Snake To Death: The Majesty Of Spelunky

The sum of RPS coverage of Spelunky: a single news post mentioning that it existed and was pretty good, maybe. 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!

[We should mention that Kieron now promises to grotesquely murder Quinns analogs in his forthcoming comics – RPS] [Is there even an artist alive capable of putting that much handsomeness on a page? – Quinns]

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!

A couple of months ago I said I’d write something about Spelunky for RPS and got as far as writing, uh, maybe 50% of… something. I had pretty big plans for it, plans I’ve completely forgotten since and so now have like a thousand words of the most unbelievable nonsense in a Google Document. Check this shit out:

104 deaths. 0 wins.

Obama’s in the corner. He’s on our big, powerful TV giving his inauguration speech.

“America… is… FUCKED”, he shouts, narrowing his eyes in hatred until the muscles around them become taught cords. I barely register. I’m whipping a snake to death.

“Oh, God. I can’t even. You know what? Fuck you guys” says Obama. “Best of luck in 2009. I’m outta here. I quit.” And with that he turns on a dime, ice cool, popping the collar of his jacket before walking slowly away from the podium. The audience falls into stunned silence. Out of the perfect stillness that the would-be president leaves behind a single shot rings out, our expensive surround-sound system capturing the noise in perfect detail. I look up briefly at the TV before returning my eyes to the game. Did it hit? He seems fine.

Yeah, I’ve got no idea. So I guess I’m starting from scratch. Deep breath time!

Here’s why, as a PC gamer, you should really know all about Spelunky:

Spelunky is a flawless marriage of two well established genres, okay? It’s a frothing alchemical mix clutched in the calloused hand of a beaming mad scientist- the upsettingly talented Derek Yu. This man operates TIGSource as well as illustrating, designing, coding and writing music for games that are his and his alone.

Spelunky is his attempt to take a platformer and blend it with the key elements of roguelikes- randomised levels, exploration, and a permanent need for caution due to the constant risk of brutal death that’ll dump you right back to the start of the game. I say Spelunky is an attempt- Spelunky’s not notable because it’s just some experiment. Spelunky is notable because it’s a /brilliant idea/ that, for whatever reason, exploded into the head of Derek Yu (maybe he took a trip to a cave that day or ate a particularly unforgiving sandwich) and he was just the kind of multi-talented, single-minded savant to not rest until he had that idea physically represented in front of him in the form of a freely distributed videogame. Honest to God, this guy is the videogame industry’s own Richard Miller.

As to why Spelunky is actually good… okay.

First and foremost, it’s a tight platformer. The premise is as perfect as you like. In the opening cutscene you see a lone adventurer arrive at a cave following a long trek through the desert. The fact that he’s alone and heavily equipped tells you everything you need to know- that he’s come here to explore the cave. When control is transferred to you there’s no need for the game to say another word. There’s also an instant attraction formed between the player and the character on screen both because there’s the underdog pull of this figure being so tiny and alone yet so determined looking and the emotional bond of neither of you knowing what’s inside the cave.

Your avatar controls perfectly for the challenges the game sets in front of him, the jumping, climbing, fighting or some combination of the three. The speed available to you and the fact that there’s like, 10 whole buttons to memorise means a lot of people dismissed Spelunky as fiddly (probably pronouncing it “fuddluh” because at the time their mouth was full of very unhealthy foodstuffs). Spelunky isn’t fiddly. A decent player will have that sprite doing what he wants to the pixel every single time. What Spelunky’s controls are is manic and precise. The speed that’s available to you, that run key that causes you to dash across the screen like a man possessed, is simply an option you have at all times.

So with the fact that Spelunky’s a neat platformer in mind let’s start looking at why Spelunky is absolutely not just some neat platformer thankyouverymuch, starting with level randomisation. The randomisation in Spelunky is vitally important for the exact same reasons it’s important in roguelikes. These are games about exploration, and a player can’t explore a space he’s seen before. An equally important part of the randomisation is that when it’s done well, like it is here, it eliminates most of the negative emotions of being dumped back to the start of the game with each death. There’s none of the Megaman style horror of having to play through all that crap again?! When you die in Spelunky you don’t have to retrace any steps, you’re not punished, you simply lose what you’d achieved which (just like in the best Roguelikes and arcade games) will always manage to get off the screen and right under your skin, and it’s horrible, and you’ll scream, and the world will stop turning for a second and your mother will ask you if you’ve done your homework and you seriously haven’t. But all of this happens with a minimum of frustration or annoyance. Because it’s you and only you who fucked up, there is no resentment. Once the dust settles the only thing left is a gnawing desire to kick the game’s ass right back.

