually. Bombs did not matter, and neither did ropes. It was like watching a horror movie that you knew the outcome for, and there just wasn’t a thing to be done about it; except it was happening to your Spelunker.

The complications with fire frogs are not as frequent as those with tiki men in there. If he happens to throw his boomerang when he sees you, the shopkeepers will flip out as their motto. The tiki men are the core reason why the black market level can be broken. It is obscenely difficult to avoid disaster of the shopkeeper’s wrath if a tiki man is wandering anywhere inside their shops, or even outside the perimeter. The problem isn’t if the boomerang hits your Spelunker, it’s if the boomerang crosses by a shopkeeper. This boomerang, to the shopkeeper, is considered the Spelunker’s action for whatever reason, and thus incurs the shopkeeper’s wrath. This is despite that the tiki man threw the boomerang.

The tiki man is able to attack from a range of several tiles, and gradually paces back and forth. This makes it difficult to dispatch a tiki man even if you somehow are aware of him before he reacts to you. In the end, the mere presence of a tiki man somewhere inside the shops means a game over if he happens to be facing your Spelunker’s direction.

This scenario probably happens because monsters very rarely carry any ranged weapons, let alone ones that act as throwables. If they have a ranged attack, it’s generally something incorporated into their body and specific just to them. The outliers are the tiki man and anubis. Either the developers didn’t account for this, considered the result to be justifiable, or so unlikely to be inconsequential. Truthfully this theme of harshness is not out of place for the higher difficulty of Spelunky, but it exemplifies what is wrong with it.

Though the black markets are an enclosed and special level, since the game treats the level like any other in the jungle zone, random level events can and will influence the surrounding area. Yes, you can find any random event that happens in the jungle inside the black markets.

The bottom of the level can be engulfed in water, like it would be with the random level event, ‘I hear rushing water!’ As to whether Old Bitey was down there, or can be down there, I’m not sure. The level can be swallowed in darkness, and you’re left with a dimly lit torch at the entrance. Hope you don’t accidently pick up an item while you’re purchasing something. The shopkeepers might think you’re a thief! The ‘Dead are restless’ random level event can happen here too, but that is not as pernicious. You can actually find a shotgun buried under the A.S.H. labeled tombstone here.

When a random level event occurs in the black markets, the baseline of difficulty for the level is increased and your chances at survival are lowered, just because of the lower lying area that leads to the exit. This is disregarding all the other issues with the secret level too.

Uh, what just happened?

Statistically improbable events of misfortunate tend to occur to your Spelunker, leaving you flabbergasted or incredulous at the outcome. It might be a delusion by perception, or else a ramped up increase at the chance of it happening by the fainting spells the Spelunker is ailed by so virulently. I refer to the Spelunker’s stunned state – an approximately couple seconds worth of vulnerability where the Spelunker is incapable of defending himself or herself, nor doing anything. The Spelunker lays there, birds circling his or her head.

Falling prey to that stunned state can quickly spell demise to your Spelunker, in which events tend to chain together.

This is at the core of the unforgiving nature of Spelunky. Many sources of damage and hazard can send your Spelunker into a stunned state, so much so you might as well just treat every potential source of damage being capable of inflicting it. At best, when your Spelunker is stunned, nothing will happen. Then your Spelunker can scurry away to complete safety. At an also good outcome, your Spelunker only gets hurt by something weak while stunned, and miraculously does not get pushed off the edge to your Spelunker’s doom. At worst, which is what generally happens, your Spelunker will die. Something will just have too much time to get a stab or two in. Or your Spelunker will fall, and something, anything down there will kill your Spelunker.

The stunned effect and falling coincide with each other an excessive degree.

The fact that such a state can so frequently occur in the game, where your Spelunker is utterly paralyzed for a window, is just too much to be reasonable. This is exacerbated by your Spelunker’s main way of survival, which is remaining mobile. Your Spelunker has nothing to guard himself with. There’s no armor in the game, and while your Spelunker does have four health initially, monsters harm your Spelunker for variable amounts, partially negating the beneficial utility to the player for having a numerical health reservoir. Furthermore, there are sources of hazard that will one shot the Spelunker regardless of their present health state.

All of this culminates in the repetitive and inevitable experience of yet another stupid death. Where your skill and experience is irrelevant. It is like the event horizon of a singularity. Your Spelunker will die, often of your own fault, but then later by mere chance, your Spelunker’s foot gets caught in that event horizon and is pulled in, to die yet another stupid death. An irresistible pull.

Although you could argue, it’s still your fault anyway. But who really wants to delve into that? The game’s final death mechanic and unforgiving nature congeal to result in this inevitability of yet another stupid death.

