The Games Of Christmas: December 16th

By RPS on December 16th, 2009 at 4:11 pm.

Poor old Optimus.
It’s the dark mouth of our seasonally festive advent-o-calendar we descend. What quirks lie beyond? And will we be able to tunnel our way through to a brighter future? Only time will tell. That, and some help from the pointy-hands of the one true leader of the Autobots.

Spelunky!

Alec:

With the desert stretching beyond me,
I squeezed the whip at my side,
And wondered how long I’d be below.

After I double-checked my map,
I squeezed the whip at my side,
And swore I heard voices up ahead.

As I recalled my father’s last words,
I spotted the cave’s entrance,
And felt the gods smiling up me.

After I double-checked my map,
I paid my bedouin guide,
And held my hat hard against the wind.

Tiny masterpiece Spelunky’s brief, text-based introduction is remarkable: a tale told, with haiku-precision, from three lines plucked randomly from a collection of short, adventure-themed phrases. In a moment, they offer more story, create more sense of place, than even the longest, more expensive cutscene. They also summarise Spelunky’s nature there and then: it will be random, but it will always make sense, and there will always be adventure.

It’s the Canabalt of tomb raiding: different every time yet always strong, coherent and thrilling. Simple graphics evoke everything they need to, backed up by slimmest of concepts that you’re free to interpret as you wish. Big-boy gaming has failed to truly realise procedural generation, and when it does it makes such a big deal of it. But independent developers have coolly mastered it – they’ve identified the few factors key to making a game near-perpetually enjoyable, and polished them into brilliance. Spelunky is the proudest of these proud games, but it hides it light under such an understated bushel that its expertise and cleverness is barely even apparent. We used to pay £30 for games kinda like this, but with a fixed course, no variance, the level designer’s control absolute. Now, for nothing, we get a game that will infinitely renew itself. Plus ce change.

Kieron: I haven’t played as much Spelunky as I wanted to this year, though I’ll salve a little conscience by being the first guy to write about it. Of course, even that was kind of a cursory post, which lead to this memorable mocking by Quinns…

Secret fact: If you read that post very slowly and in a totally silent room you can actually hear the sound of Kieron phoning it in. The closest thing to hyperbole in the post is him calling Spelunky ‘clever and neat’, which is analogous to calling sliced bread, uh, sliced, or saying that war is bad. I mean, what I’m saying is that the man’s an asshole. You dropped the ball, Kieron! The ball is currently rolling away from you! There it goes, rolling through the door to the old people’s home! You’d better chase it!

Which made me smile like the grand old man of games journalism, sitting on his rickety-porch, watching the youngsters eat mud.

Spelunky is basically “What if Rick Dangerous was good?”. Someone will say Boulderdash, but they’re wrong. Even if they’re the developer, they’re wrong. In terms of sheer brutality, it’s Rick Dangerous – but it apotheosizes the design by rather making it a game solely about memory it becomes a game where memory is impossible. It’s about adventure, in the purest terms. Adventure, really, is about travel to some place where you don’t already know. If you replay any single level of a game, it stops being an adventure and becomes something else. You can never replay a level with Spelunky. It is always new. It is always adventure. I hail it and may one day get around to playing it some more.

And you should all go read Quinns’ piece on Spelunky. It’s one of his best this year. He’s not bad, for a mud-eating whipper-snapper.

, .

60 Comments »

  1. nabeel says:

    <3 Spelunky.

  2. G says:

    Game of the decade.

  3. Moot says:

    I hate to be “that guy” but…

    Given that in the linked Quinns article he enthuses about it being “His game of 2008″ surely it fails to qualify for this list?

    Anyway – I will go and play it rather than being a pedantic jerk.

    • Dominic White says:

      It was still in development last year. It only hit V1.0 this year.

    • oceanclub says:

      “It was still in development last year. It only hit V1.0 this year.”

      I intend to keep a game in beta forever and win “game of the year” awards every year.

      Now, all I need to do it start writing it.

      Ah.

      P.

  4. Martin Coxall says:

    Nerf everything pls devs.

