Whats your favorite indie game? What would you say is the best indie game ever? Undertale, Stardew Valley, Limbo, Minecraft, Braid, Superhot, Cuphead, Fez, The Stanley Parable? Those are some good answers but unfortunately, they’re all the wrong answer. The right answer is, of course, Spelunky. The HD Xbox 360 version…and the PS3 and PC version because they’re the same. Now I haven’t played every indie game out there, but then again why would I need to when I’ve already played the best one.
When you google “Whats the best indie game ever” you get a lot of different responses. Which is no surprise but for some reason I was still surprised when the second link I clicked had Spelunky down as the best indie game ever. I’m not sure why I was surprised because Spelunky is amazing, It might be because in the article a guy called Shaun is the one who’s saying it’s the best…I’m called Shaun! It’s also spelled the same way. I think it’s just that coincidence which makes me surprised. It is good to have a lot of different responses as it shows there are a number of great and well-loved games out there. Some of the more popular choices are, Undertale, a game about sadness, a different game about a man who owns a shovel and Minecraft, a game that requires a time machine to be fun. Anyway, enough with the inferior choices, it’s time to talk more about Spelunky.
Spelunky is another game about the Jump man, for the uneducated, The Jump man is Mario, you’ve probably heard of him. Nintendo’s mascot has inspired a tone of games, in fact, every 2D platform game since Super Mario has a bit of Mario in them. Thanks to Mario 64 every 3D platformer has a bit of Mario in them as well, and just like a lot of Mario games they’re all the same. You run side to side and jump, sometimes jumping on enemies to murder them in cold blood. I haven’t played a main series Mario game for a long time because I already have sports games that never change and rehash ideas to enjoy. Now not all of the games that Mario has inspired are the same, some of them end up feeling completely different, like Super Meat Boy for example. Its level design and difficulty separate it from other platformers and the same can be said for Spelunky.
In Super Meat Boy levels are specifically designed to be difficult whereas in Spelunky all levels are randomly generated and the difficulty comes from certain design choices and game mechanics. In Super Meat Boy you can play a level until you beat it, then move on to the next one. In Spelunky you get 4 hearts and when you lose all your hearts you die and when you die you restart from the beginning with a different set of randomly generated levels. So essentially you get 1 life to beat the game, which is 16 levels normally or 20 depending what ending you’re going for. Of course, the obvious difference is Meat Man is more of a straight-up platforming game whereas Spelunky has roguelike elements changing how you play the game every time you play it. I’m not sure why this has become a Super Meat Boy/Spelunky comparison, that was not the intention so I’ll stop and start with…
PART 1: Movement
It all begins when you spawn into your randomly sequenced level. What I mean by this is although levels are technically randomly generated they form a 4×4 grid of already modeled areas stuck together. Which is why you can see the same sort of big block areas in different runs or why you can get certain events like the snake pit in different runs. This also means there isn’t an infinite number of possibilities just a ridiculously high number of possibilities. So high that players encountering the same level layout throughout an entire run is nearly impossible. The way Spelunky generates its levels is actually really difficult to explain so either buy Derek Yu’s book where he explains it or just google it for yourself. Once you start a level you are not given all the time in the world to get to the next one. After around 2 and half minutes a ghost comes out and will chase you down. You can avoid him and maneuver around him but if he corners you, your dead because If he touches you its instant death, he isn’t invulnerable but it’s almost impossible to kill him. If the ghost wasn’t in the game then you’d have all the time in the world to finish a level and if players were given that much time then they’ll use it. The game would be a lot easier if you could take 10 minutes to finish a level because levels aren’t that big and don’t take long to get through. Taking out the ghost would also take out the challenge thus making the whole game pointless. Giving you 2 and half minutes means you need to find a balance between speed and progression. Rushing through a level holding the sprint button will undoubtedly kill you and going super slow will cause the invincible ghost to come out and… explode you.
Most of the items compliment movement buy basically helping you either go up or down. You start with bombs, which help you access different, usually blocked off, areas and for making quicker routes to the exit. Ropes, which help you climb up to unreachable areas for loot and stuff and even descend if you feel like a drop is too far. Then there’s item’s you can find or buy like the jetpack, so you can fly around. The cape which makes you glide so you can descend slowly or reach a ledge that’s a bit further away. The climbing glove that makes you stick to walls so you can then climb up to place you can’t reach without a rope or even descend slowly again without a rope or cape. Once you become confident enough you will move at a pace that’s comfortable usually quickly exploring the height level your on, then slowly descending to the next height level to explore etc and then repeating until you reach the exit. The destructible environment comes into play as well not just for exploration but also to create shortcuts. You can bomb down to the next height level to skip a part of the level and if you’re lucky you could potentially bomb straight down to the exit essentially skipping the entire level. Of course, each level isn’t baron with you just running straight to the exit, there are traps and enemies that are all designed to slow you down that need to be dealt with.
PART 2: Enemies and Traps
Like Mario, Spelunky has enemies but instead of weird sentient mushrooms and asshole turtles, Spelunky has mankind’s real enemy…MAN. Cavemen litter almost every level along with a number of animals, creatures, and nature. Shopkeepers can also spawn in randomly to sell you useful items but you need to be careful because if you steal, accidentally attack them or blow a single block off their property they will attack you with a shotgun. Then hunt you down at the end of every single level till you finish your run, which means beating the game or dying.
