Are you ready to explore caves, gather treasure, discover secrets, and die over and over again? Yeah, you are! Released on Nintendo Switch on Aug. 26, Spelunky and its sequel Spelunky 2 can now be played anywhere – so even your dentist can watch you lose your mind after a minor mistake ruins your perfect run! To celebrate the recent releases, let’s break down just what makes this tough-as-nails series so addictive.
Spelunky is one of the first side-scrolling platformers to incorporate concepts from roguelike games, notably its procedurally generated levels. Unlike your Marios and your Sonics, Spelunky levels mix up the maps every time you play, taking away your ability to memorize layouts, enemy spawn points, and locations of secret items.
Despite this algorithmic design, the levels never feel unfair. Sure, some will be more challenging than others, but failure is avoidable through skill mastery. This is a testament to developer Derek Yu’s design. As he describes in his book on the game’s creation, the levels are randomly generated, but the myriad sequences the game’s script creates are highly authored. This ensures the player will be able to find a route to the exit while enjoying novel playthroughs each and every time they pick up the game.
So levels are randomly generated, providing players with variability. This is a solid foundation, but where Spelunky really makes things interesting is by creating a game where player choice really, really matters. Because levels are filled with traps, treasures, and potential resources, players have to be vigilant to avoid death traps and make decisions that could cost them – in health, in treasure, and in time. Take too much time in a level, and you’ll have to avoid a giant ghost who will instantly kill you upon contact as you make your way through the caves.
But it’s not just the moment-to-moment gameplay where your choices matter. Your score is determined by the amount of loot you obtain, and valuable resources like bombs, ropes, and other tools are hard to come by without paying for them at the shop. This incentivizes players to steal from the shopkeeper – but be careful! You’ll be hunted for doing so, and the shopkeepers do not mess around! Then there are the people and pets you can save in every level. Rescue them, and you’ll earn one health point. Or, you can instead choose to sacrifice them at an altar in exchange for useful items. Talk about a moral dilemma!
As Yu writes, “I wanted to force [players] to make difficult decisions and experience both the satisfaction of choosing correctly and the regret of choosing poorly.”
It’s also important to note that the game is simply funny. The art style is cartoonish and whimsical, and the game’s unrealistic physics play to that beautifully. Player avatars and enemies alike bounce around upon impact, producing a just-gross-enough blood splatter that adds levity to an otherwise bitter end. If you’re playing in multiplayer mode, you can even have some fun messing with your partner in crime. They can’t prove your throwing a pot at their face and pushing them onto a bed of spikes wasn’t accidental! And who could forget the great dialogue and stellar tunes that lend a sense of playfulness, mystery, and levity to your challenging adventures.
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