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 Spelunky:  It's all right to be mean
Spelunky: It's all right to be mean Exclusive
July 10, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

July 10, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Programming, Art, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

One of my friends lately asked me whether he should play Spelunky, and I said yes, unequivocally.

"Is it fun?" he asked me, and I said, well, not exactly.

Derek Yu and Mossmouth's Spelunky has been a fan favorite since its initial launch on PC in 2009, something of an homage to games like La Mulana. But since its robust release on Xbox Live Arcade -- featuring a co-op mode -- it's been lighting up appetites and imaginations on an entirely new scale.

As a platform-oriented, more modern take on the roguelike genre, its most visible characteristics are its randomly-generated levels and its relatively severe difficulty.

Progress is hard-won and as such is extremely gratfiying; that quality has earned it some comparisons to Demon's Souls, Dark Souls and its ilk among fans, but that'd be an imperfect parallel: while those challenging games reward players for memorizing their brutal worlds and using their learnings to inch a step or two further each time, Spelunky victories always feel like the perfect cocktail of applied skill and pure, random luck.

Spelunky lends itself to being highly session-based, too -- most players won't spend more than five or ten minutes at a turn (plenty even less!) before needing to start again. Yet gradual progress can be won by preserving and delivering precious, even necessary resources to the mysterious Tunnel Man at the end of each set of four stages; this will usually take several trips, but the payoff is being able to play from the beginning of a new level, rather than back at the beginning.

Of course, the objective is to gather treasure: Loot gathered can be spent in shops to gain much-needed supplies, like bombs to penetrate walls or ropes to negotiate significant climbs. Shopkeepers also sell specialty weapons and power-ups that can provide a rare sense of empowerment and advantage when all seems lost.

The player's health is both paramount and scarce; every injury, whether that's falling from a height or making contact with an insidious spider, costs hearts, and players only get four. But grabbing "damsels" -- distressed travelers hidden in Spelunky's hazardous zones -- and successfully carrying them to a level's exit will restore one.

The result is a surprisingly complex, well-balanced and hooky experience: Players leverage skill against luck, and gamble progress against greed and the desire for power. Time is of the essence, too: Spend too long in a stage and an enormous ghost arrives that can be nearly impossible to evade.

Many uniquely wicked and challenging games have caused designers and players to question the widely-accepted supremacy of "fun" as games' holy grail. Spelunky may be another example of why imminently-attainable and generous rewards aren't always the ideal recipe for design success. More than that, its incredible balance and character makes it one of those games that shows steep challenge and good old-fashioned fun aren't mutually exclusive. Even players that don't like steeply-difficult games find something to love about Spelunky -- here's why it works so well.

You can trust the game. Spelunky's randomly-generated levels aren't blindly abusive; its visual language communicates clearly with the player so he or she always knows enough about what to expect. Just enough of the geography in each level is predictable that the player can make educated guesses about where to seek big rewards, or where to find the exit. The hazardous jungle occasionally plays host to a bottomless lake; the mines occasionally hide dangerous snake pits.

But the game always warns you when these special conditions occur, so they become exciting new challenges with known parameters, not sudden unfair twists. More importantly, the game is balanced so that no matter what, a player getting stuck in a stage with no chance of progress is extremely rare. Ropes and bombs are generally essential to navigation, but players that have run out of both will often find it's possible to complete an area anyway. This gives the items just the right amount of weight: They feel valuable, but the game doesn't feel absolutely pitiless.

Risk and reward are in perfect harmony. There are big payoffs to be had for taking crazy risks, while cautious players will make slow, moderate gains. This leaves room for all players to customize their experience in accordance with their skill level and affinity for thrillseeking -- a sense of control and ownership is key to player gratification, so long as it remains in good balance with friction from the environment.

In Spelunky, players will frequently find shopkeepers selling pricey advantages; their selection and its cost will be randomly-generated. While essential ropes and bombs are often on sale at attainable cost, there are bigger prizes to be had. A pair of climbing gloves will preserve one's rope stash, for example, while a pair of spike shoes allows players to stomp big baddies that might otherwise be too formidable to take on without bombs. Patient players might have amassed enough loot to purchase a perk or two --but for daring players who'd like to play the thief, stealing is possible.

Stealing enrages the shopkeeper, who'll go on a lethal rampage in response to any ill doings in his area, including an "accidental" bombing. But it is possible to kill or evade him, and players who succeed can collect the lot of his wares -- sometimes a delightful and well-earned embarrassment of riches that feel like getting away with murder. Of course, shopkeepers that appear in later levels will still be angry and dangerous, but it's pretty much worth it.