This is real knife-edge game design, the kind of risky business for renegade mavericks that we’re seeing less and less of in the mainstream. You can draw any player further into your game by giving them something they can actually lose (an item, an NPC, or in the case of roguelikes absolutely everything), but you need to make sure the player feels like it’s their fault when they do inevitably lose what’s at stake. To safely give the player the emotional high that comes from succeeding when something tangible they care about is on the table, the tornado of emotional pain that bursts into life when the player does fail needs to be focused entirely inward- the player needs to be angry with themselves with minimal splashback on the game.

The way Spelunky achieves this is simple. First of all, it makes you achingly vulnerable. In most contemporary games you can fail. In plenty of those you can die. Spelunky’s a little bit different. Spelunky is a game that just fucking murders you.

In the first world alone you have to watch for spikes, snakes, bats, arrows, spiders, boulders, GIANT spiders, ghosts, bombs, skeletons and traps, all of which will silence the game’s soundtrack and dump you to a high score screen if you so much as dare to fuck up. Most awesomely for a game about travelling ever-downwards, there’s also falling damage. Derek Yu even pulls the dick move of coupling falling damage with you being knocked unconscious for a few seconds, your wheezing body a beacon to any roving creatures you happened to fall near.

But here’s the thing. Not one of these individual elements is that hard to deal with. Move slowly and traps don’t get you. Time your whippage right and you’ll vapourize most monsters. Jump to get over the spikes. Approach corpses slowly and if they leap up as skeletons you’ll be out of their attack range. If any of these obstacles ever get you, and they will get you, it’s because you were dumb and so the rage gets focused inward. The game’s lack of a big ol’ health bar is just as important- if you could take a lot of damage and keep going then when death finally came around you’d be left with a greasy taste in your mouth that it was the game’s difficulty, and not any one error on your part, that killed you.

Another interesting pose Spelunky strikes is the wealth of equipment and options it gives you. As well as your default whip attack you start with a limited number of ropes that can be thrown upwards and climbed, and a few bombs which can be either thrown or dropped in the name of killing, destroying or digging. You can actually throw just about everything in the game- rocks, corpses, chests. Then there’s all the gear you can stumble across- the pickaxe, jetpack, climbing gloves, pitching mitt, shotgun, teleporter, web gun, jumping shoes, machete, glasses, glue and much more.

But the thing about all this crap is all it does is gives you alternative means of interacting with a world that’s still unbelievably dangerous. All of this equipment is yet more elements to Spelunky that follow very clear rules and aren’t that dangerous unto themselves, yet are painstakingly designed to give you the opportunity to fuck up.

Take the machete, a bonus item you can stumble across. The first thing I did when I got it was go sneaking up to a spider the size of a minivan that was sleeping right next to a ledge I quite wanted to drop down. My plan was to cut that thing to ribbons before it could wake up, which it turns out was a flawed plan because the machete is /balls./ What followed was the scariest chase sequence I’ve ever experienced in a game before I was finally left staring open-mouthed at a screen showing this spider jumping up and down on my corpse.

My friend had an even better experience with the teleporter. Following an experimental trip shifting himself up into some open air he began zapping himself about in blind glee. The world was his for the taking! Not even walls could stop him! Ten seconds later he’d misjudged a jump and fused himself with the insides of a rock.

And while we’re on the subject I remember the moment I first realised you can set off traps with thrown objects. I saw an arrow-shooting face in the distance and, pleased as punch, threw my pistol past it to trigger the arrow. Yeah! What I neglected to notice was the snake pit just past the trap, although I did spot it just in time to watch my pistol disappear into it.

