Derek Yu’s Spelunky first appeared as a freeware game in 2008, and it soon became a beloved piece of software for many gamers in the know (including acting as one of the two biggest influences on Edmund McMillen’s design for The Binding of Isaac). Yu then turned his attention (enlisting the help of Andy Hull under the Mossmouth heading) to a ground-up HD remake of Spelunky, and its release garnered a victory in the design category of 2012’s IGF, followed by PC Gamer naming Spelunky‘s Steam release their game of the year for 2013. That second accolade resulted in a lot of controversy, with gamers all over the internet commenting concerns about how a simple 2-D indie game could possibly beat all of 2013’s massive studio releases, with each franchise’s fans arguing their case.
If you know me well, you’ve already got a pretty good idea of what sort of remarks I made toward those negative reactions. Mostly, I wondered whether most of those commenters were merely judging the game by its cover art, as it were, and had not actually played the game. As it stands, I would not only concur that Spelunky was the best game released in 2013, but I would go yet further and say that Spelunky is one of the best games I have ever played. To explain why, I will now compare Spelunky to the original Super Mario Bros. games.
The Design, Controls, and Tone of Spelunky:
It is no surprise to me that Yu cites the Super Mario Bros. series as one of Spelunky‘s biggest “feel” influences, as the care that went into the physics and controls of Spelunky are reminiscent of Nintendo’s work at its very best. In that PC Gamer article listed above, editor-in-chief Evan Lahti had this to say:
Spelunky is our Mario. It hasn’t had the same impact (although it’s fun to imagine what gaming would be like if Spelunky had been released in ’85), but it’s far and away the most important platformer to ever grace the PC. As an FPS player, what I appreciate most is how well tuned the subtleties of movement, distance and danger are in Spelunky [. . .]
Now, I would not necessarily agree with the phrase “far and away” there, as I consider Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen’s Super Meat Boy a not-too-distant second (and an extensive list of other great indie platformers not too far further), but otherwise his comparison is totally apt; what the original Super Mario Bros. provided in terms of challenge, level design, and secrets, Spelunky satisfyingly delivers.
I may have confused some readers just now by switching from complimenting Spelunky‘s ‘game design’ to complimenting Spelunky‘s ‘level design,’ as—you may be aware—Spelunky is a roguelike and its individual level layouts are randomized. In what sense, then, is the level design strong?
Well, to simply label it random is to be a bit misleading. There are a huge number of individually designed level pieces which are shuffled and slotted together to make each run’s levels. These level chunks had to be designed in such a way that they would fit together in almost any orientation and remain both navigable and interesting. Moreover, each of the game’s five principal sections have their own design styles (not just aesthetics), so that making your way through the densely constructed and threatening jungle, for instance, feels totally different from leaping through the expansive and looser ice caves. For all of its randomization, Spelunky remains a game with a carefully established gameplay rhythm.
The Items, Secrets, and Scoring of Spelunky:
The key difference between Spelunky and the Mario series, then, is not in the game’s roguelike elements (the lives in Super Mario are as scarce as health in Spelunky). Insofar as there is any big difference between the two, it resides in Spelunky‘s straying from Mario Bros.‘s purity, where Mario’s only mechanic, except for his occasional powerup or swimming segment, is his platforming. What Spelunky gives up in terms of fidelity to platforming, however, is more than made up with the quality of the three primary additions that are made.
First, there is the item system, which grows organically from Spelunky‘s highly interactive environments; the rope and bomb resources and the arsenal of upgrades and active items add additional texture to different runs while opening up the gameplay into something constantly malleable. Furthermore, the items themselves are often balanced in some fashion (like the lightning fast, but dangerously unwieldy teleporter), and may have hidden benefits (like the kick-back of the projectile weapons allowing for a precise high-jump).
Second, there is Spelunky‘s extensive network of secrets. Everything from a haunted castle to a sacrifice mechanic to the game’s true final boss (to several more bizarre regions and elements) are interspersed into the levels with varying degrees of hiddenness. These secrets are enmeshed into the game in such subtle-yet-discernible ways that they expand the longevity of the game’s intrigue without harming the impeccable cohesion of the base game.
Third, one area where Spelunky may even be said to surpass Super Mario (if you will forgive such blasphemy) is in its scoring mechanic, which feels much more fleshed out and integrated into gameplay than Mario’s score counter ever did. In addition to feeling perfectly matched to the game’s chosen aesthetic, the treasure doubling as the score incentivizes the player to take on the considerable extra risk of robbing the game’s zealous, violent shopkeepers. Further, the high-risk-high-reward practice of ‘ghosting gems’ (using the one-hit-KO ghost enemy to turn gems into valuable diamonds) opens the door for dedicated players to optimize their runs beyond all reason.
Spelunky also boasts several non-essential but amazing features, including frustratingly wonderful local co-op, intimidating daily run leaderboards, and a frenetic local deathmatch mode. As an aside, I’m also overjoyed to know that Spelunky will be one of the games featured in the upcoming Awesome Games Done Quick (a charity streaming marathon of video game speedruns) at the beginning of 2016, as Spelunky‘s mix of super-tight controls and random levels ensures that its high-level runs are always exciting to watch. In closing, it is a testament to the excellence of this game’s design that I could spend this entire article with barely more than a nod toward the game’s visuals and sounds, which are thoroughly charming and which complete the crisp execution of this flawless title.
That a game with this caliber of gameplay and this level of cohesive execution could be the work of one or two human beings makes it all the more embarrassing that entire teams of people often produce significantly worse games. In addition to its mastery of the Mario formula, Spelunky draws on strengths from greats like La-Mulana and Castlevania, with a heaping helping of its own original style and substance. It is a game where a win is truly earned, and it is a game which I am always proud to beat. It is a game that is different every time, but in which no element ever seems out-of-place. Spelunky is a clean execution of a top-notch design, and anyone who has ever enjoyed a platformer game would be doing themselves a tremendous disservice if they never play it.