As we make our way to the letter S in the Indie Scene’s alphabetical journey, we come to a game I first downloaded and installed in March 2009 — two months before this series debuted. Along with games such as Gravity Bone, Dino Run, and Façade, Spelunky piqued my interest in indie games. Unlike those games, though, it has also has been a mainstay in my regular playlist ever since.
The amount of depth this game buries under its age-old premise helps make it one of the best games of the past few years, indie or otherwise. Let’s delve in and find out why.
Spelunky (PC, free)
Spelunky’s setup is tailor-made for games. The classic tale puts you in control of a whip-wielding adventurer who explores an elaborate underground world while saving distressed damsels, tackling enemies and puzzles alike, and hoarding treasure. In fact, in my younger days when I decided, what the heck, I’ll design a game, this is pretty much the blueprint I had in mind.
Nothing came of my younger daydreams, of course, but indie developer Derek Yu nailed it with Spelunky. Part of the draw is the game’s mash-up of styles. It features traditional adventure-platforming action, but it lays this on a modified roguelike base.
To expand on that a bit, a rouguelike is a game that randomly generates levels, and when you die, you lose everything: score, items, kills…hope. Aside from some money you can bank, it’s back to square one each time.
While this may seem like a recipe for a humbling experience — and it is — the sense of exploration it offers as you drop into a new cavern, and the little bit you learn about enemy tendencies and the usefulness of your weapons and items, will keep you coming back.
At this point, I feel like I could go on forever talking about all the little things that make this game work so well. It does have a learning curve to get through as you adjust to the character’s speed and jump, as well as how to effectively use his limited inventory of bombs and rope.
But those aren't all the lessons contained within. Over time you learn just how far you can safely drop to a lower ledge versus needing to use a rope or alternate path. Eventually you catch on that escorting a lost lass to a stage exit nets you a kiss, which doubles as the game’s HP. You learn that you can steal supplies from the grizzled shopkeeper, and that he’s packing heat, yet play your cards right and that gun can be yours. Just during normal sessions, you’ll figure out that enemies can interact and hurt each other, which should be part of your strategy. And so it goes.
OK, so these interactions always have their “own little world” feeling, but back to the setup for a bit. The random levels come in groups of four. Crossing into the fifth stage brings you to a new environment, but not before you meet a lonely soul who’s looking for some funding so he can dig a hole. While death means all your progress and items reset, any money you bank with this determined digger builds toward a goal that, when reached, results in a shortcut that allows you to start at that stage. Progress!
The four different stage types contributie to the game’s character immesely. From the opening caverns to the wet jungles to the icy caves to the Egyptian-style tombs, each stage type has its own visual aesthetic and personality. After scores of attempts in one level type, reaching a new environment makes for apprehensive relief, as a new slew of enemies and traps temper the excitement of the fresh backdrop.
The snakes and arrow traps that initially seem devious, for example, eventually feel like cake. You will soon breeze through those early levels. But the first time you reach the jungle, the cavemen, exploding frogs, and piranhas will be both exotic and deadly. It’s only through disciplined trial and error that you will again reach a level of comfort.
Spelunky does grow tedious — like any roguelike, it can be a grind. In fact I hit numerous stretches during which I wouldn’t even load the game for months on end as my schedule filled up or as other titles monopolized my free time. But the itch always returned, and I’d spend another frantic few hours accumulating treasure in the hopes of reaching the next milestone.
Only last week, on attempt 364 and with 363 deaths in tow, did I finally topple the final boss and escape a richer virtual man.
Out of curiosity as to what other secrets the game held, I searched for more details and found a wealth of possibilities. For example, I never knew you could sacrifice the kiss-giving damsels on an alter or that you could grab an early-game idol for a huge payoff in the later levels. I still don’t know what purpose the additional doors in the high score room serve. What I don’t know, sadly, could fill an FAQ.
I gobble up this information as I once did tips and tricks in early ’90s Nintendo Powers. My adventure taught me so much about what Spelunky's world is and how its inhabitants behave, yet a quick online search indicates far more depth than I ever realized. My search even came across a fascinating breakdown of just how effectively the gameplay works courtesy of the Critical-Gaming Network.
Platformers are what drew me into gaming to begin with. The New Super Mario Bros. games have recently brought me back to that style of pitch-perfect platforming, and I love it. Spelunky, meanwhile, gives us a polished set of platforming mechanics and ecosystem, and then it shakes the snow globe of its world and leaves the player to deal with the snowflakes after they've settled.
Pulling in that final treasure haul has left me satisfied for now. And while I’m at the break stage with Spelunky once again, I see my search for those advanced secrets resuming with the game’s impending Xbox Live release. The way I see it, the only way to win this game is to replay.
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