Anyway, so far so videogame. Now think this one through. You’re Derek Yu. You’ve just built a tight, randomised platformer with tons of freedom and plenty of juicy secrets that’s ridiculously tense and engaging through player vulnerability and the harsh penalty for death. The game’s tough but fair since the only causes of player death are idiocy, ambition, encountering something for the first time and just plain fucking up.

So riddle me this: What’s the move you can now pull to make your game addictive, satisfying and rewarding? What’s the move you can pull of to make the whole thing a rounded, desirable package?

No idea? It’s so simple! You litter levels with treasure and structure the whole thing around a high score. That way the player knows exactly how well he’s done at the end of each damp-armpitted playthrough, but most importantly it makes the entire game, a game that’s fundamentally about caution, reliant on risk-reward. Buried gems, protected idols, locked chests and loose gold nuggets all scream out at you as you make your way through levels where the only way to survive is to play it safe. Spelunky is like walking a tightrope with notes of money suspended by string on either side of you. A tightrope with cute 2D graphics and a great soundtrack.

Okay, that should probably be enough to make you sit up and play this fucking game properly, which means I guess I’m done. Although I will say that there’s so, so much I haven’t talked about for spoilers’ sake.

I’ve just noticed the Spelunky thread on the RPS forums is three posts long, which is a serious disgrace, with the saving grace that IncognitoGBG spends his post calling it one of the greatest achievements in the platform genre. Still, three damn posts. Fix this! Start comparing high scores and dumb deaths. Somebody cause a scandal by saying they’ve finished the game when they actually haven’t, or something. I’m going to make myself some coffee and then continue playing Resident Evil 5 co-op with my flatmate.

Hey, did you know Resident Evil 5 is fucking terrible? It is! It really, really is. It’s like Capcom hand-picked the entire team out of employees they knew wouldn’t cross a street that’s empty right up to the horizon until they were told to walk by the little green man. It is at least as awful as Spelunky is good! Go play Spelunky!


  1. Psychopomp says:


  2. dishwasherlove says:

    The article pretty much says it all.

    If you haven’t played it. Do.

  3. Tei says:

    I have not played the game. but the article reminds me that historical words of pesimism “is too dark here, you are about to eaten by a grue”. I suppose there are players that want to fight imposible odds, and prevail.
    Anyway, I have my share of hard exploring games. Rick Danger, Apocalypse 1974, Zeppelin, and other C64 titles. ….15 years ago. Now I play different games, and take different risk/rewards formulas. I have to admit the formulas of the games I play today have less challenge and more reward, that is only bad if you want to maximize challenge. I want to maximize fun.

  4. Seniath says:

    But what if one doesn’t enjoy high scores, 2D platformers or instant death?

  5. Lewis says:


    Just, yes.

    I didn’t catch it in time for the end of 2008, but until Empire strolled along this was EASILY my favourite game I’d played this year so far. There’s a very unlikely elegance to the whole thing. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a finer risk/reward balance. I love it. It’s really, really fantastic and I’d absolutely pay good money for it.

  6. Ian says:

    I’m kinda with Seniath (though I do like 2D platformers, but the other two? Only in their place.) I admire what the game’s doing but I fear it would break me.

    I’m pretty wimpy.

  7. jon_hill987 says:

    I love Splelunky, as Quintin says, it is like the love child of Angband and Alex Kidd in Miracle World.

    Has anyone worked out what the closed doors in the high score room are for yet?

  8. Matt says:

    I just tried it, this is great fun. Was so happy to discover a pick-axe power up, and I was mining my way into the rock to emerge at the other side and get shot by an arrow face.

  9. TRS-80 says:

    Boo, it doesn’t work right under Wine.

  10. Matt says:

    Try killing the guy who runs the shop.

  11. Robin says:

    All you really need to know about Spelunky is that it’s a nice idea, technically barely functional and the controls suck. Nice Tim Rogers impression though

  12. Malagate says:

    I have to say I kind of disagree with the idea that it’s the treasure getting you to rush through the levels. It’s not, at least in my case, the treasure that makes me run, but the time limit. It’s timed, don’t you know, 2 minutes gives you a chill down the spine, 30 seconds after that The Ghost comes. He means instant death if he touches you, just the thing to add that frantic edge.

