The lights are on
Remember the Nintendo Entertainment System? I don't know about you, but I haven't beaten too many games on that console. To this day, I haven't beaten the original Super Mario Brothers, even with the warp zones. I haven't gotten much further than the level with the magic carpet in Super Mario Brothers 2. I'm not sure why I bothered to download Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on my Nintendo Wii because I STILL make little progress in that game. Have you ever gotten to Mike Tyson in Punch-Out, let alone beat him?! I sure haven't. During the N.E.S. era, games were TOUGH - you got as far as you possibly could until you got Game Over, and then you started over again. Sure, later titles came with a password system, yet it still took a lot of practice and determination to get to the end of the game.
These days, even some of the more challenging games give you a great sense of progress, with plenty of checkpoints and saves a long the way. But then there's Spelunky...
In Spelunky, players explore randomly generated levels, gathering as much treasure as possible while avoiding traps and enemies. Along the way, they'll find weapons, artifacts, and other items that are hidden or available for purchase in the shops. They'll also find new characters during their journey, which then work with you to navigate the underground tunnels and attack foes in their path. Players don't have lives, but they do have hearts which serve as hit points, and extra hit points can be obtained. So what's the catch? Well, in Spelunky, once you have died (and death is prevalent, trust me) you have to start all over again, losing EVERYTHING you've collected in the process. As daunting as that sounds, there is hope. Meeting a set of requirements for each one, players can unlock short-cuts. If you use a short-cut, you'll start over at the level you started via the short-cut when you select a quick restart after death.
At the end of each section, you'll meet Tunnel Man, the character whose sole job is to create short-cuts for you. There are three short-cuts in the game, and each one requires you to reach Tunnel Man three times, with each encounter involving a different request. Sometimes he'll ask you for a certain item, like a bomb or a shotgun. Other times, he'll ask you for a certain amount of money. The requests don't appear to be randomized, so if you don't have what he asks for, you'll know what you need the next time you reach him. Note: Once you've met a requirement or unlock a short-cut, that progress is saved. These are the only permanent progressions in the game.
In the "tough as nails" indie title Super Meat Boy, momentum is the key - players are encouraged to move as quickly as possible and are often punished for hesitation. Spelunky is brutally challenging in its own ways, but the approach to the game is actually quite opposite to Team Meat's game. Like the story of the Tortoise & The Hair, slow and steady wins the race. For example, you'll probably want to look up before climbing a rope to avoid swooping bats, and you may want to look down before dropping from a ledge to avoid unseen spikes below, which cause an instant death. Since the levels are randomly generated, the emphasis is more on learning the behavior of obstacles rather than memorizing the sequence of obstacles. You'll die a lot learning the nuances of the game, but rather than feeling cheap and frustrating, each death feels like a lesson learned.
Spelunky contains a few Indiana Jones inspired traps. I'm sure you can guess what might happen if you grab this golden idol. There are other pop culture references too, like Army of Darkness.
As challenging as Spelunky is, it really is a lot of fun. Exploring the tunnels reminds me of classic adventure games like Zelda and Metroid. There are plenty of hidden treasures, items, and areas to discover. The charming art style reminds me of one of my favorite downloadable games, Plants vs. Zombies. Despite the lack of progress, I've already spent close to twenty hours playing this game. Thanks to the randomly generated levels, each session is a new experience, so it always feels fresh. One trip through a section might have you stomping on a large number of snakes, and your next attempt may have you jumping over several piranha-filled water pits. Will I ever reach the end of the game? Who knows, but even if I don't, Spelunky has me hooked, and I'll probably keep coming back to it every now and then, just like those N.E.S. games I've yet to complete.
Some gamers might not appreciate the strong lack of progress, but I won't fault it for that. Games that are intentionally crafted to be challenging (not unintentionally challenging by poor design) are rare in today's market. I give Spelunky a 9 out of 10.
Originally written for crimsonmonkey.com.