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The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 17

This one’s the bomb.

It’s Spelunky HD!

Graham: Spelunky is my personal game of 2013. It is also probably my game of every year since its first release as a free PC game in 2009. That’s when I first played it. That’s when I first fell in love with it.

There are a lot of games now that place roguelike mechanics (level generation, permadeath, difficulty) alongside an accessible genre (in this instance, side-scrolling platformer) in a way that enriches both. Spelunky is partly the reason why there are so many, and I still think it does it better than any other.

I’ve written about it elsewhere at length, but it’s the neatness of the design that just knocks me down. The design creates tension, between its parent genres, between risk and reward, between what you imagine will happen and your skill to pull it off.

The level generation (exposed well here) throws up challenging situations: can you leap over those spikes and avoid the spider on the other side? Can you lower yourself down that snake pit by gripping ledges to control your descent?

If the answer is ‘yes’, you do it, and only have yourself to blame should you fail. If the answer is ‘no’, you move on and abandon the rewards that may have awaited you beyond that obstacle or down that pit.

If the answer is ‘I’m not sure’, then you might use a piece of equipment. A rope will help you safely down that snake pit for example, but that’ll be one less rope for later, when you’re stuck at the bottom of a three-block ledge with no way out.

You make yourself get better at the platforming so you can be less dependent on your tools. You take more risks so you can empower yourself with more and better tools, like crates of bombs and jetpacks to render ropes redundant.

Is this reductionist? No. Spelunky is its design and there is beauty in that design. The game’s early mine levels are full of bats, which dimly flap towards you, bumping into any scenery that lies in their path. They’re brilliant. The shallow angle of their descent encourages you to either find higher ground or to run further away in order to tease the bat lower so you can leap on its head or strike it with your whip. In other words, the bat’s precise angle of descent forces you to traverse and interact with the randomly generated environment, which is the point – the challenge, the fun, the main mechanic – of the game. This has been thought about. I could write an entire feature about those bats, or the arc of a spider’s leap.

There is tension here, too, between the random generation of the levels and the fixed mechanics of its enemies. The world around you changes, but the rules are always the same. There is always an exit. It can always be reached. The frog always hops the same way. Those fucking frogs.

It means I can’t be frustrated, because death is always my fault. It means I don’t get bored, because the experience is always different. It means the game is a challenge of dexterity; my thumbs on a pad against the level geometry. It means the game is a challenge of wits; my brain playing out scenarios ahead of time and coming up with a plan of action.

Spelunky’s mechanics hold the player masterfully in their grasp and never lets go.

It’s a game that makes me want to make games. It has, by making me think so much about design, made me a better writer about games. It is, I should just admit it, my favourite game.

John: I have to admit, 2013 was not my year of Spelunky. That was 2012 for me, on my Xbox 360, hooked up to my second monitor. And there I played it a great deal.

And never got any good at it.

I think it’s testament to Spelunky, and quite what a stunning game it is, that I never stopped enjoying it despite dying quite so often. While I have only glimpsed the third world, those first two zones have kept me hugely entertained for so very long. Clearly the variation helps, that it’s never the same game twice, the challenge varying in interesting ways, the advantages and disadvantages unique to each run. The massive difference it makes to how I play if I can get a boomerang early on, or if I just can’t find any bombs on a particular go.

I especially enjoy approaching the game in completely different ways. Some times I’ll be all about rescuing the ‘maidens’, or experimenting with the sacrifices, or gold-running, or – as is often my favourite – killing a shopkeeper and then seeing how long I can last.

It is, unquestionably, perfect platforming. There’s not a pixel wrong, the jump is exquisite, the edge-detection sublime. I hate, hate, hate the bats, and sometimes I’m convinced that they’re bugged to hit me even when I’ve perfectly timed my whip. But I haven’t perfectly timed my whip, and they’re not bugged. They’re just MASSIVE ARSEHOLES. Yu has created the benchmark by which all other platform games should be measured.

But, for me, like I say, it’s a 360 game. The PC port, as I somewhat infamously derided (all fixed now, of course), added nothing for me. The daily challenges are a brilliant feature, but they’re for people who aren’t terrible at the game. I still play it with my 360 controller, and it’s really just a more convenient way of playing without having to wake up my wheezing black monolith of an Xbox. So it’s one of my favourite games from 2012, without question. 2013 saw Rogue Legacy, Teleglitch, and Don’t Starve take up the same space for me.

Alec: Twice in my life, I’ve bought a new system specifically to play one game. Too many years ago, the first was a PlayStation 2 for GTA 3, and earlier this year it was a Vita for Spelunky. The latter is the greater compliment to its subject, for I already owned and fervently played Spelunky on PC, but the thought of doing without it for a 12-hour spell in hospital (nothing serious!) seemed a misery too far on top of the needles and the chopping and the gown that didn’t quite conceal my bum. Having Spelunky, with its requirement for absolute focus, available on tap while I languished in a wheeled bed, surrounded by the old and ailing and overly-conversational, almost made an unpleasant day a pleasant one.