    What is truly genius about this game though are the extras, specifically the challenges/bonuses you unlock after you finish a game (when meeting certain criteria) and of course the *secret levels*. I’ve finished the game not once, but 3 times (out of more than 300 attempts), but even then I still haven’t opened all the bonus doors, and I’ve only visited the…*the super secret level* twice…and died each time. Such sights I saw there…such peril…

  13. Malagate says:

    (Yes, I left my last comment whilst not logged in, no edit for me, but someone will probably post between me writing this and me posting this so it probably won’t be a double post.)

    @Jon_hill, well look at the room descriptions, the “Changing Room” is kind of self explanatory (make 8 saves and you’ll see what it does), the rest you will only know when you unlock them. I think they’re unlocked by finishing the game in certain ways, like with a lot of money or by finishing in a very short amount of time. That’s another great thing about Spelunky, it actually doesn’t take long to finish it, if you can avoid instant death that is.

    Also @ Matt, there are plenty of techniques for killing shopkeepers. They’re all really dangerous, as shopkeepers are the most deadly creature in all of Spelunky (more so than even the final boss). Just remember that any crime you commit in or near his shop will result in a shot-gunning (i.e. vandalism, lit bombs in the shop, stealing, whipping, letting the woman run out of the kissing booth, all equate to death), also shop keepers are fast and jump high.

    The best way to deal with them are usually with what they are selling, for instance if they’re selling guns just shoot them. Be sure to shoot them a few times though, they recover quickly from being stunned and even one shotgun blast is not always enough to kill one.

    The web gun is also a good choice, just lure out the shopkeeper (mind the shotgun shots!), fire a web and watch him get stuck, then just jump on his head 20 times.

    Of course, if you do kill a shopkeeper, every other shopkeeper in the game will be aggro to you, and they will have little wanted posters in their shops. There will also be a shopkeeper waiting at the level exit on most levels afterwards, just itching to blow your face off.

    So yeah, stealing is fun, but just be sure to steal a shotgun and a lot of bombs whilst you’re at it, otherwise you will be more screwed than if you just destroyed two Kali altars. Yes, Kali altars, those black pedestals with a layer of blood on the top, don’t blow them up. Just don’t. By all means put a caveman/dead shopkeeper/yeti/woman on the pedestal though. You might just please someone very much…

    Oh yeah, another shopkeeper thing, be also aware that the first *secret level* will have about 7 shopkeepers in it. 7 super fast, super leaping shotgun toting hard asses. Better hope you haven’t pissed them off before hand, not that you will find them unless you have an “eye” for detail.

    el edito: wow that’s long, also just noticed RPS is still working in GMT rather than BST! Yay RPS, you’re like some kind of ocean going vessel that keeps “ship’s time” rather than use dirty land-lubber time.

  14. Quinns says:

    Yeah! Spelunky fans! YEAH!!

    Seniath, Ian: You’re kind of blowing my mind here. You’ll post a comment about a freeware game worrying if it’s not for you? We’re not selling a sofa here. Just try it. Just a little bit.

    Robin: Well spotted!

  15. Heliocentric says:

    No, bad man! I have work due in today. Your electronic-fun-o-tron can wait. Sounds fun though. Wish it had basic coop. Entropy is a sauce best tasted with friends.

  16. erik says:

    Really like what this game tries to do, but there’s an annoying bug that automatically makes the explorer go up (up ladders, through doors) when I try to play it with a controller. And I need a controller. Grew up with consoles and trying to play a 2d platformer with a keyboard just feels wrong. I have no platforming-skills without a proper d-pad.

    Otherwise: great review!

  17. Dominic White says:

    Spelunky is fantastic. It will only get fantasticaller, though.


    Because it’s amost at version 1.0.

    What happens at V1.0? Well, Derek Yu is going to release the source code. Yep, open-source spelunky. I can only hope that a dedicated team forms, akin to the Stone Soup project for Dungeon crawl (link to and continually expands and improves the game over the coming years.

    If so, I will have no reason to ever stop playing it, if they can constantly fuel my adventures with new environments, enemies, tricks and traps.

  18. Kieron Gillen says:

    Quinns: You failed by mentioning the game in the first 4000 words.

    Robin: You are a disgrace to the Magic Knight.