Players can also sacrifice the "damsels" they rescue to a mysterious dark god called Kali, should they chance across one of her altars. They lose out on a heart, but the reward might be better. Rare hidden idols occasionally bring big cash payoffs for players that can hang onto them -- and survive the traps they trigger.

Occasionally Spelunky even gives you a level plunged in darkness with a torch to carry -- intimidating but also exciting, since these levels contain glowing scarabs worth tons of money for those who can survive. This complex ecosystem of exciting and fair trade-offs makes Spelunky a continually-personal and intellectual exercise, just as it is a test of twitch and timing. This is very important to getting players to tolerate continual challenge in a world where much is randomly-generated.

You can expect the unexpected. Spelunky is packed with surprises, and even players who've dug deeply into the game and who play it often are guaranteed to eventually stumble across something they've never seen before, whether that's a buried secret, a rare item or an unlockable character, hidden in an ominous tomb. This keeps the sense of adventure alive. The game's accompanied by a sort ofdigital lorebook that expands with each new encounter, and triggering new entries is often fun in a way that defies explanation.

The best thing about an environment where players are always ready to be surprised is that they become more experimental and curious -- and in a game where risk can bring vast peril, it feels brave and fun to test and try new things.

It has a sense of whimsy and humor. Praising Spelunky's playful visual style only scratches the surface of its appeal. Its broad selection of playable characters all feel the same to play, but they're each distinct enough to be meaningful, and their unique and even friendly looks encourage players not to take the game's hostile world too seriously. In another excellent twist, players can choose what kind of "damsels" they rescue: those tired of saving the helpless lady can save a helpless, pretty man. Or a pug dog that whines balefully from within whatever prison the game has chosen for it. Or a mix of all three, an amusing subversion of a common trope.

The game's tone is simple enough to recall the pleasures of childhood or of old-school games, but since Spelunky itself has so much balance and depth, it feels like a nice contrast.

The co-op is really social. Because so much of playing Spelunky is personal, determined by an individualistic approach to challenges and judging risk-reward situations, its co-op mode necessitates a couple of players who want to talk and strategize together. The lead player can't run off on his or her own treasure hunt without dooming the other; how to tackle every bit and spot, how to distribute, use and share resources needs well-rehearsed harmony -- or at least a good planning chat.

Players are able to carry one another, and those who die can follow the survivor as a ghost that can blow key items into their pal's reach; those who live will get a chance to save their partner from the tomb.

The good news is that if you and your co-op buddy are poor at collaborating or have a sense of mischief, it's still fun and funny. Co-op for such a deep and individualistic game seems like the kind of thing it'd be hard to pull off well, but Spelunky manages.

Back to my friend who asked me about Spelunky and I told him it wasn't exactly fun. "You have to be patient," I said. "There's a lot of dying and learning your way in."

But then I realized I was totally smiling. "It's fun, though, too," I told him. "Super fun."

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Nick McKergow
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I love this game. It's terrible that you somehow second guessed if it was fun or not. Was that because of your own feelings on difficulty, or were you just considering how others react to it?

Ara Shirinian
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I wonder what it means to have the "perfect cocktail of applied skill and pure, random luck." Is it perfect if the player feels unable to improve their situation because the random difficulty more strongly determines outcomes than their own skill/learning? Or, is it perfect because a lucky session allows you to progress further than your skill would otherwise determine? Is that even good, even though it can feel real good?

Justin Speer
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Leigh kind of sums it up with "Players leverage skill against luck, and gamble progress against greed and the desire for power."

I don't think these are fair or useful questions to ask Spelunky... I'm assuming these are rhetorical questions. You may want actually to check out the game, anyway.

Ara Shirinian
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I think they are both fair and useful, and I ask them as a reflection after investing many hours into Spelunky. One issue with the game is that not nearly every outcome is the result of a measured or even known gamble on the part of the player.

raigan burns
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@Nick: *Is* that terrible?

First of all, is the article actually second-guessing, or just questioning? Pointing out that "fun" isn't really the best adjective to apply to Spelunky is an awesome insight!

Spelunky is extremely frustrating -- that's the good and the bad part.

The good: the difficulty and frustration actually makes it all the more rewarding to succeed (see e.g Super Meat Boy or roguelikes); you have a palpable sense of accomplishment since you can feel yourself learning and getting better.