  5. Clovis says:

    I nearly had a heart attack when I finally managed to beat the big bad. (I wouldn’t say “beat the game” because two of those doors in the score room are still closed.) As the bosses demise crept closer the intensity of it became almost overpowering. It is quite difficult to even get there, so blowing it at the last minute is awful. It was finally nice to avoid death just the one time.

    Really great game.

    Now back to nethack …

  6. Senethro says:

    Spelunky is important. We need procedural generation in other games. Imagine if L4D maps could be procedurally generated. Wouldn’t that be good.

    • Pemptus says:

      That would be shit and uninspired. Randomly generated stuff only works well in 2d, when we’re willing to accept the symbolic graphics.

    • Jeremy says:

      I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic or not, Pemptus..

      I think it would be awesome in L4D1 or 2, it would really up the whole survival aspect of the game I think, plus not knowing where anything is would add to the atmosphere. It does disappoint me that more companies don’t incorporate more procedural generation into their games.

    • Jad says:

      I definitely think that Pemptus has a good point with “symbolic graphics”. Spelunky is not realistic in anyway, and can get away with weirdness that procedural generation produces. I’m sure there are moments in Spelunky where there are, say, five identical ladders in a row with no purpose. Nothing like a “real” cave or mine, but who cares? But a L4D map with stuff like that? Imagine going through the “Dead Air” airport in 1 and coming across that security checkpoint with the metal detectors … and another checkpoint immediately after it … and then a luggage pick-up spot … then the boarding area … then another metal detector … then the ticket desk …

    • Jeremy says:

      Well, I agree in that sense. I think a level built purely randomly would be weird because it doesn’t match up with things in real life. Who knows what a cave beneath a desert should look like? :) Still, there are ways of incorporating procedural generation into code that doesn’t cause these cluster, I think that would be cool to see more of in games.

    • Jesse says:

      Jeremy’s right. Just because it hasn’t been done right in 3D yet doesn’t mean it can’t be. It would be hard, but I’m sure the procedural generation in Spelunky wasn’t easy to get right either, and wossname’s only one guy. 200 developers working together could possibly make something half as good in 3D. And that would be pretty good.

      Who cares, though? More games like Spelunky, please, world! I’ve played more of it than any other game this year. I love it because you can only get better by gaining skill, and smarter and more cunning. When you begin to get good at Spelunky, it’s because you’re becoming a tough, canny, cautious little adventurer. It’s not because the button combos are starting to sink into your muscle memory. Forget muscle memory, I want games that challenge my sense of judgment.

    • malkav11 says:

      Jay said:

      So, like real airports then. ;)

    • malkav11 says:

      Apparently I don’t understand quoting in this system so:

      coming across that security checkpoint with the metal detectors … and another checkpoint immediately after it

      Like real airports, then? ;)

  7. Renzatic says:

    “Spelunky is basically ‘What if Rick Dangerous was good?’.”

    I refuse to accept the implications of such a phrase. I expected better of the gentlemen of RPS, and assumed their penchant towards high standards and taste would keep them from uttering such erroneous words.

    In short, how DARE you, sir! :glove slap: No one maligns Rick Dangerous in my presence. Not even if it’s in the services of an awesome game such as Spelunky.

    Seriously, I played that game when I was 13 and it totally rocked. >:(

  8. jsutcliffe says:

    Rick Dangerous was good!

    I like what I’ve played of Spelunky, which isn’t really very much. I disliked the controls — I’m waiting for either (i) the XBLA version or (ii) me to get off my arse and find a joypad to play it with.

    I feel like a massive hypocrite and that I’m letting myself down for not playing it more. I love the idea of procedurally-generated content in games, whether it’s just decoration like Fuel or generating whole random levels like Spelunky. Games that make themselves are automatically cool.

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      You hit the massive hypocrite tag perfectly with “I’m waiting for either (i) the XBLA version or (ii) me to get off my arse and find a joypad to play it with.”

      I play it using a Dual Shock 2. That’s a PS2 pad which I have to plug into a dongle just to be able to connect it to a USB port on my PC. You have an Xbox. The pads they come with are practically required PC gaming peripherals these days it seems.

  9. Scuzzeh says:

    I tend to play it with a 360 pad and it’s ace.

  10. Martin Coxall says:

    Does everybody else on Earth enjoy repeated, endless, frustrating death then?

    Who’s the really sick man, Stu?