  19. Seniath says:

    @Quinns: ignore me and my offhand remarks. I’m ill* and stuck in work.

    *read: Manflu.

  20. Quinns says:

    Oh man, I didn’t know about the source code thing. If that takes off it’ll be a marvel. Something Awful should play around with it, at least.

  21. Heliocentric says:

    @KG you didnt unlock the hidden prequel to the post by dangling the participles all the way to the nd of the post?

  22. jsutcliffe says:

    I’ve been aware of this practically since it first appeared (I read TIGSource, which was all over it), but only downloaded it a few weeks ago. I still haven’t played it much — just once, where I found all the keys I had to remember overwhelming (not sure why — it’s no different from remembering jump, crouch, run, creep, zoom, flashbang, grenade, shiv, and marmalade like every FPS out there).

  23. Omroth says:

    Spelunky is my game of 2008, and it’s so good to see a writeup which is basically an account of what I think of the game. Good work RPS and Quentin!

  24. Dominic White says:

    The controls seem overwhelming at first, but that’s because there’s a lot redundancy in there. There’s seperate hotkeys for Bomb, Rope and Flare, but they can also be accessed through a single item-cycle key.

    The hotkeys and shortcuts are really for power players who want everything available instantly on demand – which is admittedly useful in this game, but for beginners, it’s usually best to just use the basic setup.

  25. IncognitoGBG says:

    At last. Recogniton. :)

  26. AndrewC says:

    Roguelikes are the S&M of the games world.

  27. Robin says:


    Of course I ended up playing this game all morning now.

  28. Mrs. Lovefist McManburger says:

    Spelunky is delicious gaming goodness. You need it in your diet! Fuck Atkins!
    Also, I enjoyed the demo of RE5. Does this make me a chump?
    Most likley. I don’t know if it is as good as the incredible RE4, though.

  29. nabeel says:

    Great write-up Quentin. I love roguelikes so I had to try Spelunky, but it never really grabbed me.

  30. antonymous says:

    Ah boy before gaming went stale and conformed to the whiners all the arcade and home games were like this… I remember that rare Amiga peripheral the Joybuzz would hand you little electric shocks when you as much as flinched at the Game Over screen, nothing bad, just some of the whingy kids didn’t make it…

  31. clive dunn says:

    yep, me and my daughter have been playing it for the past hour. She likes to shout ‘SPIDERS’. Is there any way to turn down the gore?

  32. M. P. says:

    OH NOES!!!! A universally-lauded roguelike? I want to try it but I’m currently on a (non-dual-booting) Mac! :(

  33. Jochen Scheisse says:

    This game has me hooked for weeks now. I have already murdered The Black Market, but I have yet to see the Legendary City of Gold. I doubt there can be anything harder than 7 enraged shopkeepers.

  34. Malagate says:

    Ohh Jochen, I’d say the hardest part is getting to the lost city of gold in one piece or with enough equipment to take it. Never mind having the luck to get all the pre-requisits, spawned in the correct order, and whilst not dying at any of those times (getting out of the Black Market without using the special item can be a pain in itself). Each time I’ve made it there I’ve managed to either get there whilst being badly maimed and died in a silly way, or didn’t have any bombs left and so it was a waste (and still died a silly death, lava hmm).

    One of these days I’ll feed enough yeti’s to Kali, and get lucky enough to spawn all the correct stuff in the right order…and have a jetpack ideally.

  35. Pags says:

    All you really need to know about Spelunky is that it’s a nice idea, technically barely functional and the controls suck. Nice Tim Rogers impression though


    I feel good that I posted in the forum thread at least. But at the same time I feel bad that I didn’t like it then, and still don’t like it now. I just have a hard time accepting failure when the reason I died is I was jumping around manically at the bottom of a pit trying to avoid a spider while trying to remember how the fuck I shoot ropes up again and oh god there’s an even bigger fucking spider coming now fuck are those boulders about to fall WHAT THE FUCK IS THE ROPE BUTTON?!

  36. Octacon9001 says:

    And this is why I love reading RPS on Mondays. I’ll try this out tonight. Cheers for the heads up.