The Challenge

Though Spelunky does have its issues with its merciless shadow - in that your Spelunker figuratively walks on the knife’s edge, less just one mistake be the end of him – it is in the game’s severity of difficulty that comes Spelunky’s flourishing challenge. If you are looking for a difficult platforming game, then Spelunky is it. A difficult platforming game is a rare breed, as usually those are rife with revivals or mild obstacles, like Super Mario Bros.

There is no game difficulty toggle, and there is no capacity whatsoever to save the game. You cannot step away from it. You either make it to the end, die, or leave it paused for a lengthy stretch. I admit, if it was significantly easier than the game is, then there would not be much room for re-playability. And so because of its difficulty, you can surprisingly toil away at the game, trying to reach that coveted City of Gold, thwarting the King of Hell, or somehow worse – fill your game’s journal to one hundred percent completion.

Spelunky is not well suited to the casual player. The casual player CAN derive enjoyment from Spelunky, but they would in no way be able to have the full experience of Spelunky, as you must venture in the City of Gold, and at least take a step foot in Hell to have that. And those are places where Spelunky’s cruelty is amongst its highest.

The game’s dynamically created content further establishes both the challenge and the depth of Spelunky. Zones will share characteristics, and predictable structures for generation, but you will always find yourself in someplace new. It becomes a machine that believably your Spelunker could never be free from; though that belief is hinged on your Spelunker being able to resurrect an innumerable quantity of times.

Items are of great use in Spelunky, and would potentially be considered overpowered and broken if not for the sheer unreliability of obtaining them and the ephemeral lifespan of your Spelunker’s. Shops can spawn in levels, but do so seldom. Furthermore, you must have enough gathered treasure to afford the item, lest you try to rob the shopkeeper. As outlined earlier, the shopkeeper’s wrath is so great that it is generally in your best interest to avoid it. The risk would be high, but so would the reward be high.

The item you need or want might neither be there as well, as what items the shop would be selling is random too.

Spelunky’s challenge coincides with the theme of risk versus reward that is present throughout the whole of the game, which adds a further depth to the experience. It all becomes an overall gamble with your Spelunker’s life, even if it doesn’t result in your Spelunker’s immediate demise. Holding off on purchasing anything, in the hopes of finding a jetpack and having enough to purchase it, would be considered an instance of this. You might not ever find a jetpack, and because you did not purchase any items to help your Spelunker, you don’t have enough of what you need to survive.

Game Modes

For being an indie game, it’s not too surprising that it is lacking in alternative game modes. The only solid one is the adventure, where the majority of the content does appear to be designed for. Even for a normal game, it is not assumed there would be a multiplayer mode either, but Spelunky all but lacks a form of a storyline campaign. It has some semblance of a story, but it’s as bare minimum as it can get.

Except Spelunky does have a multiplayer mode. You can join together with friends to play the adventure mode. It is ambiguous as to whether the hazards the Spelunkers present to each other is meant to balance the benefit of having multiple Spelunkers in one game, or is just another facet to the poorly designed multiplayer. The Spelunker’s attacks generally harm each other, and so clearly that causes problems and frustrations.

If it was a fully fledged multiplayer, this game mode would be more altered to accommodate multiple players, like a broader viewing of the game screen, additional monsters, and perhaps more cooperative puzzles and hazards to tackle. Yet there is none of that. The multiplayer adventure is essentially just a port. There’s no direct difference between single player adventure and multiplayer adventure, except the plugged in system of multiple Spelunkers, as Spelunkers share resources and generally get in each other’s way.

Score

As an indie game, Spelunky is refreshingly content rich; but that quality is dependent on the game’s high challenge. There is much to accomplish in the game, even if you just want to rank high in the leaderboards. This game will really not hold your hand. It is not suited for someone who wants to gain progress no matter what, and no matter how small. And if you’re a perfectionist, who happens to be lackluster at Spelunky, it will drive you mad. A hundred deaths of your Spelunky will pass in just a day. It’ll feel like one, long wearying blink.

For its utter lack of mercy for you, you have a great amount of control over your Spelunker, and so same your game. To elaborate, your skill has a profound influence in Spelunky. This cannot be so commonly said about indie games, and sometimes not even mainstream games.

There are some games that you do not have such phenomenal control over your character, and so your skill’s influence is diminished over the game; ergo how challenging that game becomes forced through a straw. You cannot really do too much in that straw, but then it takes much more skill to be able to eke out more influence. It’s not really how a game should feel though, but still, some just fall short in that department.

Maybe you’d develop a love and hate relationship with Spelunky as I have. Which I certainly have.

Despite it all, Spelunky is a well crafted, challenging, and enjoyable game. It does have failings in the severity of its unforgivingness, its lackluster multiplayer, and as well in the stringent dependency on randomly occurring items for certain playthroughs that aim for secret areas of the game. The game probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously if you just can’t manage to win. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try though.

Spelunky the game earns itself 8 out of 10.

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