(Rest assured I returned to the PC version once I’d recuperated.)

Spelunky is a game it’s very difficult to go without once you’ve welcomed it into your life. Sure, it’s a whole heap of fun, but it’s also a game about self-improvement, about being convinced that you can get further this time, do more, understand more, and if you break or pause playing at the wrong moment, your flow will be shattered and you’ll never again know this mental harmony, this sure connection between hands and controls and screen and eyes again.

I think there’s a real argument to be made that Spelunky is a perfect game, which is not a word I’m accustomed to using in that sense. I’m astounded by how much care, craft, thought and balance is packed beneath its unassuming, pink-nosed surface. Nothing in it is there without purpose; the most humble enemy, the most common tool all have a definite place in the game’s internal food chain, can sow disaster or triumph as assuredly as can the most dangerous foe or powerful tool.

Harbouring as I am aspirations to be a game designer myself, Spelunky is perhaps the worst game I should be playing, for it leaves me wracked with doubt, even panic, that I could ever plan so well, devise and implement so many inter-related systems, have such a raft of consequences and side-effects, have second-guessed so many player decisions, construct a design that creates such order from such chaos, make an infinite adventure simulator that doesn’t fall prey to either tedium or impassible sadism. Neat, careful, layered, endless: Spelunky is the smartest guy in the room this year. I admire it enormously.

I really wish the character’s noses didn’t look quite so penile, though.

Adam:

Like Graham, I first played Spelunky in 2009 and then told everybody that would listen about it. I didn’t know it at the time but I’d stumbled across a game that would have an enormous influence over PC gaming.

Whether or not a line can be directly traced from every other roguelite or roguelikelike back to Spelunky is a moot point – Derek Yu created the definitive randomised perma-death platformer, in which the tightness of control was just as important as the construction of the caves. I certainly hadn’t played a game that borrowed the still vaguely obscure lessons of Rogue to such great effect and reimagined them in a genre so far removed from the traditional playing of roles.

Spelunky is one of the most influential games of recent times. Its roots, along with those of Minecraft, have spread far and wide, and it’s no longer surprising to find games that are inspired by both. The two could hardly be more different though. Where Minecraft is a toolset for modders and builders, Spelunky is carefully crafted, with every tile of its spaces considered and deliberate, despite the shuffling process that glues them together.

There is no excess in Spelunky. Every item has its use and most contribute to the game’s comedic as well. Similarly, every creature, monster and trap has its own pattern of behaviour so that death and injury are fair, if occasionally difficult to predict.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken a stroll underneath a spider only to have it drop onto my head, bouncing my bleeding, flailing form from platform to platform, and directly onto some spikes. It should be distressing but Spelunky always allows me to trace my own mistakes and usually makes me chuckle at my own demise. What a tonic that is.

Even if Spelunky is even vaguely responsible for the gradual diminishing of the term ‘roguelike’, I can forgive it. And that’s only partly because I’m probably slightly responsible as well. It is, although a wildly different experience, as perfect a platformer as Rayman’s Oranges and Lemons.

Nathan: Unlike pretty much everyone else, I’m a filthy heretic who didn’t spend much time with the original version of Spelunky. Not only that, my first experience with the PC Game Based On The Console Version Of The PC Version Of The Book Of The Movie Of The Sistine Chapel came after I’d played more elaborate games semi-inspired by the original (e.g. Rogue Legacy, Teleglitch, etc). Inevitable confession time: I didn’t really think Spelunky was all that special initially.

Initially.

But I kept playing it as my game between other games. It took some serious edge off Papers, Please. It offered a series of quick snacks where games like Assassin’s Creed IV wanted me to sit down at the table for a full, multi-course meal. When I wanted to feel an electrifying sense of accomplishment and discovery in not a lot of time, it never let me down.

And then there were the Daily Challenges, which I became addicted to watching for a solid bit. Not playing, mind you. Oh no. My single attempt at global glory ended in hilarious failure when I managed to botch a near-flawless run by accidentally obliterating a shopkeep’s storefront with a giant boulder and getting pursued by a ghost at the same time. Somehow, in the ensuing maelstrom of rocks, papers, shotguns, and panic, I nearly made it to an exit, only to misjudge my jump, fall to my near-death, and then get swarmed on by the shopkeep and the ghost simultaneously. I think a spider then danced on my corpse for good measure.

So yeah, after that I decided to sit back and spectate for a while. In retrospect, I kind of regret not broadcasting my painfully amusing (or maybe just painful) failures to the leering masses, but I did really come to enjoy watching friends do it. It became this weird little window into the worlds of people I (regrettably) don’t have a lot of time to communicate with on a day-to-day basis, a quick “So here’s what I’ve been up to” breakdown interspersed with irate verbal trumpet bursts of “FUCK,” “GOD DAMN IT,” and “WHERE DID THAT SPIDER EVEN COME FROM?”

If there’s a better way of finding out how your friends are doing, I’m not aware of it.

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