The bad: some people can't really get past the difficulty, it's a barrier. It's a hard game, it's tuned to niche tastes and thus isn't for everyone.

So it's not really "fun" in the same way that e.g Bejeweled is: you need to be focused and committed to playing, which is not everyone's idea of fun. It's definitely not relaxing. Then again, some people don't find Bejeweled to be fun.

I love Demons/Dark Souls, but "fun" isn't the first thing that pops into mind. Unless you mean "enjoyable" -- but that's not really the same thing.

I don't think questioning whether Spelunky is "fun" is terrible -- it's awesome, it's an interesting conversation/concept to explore.

Also, "fun" as a concept is really vague and not super useful... AFAICT it typically means "something I enjoy", which is hardly a helpful descriptor without further details.

Nick McKergow
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Okay yeah, my mistake was thinking of the term "fun" as meaning whether the game is good or not. I also love Demons/Dark Souls, and if someone asked me if it was fun I would certainly say they are. My original comment was more out of concern that the writer may consider that being easy to win is what makes a game fun, and I found that to be an overly simple way of looking at it.

Eliot Lash
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Great review! I think you've really hit on the core of what makes playing this game so enjoyable. I haven't yet had the chance to play the co-op or deathmatch modes with anyone but I'm looking forward to it.

Luke Skywalker
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I love this game.

I hate this game.

I love this game.

I hate this game.

Jerry Curlan
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Brilliant game. Love to be challenged - which is so rare in gaming today.

Ariel Gross
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Spot on. Great review and analysis.

Axel Cholewa
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I'm puzzled by Spelunky. I played it for about 2 hours, maybe 3, and I still don't really know what the game is about. By that I mean the following:

I started playing in a conventional platformer style, running around and eploring the are, trying to find all "secrets" and so on. I died soon and had to tackle a new random level, and at first I was pretty excited about this. After this happened a few times I became more cautious, but caution only slowed me down so that I had to face the ghost. Since I first met the ghost I don't know how to play this game. You have to be daring in order to be quick and avoid the ghost, and on the other hand you have to be careful because you don't know the level's layout. Even if you did the levels themselves are quite demanding.

The good thing of this combination, as pointed out by Leigh, is that it makes me experiment with different play styles. But the bad thing is that all possible play styles eventually lead to frustration. There is no chance of judging beforehand how to best play a level, and there's nothing one can really learn from one's failures, since whatever you learn probably doesn't apply in the next random level. What is more, the random generation of levels render exploration mostly useless unless the player reaches exit, which doesn't happen that often by design.

So up to now I personally find the combination of randomness, time limit and sheer difficulty very unbalanced. But of course I'll give it another shot. Wish me luck.

Josh Foreman
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That's an interesting take, and quite the opposite from my experience and what I've read from others. I see the randomness as a boon to exploration, and the learning that it produces is procedural learning rather than rote memorization as it is in many platformers. I'm a pretty average skilled player, and while I've died probably more than a thousand times in Spelunky now, 99% of the time I'm either laughing out loud at my mistake, or so busy analyzing what I did wrong and how I can avoid that kind of situation next time around. It's not about where particular items/enemies are placed. It's about recognizing patterns of danger and reward and coming up with a slap-dash plan for approaching each situation. The time limit ensures that that you are not focusing on the minutia of the situation. That's the kind of thing you do when you know you are going to come across that particular configuration over and over. Which doesn't happen in Spelunky with a few exceptions.

Anyway, I submit that this is one of the greatest platformers of all time. Seriously. It's certainly my favorite.

Axel Cholewa
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What I find most frustrating in Spelunky is this: suppose I have all four hearts left. Suppose I find myself in one of those "there's a lake at the bottom" levels. I immediately feel the need to explore said lake, but I know that that's gonna be difficult. Here are the two things that, up to now, always kept me from exploring the lake (on purpose):

a) If I somehow die in the lake, I have no chance to explore this place again, because it is randomly generated.

b) Suppose I do manage to kill all fish and get out of the pond alive with some treasure. If I lost no or only one heart in there, it was worth it. But if I lost two hearts or more the chances of me finishing the 4-level-stage are diminished so rapidly that I simply never even try to explore the pond.

This is true for exploration in general. I am tempted, but I don't want to explore because the probability that I have to start again from the beginning of the stage gets way to high.

I played it again after writing that comment, and I still haven't managed to progress to the third stage, the one after the jungle. The game has great visuals, good controls and certainly an interesting approach to platforming. But I find myself playing it only to find out what's so great about it.