    I’ll be sending my therapy bills to young Quintin.

    • user@example.com says:

      Yes. It helps us to accept our inevitable fate at the cruel hands of the RL RNG.

    • Baboonanza says:

      @Martin Coxall
      I normally hate those games too, but Spelunky is different enough every time that it’s constantly compelling.

      I’ve logged over 1000 games, and I was only able to stop once I’d opened all the doors and thoughly mastered it.

    • Psychopomp says:

      Half the fun in roguelikes is dying in a supremely stupid fasion. Every. Fucking. Time.

  11. manintheshack says:

    I don’t say it often, but this game seriously needs to be transferred to XBox Live. I just don’t feel like I can dedicated enough time to it when I’m not sofa bound… Great game though and genuinely exciting to play.

    • MarkN says:

      XBLA version is due next year (in case you were unaware). Spelunky with achievements – that’s powerful stuff.

      If it wasn’t for Demon’s Souls on PS3 this would definitely be my GoTY. Even with Demon’s Souls it still might be. I’m probably approaching 1500 games of it in all, and I’ve still only reached the boss once (and died). I do have 2 of the doors open though, so I’m not totally useless.

    • manintheshack says:

      Thank you, Sir. I was indeed unaware and now I’m very excited. It’s almost guaranteed to improve over the original in the same that Trials HD did when it came to XBox. Hoorah!

  12. Ian says:

    Love Spelunky.

    My favourite intro combo was:

    “My memory slipping away from me,
    I squinted into the darkness,
    And swore I heard voices up ahead.”

    I had an image of this following a half-crazed Spelunker in a museum meeting room screaming, “It’s REAL God damn it!” and this being the lunatic’s last attempt to bring back the phat loot.

  13. Heliocentric says:

    Splunkey is a fun game, but imagine if you could swear at the snakes, now that would be something.

  14. Shon says:

    It is the only PC game I play with a controller. It is quite awesome and easily my favorite game this year. Considering how far away I have ever come to being close to solving it, that is something.

  15. Severian says:

    Spelunky made me nauseated. I overindulged on it for a week straight, and my constant ineptitude and failure literally gave me a conditioned aversion to the game. Just seeing screenshots of it now makes my stomach turn.

    • Renzatic says:

      You got off lucky, Severian. I did almost the exact same thing, and I’m now sporting some severely debilitating self esteem issues because of it.

      Why can’t I spelunk right? I suck at everything. :(

  16. Bob says:

    Been playing it on and off since reading about it on here, great game

  17. wiper says:

    I feel awful for this, but… it’s “plus ça change”, and as that’s shorthand for a phrase complaining about how nothing every truly changes, seems rather out of place in a paragraph celebrating how titles that were once limited, expensive experiences, have been superceded by a free, ever-changing one.

    In other news, Spelunky’s fucking /ace/.

    • MastodonFarm says:

      Yeah, I think Alec meant something closer to “viva la difference!”

  18. bergotronic says:

    The only thing I want from spelunky is wall-jump. Sigh… the new Super Mario Bros. Wii has spoiled me!

  19. Bioptic says:

    Spelunky is emblematic of exactly the kind of game I encountered during my young, tender years that convinced me 1) video games were fascinating voyages into new and terrifying worlds, and 2) they were something I could never, ever play, for fear of being shown up as the cack-handed fool I am.

    Thankfully my kind now rules the gaming domain, with our plots and our quicksaves and our regenerating health and variable difficulty levels. I never have to be challenged again, whereas you are relegated to pawing over the scraps thrown at you by dedicated bedroom developers. Go and play your charming little indie-masterpiece – with every joyous minute you’ll feel a twinge as you remember what once was, and might have been.

    • Ian says:

      They told me not to tell you, but no longer are those of us who try things like this rejected when trying to purchase Megabucks Zombie Death 5.

      Now who’s laughing, eh? WHO?

  20. Garreett says:

    I love Quintin’s “Here’s the flashbulb, 1+1=highscore truth: In the dwindling field of PC games that have not yet and will not ever show up on a console, which is to say in the field of PC exclusives, Spelunky is… well it’s my game of 2008. So go play it!”, yet it’s being released on Xbox Live soon. Prediction failure!

