Spelunky Review: A Marvel of Game Design

Spelunky is an example of game design done right. It is a game that harkens back to the punishing arcade games of the 80s, where failure—and the lessons learned from it—are necessary. Its mechanics, structure, and difficulty ultimately intertwine to create an experience just tough enough to keep you exploring its surprising depth.

Designed by Derek Yu and his indie development team Mossmouth, Spelunky released as PC freeware way back in December 2008. I played the 2012 Xbox Live Arcade version, complete with updated graphics and better controls.

In Spelunky you explore mines filled with treasure and laden with dangerous creatures, rescuing damsels and encountering secret after secret along the way. You enter at the top of a level and must maneuver your way to an exit at the bottom using bombs, ropes, and a whip to get around killer snakes, spike pits, and other obstacles. There is a ghost that comes to get you if you wander a level for too long.

It is a deceptively short game, consisting of 16 levels. After working your way down four caves, there are four jungle levels, then four icy caverns, and then four Egypt-esque temple levels—each with their own hazards to bump the difficulty as you progress. Number of levels aside, Spelunky is ruthlessly difficult. You begin with only three hearts. These can be lost one at a time by touching one of more than 50 “monsters,” or all at once by succumbing to one of many traps. Hardly comforting, a heart can only be earned by finding a damsel and carrying it to the exit. When you lose your last heart, whether you’re on level 2 or level 15, it’s game over—back to level 1.

These are the rules of Spelunky, but what makes it work so well is its structure and how said rules work within that structure. Like Braid, the indie game I looked at last week, Spelunky is a 2D platformer. But it is also a roguelike, a sub-genre of games characterized by randomized levels and permanent death. Yu used scramble-my-brains complicated mathematical algorithms to achieve procedural level generation. In layman’s terms, math made it so Spelunky players will never encounter the same level layout twice.

This makes it easier to not throw your controller out a window when you play for hours and still can’t get past the mines, but it also (accidentally) creates situations that tempt the adventurous spirit inside of you. These situations are a constant. You will always be considering whether getting item X is worth taking a more dangerous route, or whether item Y is worth using one of your four bombs to clear the way. It is a perfect design: a short game stunted by a difficulty that’s just right, full of mysterious objects and places to explore. Spelunky dangles a carrot in front of players’ faces just long enough for them to fail—and then try twenty more times to get that one damn carrot. It is evil and brilliant.

In line with all indie games, which evangelize games as a storytelling medium, Spelunky intertwines its mechanics with its sparse narrative. Every time you fire up the game, a procedurally generated narrative is laid out for you.

So the first time you might be looking for someone(?):

Putting the faded photo in my pocket,
I dismounted my camel,
And felt the gods smiling upon me.

or hunting for treasure(?):

After I double-checked my map,
I spotted the cave’s entrance,
And wondered how long I’d be below.

or hunting for the treasure your father never found(?):

As I recalled my father’s last words,
I squeezed the whip at my side,
And thought of her one last time.

The story is what you make it—simple, yet apt and effective.

And when you’re down below, rescuing a damsel or whatever, there is a daunting number of things to do. Creatures to mess with, treasure to collect, places to explore. From the first level of the mines—a novice Spelunker will be there a while—there are two or three objects of mysterious purpose that piqued my interest. There are mysterious objects everywhere: sacrificial altars of unknown purpose, Egyptian artifacts, and an eggplant, the existence of which I’m sure would be mythical if it weren’t for the internet. These secrets go on, too, but most, like that eggplant, are too buried. They require too much simultaneous skill and luck. The latter because, given the game’s randomly generated levels, you can never anticipate exactly where they will be once you know how to recognize them—if they appear at all. Uncovering Spelunky’s secrets depends just as much on the game as it does on your diligent effort in finding them.

Unlike Braid, this is not a serious game—not artsy or pretentious or driven by a narrative of any sort. But Spelunky should be taken seriously, as its design is flawless. It does not condescend or guide your way through, because that’s what makes it special. The sense of discovery—the epiphany of how to do or find or conquer something, then the rush of actually doing it—makes Spelunky an thoroughly entertaining and challenging diversion game. But that sense is also the heart of what makes Spelunky effective at subverting old videogame conventions and implementing characteristics unique to indie games. Its overall design made something that looks familiar, typical, and safe feel absolutely new.

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