Death is an underrated business, at least in videogames. It often feels so cheap. Normally, all you get is the animated slump, the fade to red, and the prompt to restart or return to the main menu. Spelunky doesn’t settle for that kind of thing. Instead, it understands the power of death – both the pathos of mortality and the potential for weird, wriggling comedy.
You see, Spelunky’s a Roguelike, and its combination of randomised levels and the inability to save your progress through them serves to make dying seem fearful and significant once more. It’s also a platformer, and its energetic physics and playful systems – the ping-ponging between wall spikes, or the bomb that blasts you into a lake roiling with piranhas – ensure it’s frequently hilarious as well. Spelunky’s a game about what you can achieve in the precious moments strung between one fatal mistake and the next, about the kind of biography you can carve out for a life that could last anything from seconds to ten minutes. It goes beyond that, though; Spelunky encourages you to cherish the blundering instant when everything falls apart.
Of course, Spelunky’s been torturing adventurers on the PC since 2008, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the kind of audience that congregates around a genre-splicing freeware download might be atypically willing to accept a game with such a brutal agenda. Rebuilt for XBLA, though, with new art, multiplayer modes, the odd rebalancing tweak and a handful of Microsoft Points at stake, the terms offered prove just as fair and the prospect every bit as tantalising.
That’s because Derek Yu’s masterpiece is as generous as it is bloodthirsty, and it makes up for killing you so enthusiastically by offering you things that other games can’t. It takes you to a place that should be cloyingly familiar, full of mines, treasure, and pits brimming with writhing snakes. Instead, however, it renders them utterly fascinating once more through a complex muddle of exotic mystery and antique slapstick. It’s an adventure you can replay for years on end without ever taking quite the same route or meeting precisely the same fate twice. You may finish Spelunky, but you’ll never complete it.
Does the magic lie in the randomisation? That’s certainly a big part of the appeal. A side-scrolling dungeon crawler that casts you as a hero with a whip, Spelunky sees you descending through a series of warren-esque levels, heading from top to bottom. You’ll avoid traps and murder monsters while grabbing as much loot as you can along the way. Each death scrambles the layouts of the mines, jungles, ice caves and temples that you’re exploring, though, sending you right back to the beginning again with nothing tangible to show for your past exploits.
It’s infuriating, but wonderfully so. And the fruit fly-like life expectancy of your tiny adventurer adds something vital to this unstable mixture: a balancing note of slight inconsequence, perhaps, or a sense that each death is a lesson and it won’t be long before you’ll be putting that hard-earned knowledge into practice.
The game is procedural, then, but it still feels handmade. Even at its most bizarre, the dead ends and torturous feints suggest a witty, if rather mocking, intelligence, and there’s a human kind of bias to the set-pieces that Spelunky regularly spits out. Take the level that’s inexplicably in love with frogs, for example, or the one where a tiki man is camped by the entrance, boomerang at the ready. Take the level with twice as many spikes as normal, or the level bisected by one lonely vine. (You, of course, may never see any of these.)
On top of this, it helps that Spelunky is shot through with things that aren’t random at all. It has the disciplined eye that should always accompany a wild mind, and this might explain why its algorithms exert such a singular tug. There’s a specific order that you’ll always take through the themed worlds, for starters, and there are the special objects that are always waiting for you somewhere within each area. Sure, the main objective’s pretty open-ended: explore, survive, go as deep as you can. Various objectives are waiting to help focus affairs, however, as you seek to make offerings to Kali at altars, or tick off the weird shopping list of doodads and whatnots needed to open the fabled City Of Gold. There are systems within systems here, endlessly re-hidden and yet driven by unchanging rules, and they allow Spelunky to remain coherent despite its scrambling, in much the same way that the randomly reworked three-line intro that kicks off each adventure consistently bears a gentle trace of genuine authorship.
But death is all part of the fun. No matter how meticulously you inch through the world, peering over ledges, and assuming every pile of bones is about to judder to life, Spelunky’s systems will pounce on you the instant you trip up. The game may borrow from Boulder Dash and Rogue, but it summons the hectic chaos of pinball when things go mesmerisingly awry. Failure’s often as sweet as victory, in other words, and it can also be weirdly edifying. Keep track of the things that have killed you and the result is one part Indiana Jones fanfic and one part Goosebumps paperback – a caveman pummelled me to death; I was devoured by a mantrap; I must be allergic to bees. List the things that really did you in, though, and a different picture emerges. Haste, carelessness, corner cutting, greed: Spelunky’s a stern instructor in life’s quieter virtues.
There’s nothing quiet about the new local multiplayer, though. Just as Spelunky’s HD art switches out the delicate pixellated stylings of the games that inspired it in favour of the thick black lines and rich colours of a Saturday morning cartoon, dungeon diving with friends tends to fan the fires of slapstick disaster. It quickens the pace and makes for a broader, but no less ingenious, kind of fun. Co-op turns the campaign into a Laurel and Hardy short, albeit one in which the pair end up skewered, eaten, or torn to pieces. Deathmatch lets you loose with bots and the game’s best gadgets: a typical round lasts just five glorious seconds. Indeed, it’s so good that the fact the experience can’t be shared online is nearly unforgivable.
You will forgive it, though. The sound of a boulder chewing through rock, the way your punctured body slides down bloodied spikes, the tiny framed painting of a shovel hanging in the Tunnel Man’s house – it’s hard, when telling others about Spelunky, not to devolve into simply listing all the wonderful things about it. Who could blame you? The experience of playing, after all, seems to be made up of nothing but these wonderful things endlessly jumbled up and thrown together.
It’s the friction created when they all converge that keeps you plugging away, however. It’s this friction that ensures the most startling thing about Spelunky isn’t that it’s different whenever you fire it up, but that you emerge with a coherent story to tell each time. You might leave its caverns with a pulpy yarn that’s full of unlikely escapes and sheer uncompromising luck, or a tale of horror that’s told in claustrophobic encounters and incremental advances.
Perhaps that’s the real reason why Spelunky digs its way so deeply into your brain and often pops up when you’re busy playing something else. You’ll flashback when another game’s arsenal reminds you of just how powerful Yu’s simple toolset is, or when another level designer tries and fails to encourage a different approach and reward convoluted strategies. That’s all it takes to trigger thoughts of loot, ghosts, and precious idols, and to set the sweet, bloodthirsty monsters calling out to you from the caverns of your memory.
Back to the mines and the ice caves, then. Back to the search for that City Of Gold.