  21. Bhazor says:

    As much as I love Spelunky the random generation can work against in horrible ways. Not giving you any decent equipment or not giving you any damsels to rescue and those times when nabbing a trap treasure will cause the shop keeper to be killed by a boulder. Which is bad.

  22. CMaster says:

    Ah Spelunky, how I love thee.
    Although how I hate that my greed for loot means I rarely get past the second world. Also, the procedural stuff could do with a couple more rules – I’ve once had an arrow trap shoot me the moment I spawned on the very first level, and several time had spike traps on world 2 right on the exit.

  23. Pidesco says:

    1840 plays, 1838 deaths.

    The game I played the most this year.

  24. Vinraith says:

    It’s the best platformer I’ve played this year (Trine’s a close second), though I’m absolutely terrible at it. I can’t say I’ve played it for more than an hour or so, though.

    • Jesse says:

      Dude, it only really gets going after hour 50.

    • Vinraith says:

      @Jesse: I doubt I’ll ever put remotely that much time into it, platformers just don’t hold my attention for very long no matter how good they are, but it’s awesome that it has that much depth.

  25. McNubbins says:

    PC GOTY and the best freeware game ever :D

  26. a says:

    Yeah, this game is great. I only wish I was good at it. Really, I think I’ve only gotten to the jungle part once.

  27. Culprititus says:

    This lil Spelunky is the awesome. I’ve spent much time with it since reading about it here at RPS. It truely shows how a generative world with various goals and tasks to complete can be wholly addictive. It has introduced me to the niche of rogue-likes and I will be forever grateful.

    That it is consumable in tiny doses certainly adds to the charm of the high. Instantly accessible and endlessly challenging it is.

    • McNubbins says:

      Yes, it’s the immediacy combined with the constant insta-deaths lurking everywhere that make it. It’s like Super Mario Brothers in that respect.

  28. Pl4t0 says:

    It’s free! And it won’t be on XLBA!

    I love games like this, the kind that work perfectly as both timewasters and full-session games. It’s brilliant.

  29. Will Tomas says:

    I’m sure Spelunky’s great – I’ll have to go away and play it – but do the choices for the games for the advent calendar this year suggest that it’s been a rubbish year for proper, big-type PC games, or a good year for small indie games?

    I think Canablat’s fun, but I certainly wouldn’t put it on any games of the year list, is all I’m saying, and things like this are somewhat small fry. This is not a criticism – like I say, I’m sure it’s here on merit, but it does make me curious about the areas the good games came from this year.

    • CMaster says:

      @Will Thomas
      Honestly, Spelunky really isn’t small fry. It isn’t here on some artsy grounds, or supporting the indie scene. It’s on this list because it really is one of the standout games of the year, with great fun, compulsive gameplay and an involving exerpience.
      It isn’t beyond criticism of course – the graphics are rather dissapointing – the animations are basic and most of the time I play it on x4 scaling, so there’s room for much more detailed sprites there.
      The procedural generation is a bit predictable too, you get used to seeing the same basic building blocks again and again.
      But still it ranks up there with the best games of the year. Sure, it isn’t big bangs and all. But it is a standout excellent game.

      Although yeah, in big-budget PC gaming, this does feel a bit like “the year of mid-80s scores” to me.

  30. drewski says:

    I can see why this is a good game, but I didn’t enjoy playing it.

  31. Frank says:

    First RPS 2009 advent-o-game I like!

    What other indie games have used procedural generation well? I can only think of Rescue: the Beagles…

  32. Logo says:

    Spelunky and Dwarf Fortress for president ’12.

  33. Jakkar says:

    <3

  34. Glove says:

    Okay, I’ll just say it: Quinns is really, really fucking good. Everything that man writes is just an absolute joy to read. Damn him.

  35. Bremze says:

    @Jesse: It has already been done in 3d quite well without the problems Jad described by Torchlight.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Bremze: I think the one thing Hellagate proved is that doing this sort of randomisation in a First person perspective is much trickier than doing it in a third.

      KG

  36. sinister agent says:

    I am quite proud of having accidentally offed myself during a pretty good run by throwing a rock against a wall, only for it to bounce off and crack me right in the face.

    The sudden silence just makes you feel even more idiotic. Good stuff.