    In regards to the “one stuff up and you die thing,” How do people feel about that? How about if your actions in a game affected a storyline, and the game automatically saved after you decided on your actions? Would that make you not want to play the game again? I know Fahrenheit did something like that, but you could revisit past levels to change your actions, so I guess that was a good balance.

  37. np (aka spiffeh) says:

    The PS3 is getting a HD remake of this.

  38. Malagate says:

    @Pags: Rope button? It’s whichever button you want it to be. I just remapped the controls, you know, make the keyboard work for me rather than practice new and weird finger gymnastics. Kind of easier that way.

  39. mike says:

    I enjoyed it, but then enjoyed it a lot more after memory hacking it to give myself more health. Makes it a different game, but a game I personally find more fun.

  40. Pags says:

    @Pags: Rope button? It’s whichever button you want it to be. I just remapped the controls, you know, make the keyboard work for me rather than practice new and weird finger gymnastics. Kind of easier that way.

    It’s not that a case of being comfortable with the key mappings, it’s a case of there simply being too many things to remember. I’m used to simplicity in platformers; maybe I just suck, in fact that’s probably all it’s down to, but when you’re trying to find the right pixel to jump from (die, Mario) while being swamped by bads I find that no matter how comfortable I made my keymappings I’ll still forget what I mapped to where.

    “Is this the rope button? Nooo that’s the whip button. Is that it? No I’m opening a chest. Silly man, there is no chest here to be opened! Oh God the fucking spiders are back” etc.

  41. Quinns says:

    np: That’s Spelunker you’re thinking of. Spelunky takes the template of Spelunker for its platforming but builds a totally different game from it.

  42. Lucas says:

    Spelunky is a truly great game. Use a gamepad if you can.

    My first win took 219 tries, using the unlockable shortcuts. Sometime in the next 50 or so plays I won from the very start. I think that was in version 0.99.5, and haven’t done 0.99.8 in one try yet.

    There is a Spelunky wiki with just about everything in the game fully detailed, but don’t start there! Only read it if you’ve won already or are really stumped by something. It’s full of spoilers that will rob you of some very entertaining deaths.

  43. Dominic White says:

    Goddammit, we need the edit features back. My tag is borked.

  44. yutt says:

    Excellent game, thanks for pointing this out, as I’d have never found it myself. I foolishly tried battling a giant spider… apparently they have much thicker hides than the small ones… <_<

    If you can’t remember the THREE non-directional key controls for this game, I’d hazard to suggest the game is not the problem. Maybe you should find a game that is controlled by rolling your face across the keyboard, as that would be more fitting for your ability.

    Are you serious? You’re blaming the game for this? Really?

  45. Pags says:

    Maybe you should find a game that is controlled by rolling your face across the keyboard, as that would be more fitting for your ability.

    That actually sounds fun.

    vhbjm ik,kjhgfcdddyhupolhjgfcdejuilfdrszayuki8lliujhf

    What do I win?

  46. Pags says:

    Also in future I’m not going to justify why I don’t like games because some of you are really mean :(

  47. Malagate says:

    Daww, leave Pags alone! I am now very sure that Pags can find and utilise all the keys quite well, except that when the spiders start jumping all over the place it all gets quite panicky and then the key mashing begins.
    I can understand that well, those spiders are random jumping bastards. I almost always avoid them or throw a rock at them, if that fails I run like the wind and don’t look back. Stress amnesia is entirely understandable, I know loads of people who can’t enjoy or even play certain games for the same reasons.

  48. Pags says:

    except that when the spiders start jumping all over the place it all gets quite panicky and then the key mashing begins. I can understand that well, those spiders are random jumping bastards.

    Precisely. With say, N, when a million rockets are flying at me and a laser is about to incinerate me and a blue robot is launching itself 3000 miles an hour at me, I’ll find I can still control the situation because all I’m thinking is “I can jump up there and be safe”. For me – cannot stress this enough, so advocates of Spelunky please try not to get upset with me because after all, this is all subjective – simplicity in platformers is a virtue.

  49. Heliocentric says:

    But simplicity and entropy does not create meaningfully different randomisation. Still. I’m going to try the game on my 360 pad. Seems more suited. I need to mod my d-pad to be less sucky though. Enjoyed sacrificing live damsels on the blood altars though.