There’s a lot of enemies and most of them do different or slightly different things. Some Examples are, The cavemen will wander back and forth and if the player gets within their sight they will rush at the player. Bats hang from the ceiling and will fly at you from an annoying angle once you get close enough. Each will only do 1 heart of damage if they hit you but then there’s the mantrap who will eat you if you run into him, instantly killing you obviously. Then there’s also a lot of traps like the arrow trap which fires an arrow at you if you’re in its line of sight. The tiki trap which hits you if you get to close and the mines which will explode if you stand on them, obviously. So you should gather by now that there’s a lot of enemies and traps, far more than what I’ve mentioned. They all combine in a very interesting way and that way is they share the same rules as the player. Meaning they can kill themselves and each other. So you can lead enemies like the bat or the caveman into the mantrap who will eat them and be stunned, meaning you can then deal with the mantrap as well. You can lead or even throw enemies into traps to kill them. They can even set off traps themselves by getting in the line of sight for the arrow trap or standing on a mine. This adds more strategy and tactics to how you deal with your enemies. My personal favorite example of how the player and enemies share the same rules is something that can happen which is quite rare, that is to say, it only happened to me once. There’s an alter that can randomly spawn into any level and you can sacrifice the heart giving damsels and even dead or stunned enemies on it. You do this to get free items and even a very useful item called the Kapala which collects blood from the enemies you kill, once you collect enough blood you regain a heart making one of the only ways to get hearts in the game. Now if you get hit by an enemy and stunned if you happen to land on the alter you, The Player, will be sacrificed. It ends your run but it’s amazing, I don’t want to say dying can be a nice surprise but in this case, it really is.
Having a load of different ways to deal with your enemies like throwing items, whipping them, bombing them, shooting them, freezing them, using the traps around the level, and even using other enemies to kill them. Combined with the randomly generated levels truly does mean that no 2 runs are ever the same, giving the game an incredible replay value. It’s very unlikely that you and another player will play through in the exact same way doing the same things with the same items meaning that’s its possible for every player to have a unique experience, which is just damn cool. You can pick it up and play anytime, there’s no narrative you need to remember or catch up with, meaning you can still comfortably play it years and years later. Even if you don’t like platformers or roguelike games you can’t deny the brilliance of something like that and if you are then your just a thought criminal who deserves the worst kind of punishment.
PART 3: The Part Where You “Git Gud”
There’s more to it than moving forward and dealing with enemies and avoiding traps. There’s collecting treasure, buying/finding, and managing items, defeating bosses and unlocking characters. There’s even challenge runs like the no gold run you can do, and the much much harder challenges like the eggplant run that people with much more talent than me can do.
The best thing about the game is how it makes you a better player as you play it. Now I know what you’re thinking, “All games do that”. To that, I say “No… they don’t”. In a lot of games you just get used to their mechanics and exploits or like most Bethesda games it’s more of a comfortable ride as your in-game character gets better. Not that Spelunky doesn’t have mechanics and stuff to get used to, I just feel that the game is tight enough that the skills and tricks you pick up are designed intentionally for you to pick them up and not by exploiting bugs or the game engine. The best example I can give is with FIFA games as I have a lot of experience with them. In FIFA you get used to the difficulty you set, you learn how the AI play and are able to counter that. You see what moves work then end up using them to score goals. If you want to get better at sports games it’s better to play online against other players. The reason being human players all have different ways they play whereas the AI doesn’t, with the AI there’s a set way to best them. Games like Dark Souls and even Call Of Duty to a lesser extent make you better players. This is a hard concept to describe as it’s more of a feeling than something that is visible, and I’m a man trying to describe a feeling so.
You have to become a better player to beat the game and it’s defiantly more than just getting used it. It does require some mental attributes like composure to get better, if you lose your cool in a tough situation then you will die. Learning every items use, how enemies behave, how you as the player should behave, and efficient level traversal all come into play to make you a better player. When you first play the game you’ll find yourself dying in the dumbest of ways, but you have full control over your actions, making it your own fault that you died. Dying is still mostly frustrating but the frustration is directed at yourself and not the game, at least it is for the most part. Then you learn that levels don’t need to be rushed despite the invulnerable ghost that comes out to kill you after a certain amount of time. So you start looking down to scout out the level, you remain patient and move when it’s right to move instead of going in guns blazing. You pick up little tricks like jumping then hanging onto ledges instead of jumping on to flat terrain to make you progress a level faster. Or bringing an item like a rock with into the next level in case there’s a trap. If you haven’t played Spelunky then you might not understand the examples given, but if you haven’t played Spelunky, what are doing? Go and play it, please, it’s amazing.
This game, for me, is one of three games that is as close to perfection as a video game can be. This game is so good that I never even thought about a sequel, I didn’t need to, the game doesn’t need a sequel. At least that’s what I “used” to think.
I need it… I need it now, I shouldn’t get hyped, at least not yet, there is literally no details yet. The only thing we know is that this game exists, we don’t even have a release date so, for now, I’ll be reasonable.
What can you add to a game like Spelunky, that improves it or makes it stand out from its previous iteration? I have no idea, it’s a good thing I’m not designing this game because… I just don’t know. My only hope right now is that it’s not just more of the same, to be fair even if it was I’d still buy it and still probably enjoy it too.