Friday, 18 June 2010

Spelunky: A Review, Sort of

In a past life I worked as a journalist for a number of websites, including Video Games Life and GameShadow. This one time recently I got the urge to write up a review of a rather excellent, free game called Spelunky. This is it.

To call Derek Yu’s Spelunky an addictive game is to undersell it massively. It is addictive – in the friendly, ten-minutes-during-a-coffee-break kind of a way - but it’s so much smarter than that.

Spelunky is Rogue meets platformer, but that’s still failing to pin down its charm. Drawing unapologetic influence from NES era side scrollers by way of Indiana Jones, basic play is, well, basic. Run, jump, bop enemies and collect treasure.

Where the game innovates and ultimately soars free of genre trappings is in the level design. The game is made up of sixteen stages across four distinct worlds, each taking a couple of minutes to complete, and every one is generated procedurally. That’s a good thing, because you’re going to be replaying them a lot.

The way Spelunky takes advantage of this fact is genius. In addition to the platforming fundamentals, your spelunker comes equipped with limited bombs and ropes, which can be used to traverse the trickier landscapes and to blow new routes into the entirely deformable terrain. In the same way that a game like Hitman gives you a toolset and an objective then leaves the solution up to you, Spelunky enables almost limitless invention within its rule set. It also provides more than enough hilarious and sometimes poignant ways to cop it.

The final piece of the puzzle is the quality of that rule set and, indeed, Spelunky’s world design. Every enemy, every item is tweaked to open up challenges, prolong interest and – most importantly – generate stories. The damsel is, perhaps, Yu’s crowning achievement. A retro princess in need of rescue, her kisses grant lives if you can get her to the exit in one piece. The catch? If you’re carrying her you can’t carry anything else. You’re cornered into a constant weighing up of value, a juggling act as you decide to set her down to collect that golden idol, only for her to run off, forcing you to drop the idol and hurl yourself over the cliff after her. The mechanics are deeper still – she can be tossed like a weapon, but has limited hit points; if she dies she can still be sacrificed at an altar in exchange for items, but you get better items if she’s still alive; there’s even a brothel where you can purchase kisses, but woe betide the man who crosses the shop keeper and dashes off with her under one arm. The entirety of the game is crafted around putting the player in these situations, and it’s only because Spelunky’s logic is so natural that it works at all.

Handcrafted elements mix things up – perhaps the lights are out and you need flares to get around; maybe the dead have risen from their graves. Since there’s no in-game information you’ll still be enjoying that sense of awe and discovery hundreds of plays in. Have you heard about the black market and the ankh of resurrection? You will. In time.

I want to tell you about the design flaws, but there aren’t any. A couple of bugs niggle, but even these are consistent and become another part of the challenge.

Spelunky, ultimately, is about being chased into the shop by a freaked out caveman with a bomb stuck to his face before realising that if the explosion doesn’t kill you the shopkeeper will. Spelunky is diving off a cliff face to save a falling damsel, before impaling yourself on a spiky pit of death just in time to see her trot merrily through the exit.

Spelunky, impossibly, is a game whose extreme and long-term challenge is from a bygone era, yet a game that somehow renders death just as valid an ending as success. It’s the decisions you make and the stories they generate that really count, and Spelunky’s stories are as honest as they come.

A procedurally-generated platformer with limitless possibilities, Spelunky is challenging, inventive and oddly affecting.


  1. A bit like the HAWP post, this is a big shout out for the five gamers out there who don't already love Spelunky.

    Is this the sort of thing you'd like to see mroe of on the blog? This wasn't intended as a narrative centric review, but I wonder if there's a space on the web for such a thing. It's very hard to find a site that consistantly pays proper attention to story in their reviews.

    Or would you prefer more of the arty / pretentious theory stuff?

    Or all of the above?!

  2. My God. I'd kind of skipped the whole Spelunky thing but now you've pushed it onto my standby list. Between you and LewieP on Savygamer, my wardrobe of never worn video games is getting quite full.

    Tom, I've found pretty much everything of interest here so you got stapled in as a permanent link on my blog some time ago, as well as being embedded in my RSS feeds. I'd say write what you want.

    I'd not heard of HAWP previously and was ludicrously grateful for bringing it to my attention.

  3. I've not played Spelunky nearly enough and I've had it a while too. I love the music and the little procedurally generated flavour text before the game begins. Platformers are always a bit unwieldy on a keyboard and it annoys me that I've got a box full of console controllers but no means of connecting them up to my PC. The new version being developed for XBLA looks superb though.

    So far Tom it's all been good here. Like harbour master, if nothing else you've introduced me to HAWP (which is bloody brilliant btw), but I've particularly liked the theory stuff and the rundown has been fun because it's made me realise just how many games I've forgotten about.

    The folks over at Frictional do the occasional post on their In The Games of Madness blog where they recommend a horror gem to watch or play and I like that, especially coming from a bunch of people who respect horror. I'd quite like to see some of your recommendations, as a writer. Don't recommend too many though, time is a harsh mistress ;)

  4. Thanks guys :-)

    I'm pretty sure you can use third party software to hopk up PS3 and 360 pads to your PC... But I agree the Xbox version of Spelunky is looking lovely (though losing some of its retro charm and, well, costing MONEY) ;-)