1. Spelunky [Official site] (2008)
Developer: Derek Yu
Spelunky! Spelunky. Spelunky. Spelunky. Spelunky.
Spelunky isn’t just the best free game ever. It’s also probably, maybe definitely, the best game ever. And it’s not because of its procedural level generation, or the mixture of roguelike and platforming that spawned a genre of imitators, but because of the design of its items, traps and enemies. Spelunky is a tightly wound machine, precision-engineered to create moments of anticipation, drama and comedy.
Anticipation. You’re stood upon a ledge looking down at two spike traps, a caveman and a man-eating plant. You know that you should drop calmly atop a spike trap, jump on to the other, and then over and away from plant and man.
Drama. You make the leap and immediately overshoot it, missing the surface of the first spike trap and instead grabbing onto its side. You are moments away from being spiked to instant death.
Comedy. You leap away from the spike trap just in time, but in your panic dive directly into the mouth of the waiting plant. You are dead.
Or maybe you carry out this simple challenge perfectly but some levels later are floating towards an exit when you are defeated by an inanimate rock. It leaps up off a bounce pad and hits you on the head, knocking you unconscious. Before you can wake, it hits you again. And again. And again. You are dead.
Or maybe you get much further, gather the tools needed to reach the city of gold, and gently set down your just collected Scepter while you bomb through a wall. But the splash damage of the bombs propel the scepter backwards, over a ledge, and directly onto your head. You are dead.
Spelunky doesn’t have the brighter high definition art of its paid-for remake, Spelunky HD, nor its co-op or daily challenge modes. But it is still a masterclass of game design; a perfect loop of rules for creating infinite fun situations. And free!
Free. Free. Free. Free.
Notes: The free version of Spelunky was made in Game Maker, a game creation tool which is remarkably easy to get started with. Before that, creator Derek Yu was the artist on underwater puzzle adventure Aquaria, and made the default tileset for the free release of Desktop Dungeons, elsewhere on this list.
What else should I be playing if I like this: As always, the paid-for release. Dungeons of Dredmor, for a similarly accessible take on old roguelike formulas. Or Binding of Isaac, for something as deep and as rewarding.
Where can I download it: Official Site
Read on to the final page for the complete list, and some closing thoughts.