It’s an unfortunate truth that there are many angry, unreasonable, harsh people who inhabit this world. The shopkeepers in Spelunky are some of them. These guys are shotgun-wielding fiends who pop up from time to time to sell you their extortionate goods and just generally annoy you. They are ruthless and have a long memory. Seriously, don’t mess with them. One wrong move and BAM – dead.
It was during one of my many unsuccessful play-throughs of Spelunky that I came across a shop owned by a man called Omar, and spotted a camera for sale. It was around 4000 gold but being the prolific treasure-hunter that I am I gladly parted with my cash. Naturally I was keen to try out my new gadget so I took a snap of good old Omar standing behind his counter. His reaction? He shot me. Omar pulled out his shotgun and shot me. I died. When you die in Spelunky you have to start all over again. **** you Omar.
Anyway, issues with Omar aside, Spelunky is a fantastic game. As with what seems to be nearly every indie game these days, Spelunky is a rogue-like; meaning the levels are randomly generated and death is permanent. You are armed with your trusty whip, four bombs and four ropes. Using just these tools, and any items you happen to purchase along the way, you must work your way through each stage, collecting gold and killing nasty creatures as you go.
Items make a big difference to how the game feels. Buying extra bombs is often key and being without them makes you feel much more restricted. The levels are fully destructive so bombs allow you to take whatever route you want through the level, enabling you to avoid dangerous looking areas. Buying a shotgun on the other hand will complete change the way you play. A shotgun blast will kill most things in one hit and it negates the need to get close to the creatures, most of which are not ranged themselves.
The creatures themselves come in a variety of forms, with the inhabitants of the mines including spiders, snakes, bats and scorpions. Each have different, but very specific, movement patterns. The spider, for example, will hang upside down from the ceiling until you walk underneath it, once you do it will drop down and then jump in a large arc towards you. Most creatures can be taken out with one swipe from your whip, it’s just a matter of learning how they behave.
Taking it slow is key, rushing through the level will often leave you impaled on a pit of spikes, but unfortunately for our explorer, time is of the essence. You have just two-and-a-half minutes to reach the exit of each level, after this time a ghost will appear on the map. This ghoul will chase you around the level and one touch from it will leave you instantly dead. It is this balance of precaution and haste which makes Spelunky so difficult. Ideally you would be able to take each level at a snail’s pace, searching every nook and cranny for each piece of gold you can find while ensuring that you don’t run headfirst into your demise. But because of the time cap, you can’t. You constantly feel under pressure to find the exit, and as a result you will die. Over and over again.
And it is hard. Really really hard. The first four stages find you in the mines, manage to get through those and you will reach the jungle. I would tell you what comes after the jungle stages but I can’t. Why? Because I’ve never got that far! I’ve played Spelunky for over ten hours and I’m yet to make it through the second area! Maybe I’m just really, really bad, but I prefer the other explanation.
It never (well, rarely) feels like it’s unfair though. Your death is pretty much always down to a mistake by you. Compare Spelunky with other rogue-likes and it comes out looking like a much ‘purer’ experience. When playing FTL: Faster Than Light for instance, you will sometimes encounter a situation that you just cannot survive (or will bring you so close to the edge of destruction that you won’t survive for much longer anyway). If you haven’t invested in the correct equipment or found enough crew members you just cannot win. The Binding Of Isaac is another example of a game which often feels unfair; once you progress to a certain stage in the game, you will encounter rooms which (unless you are an incredibly skilled player) are impossible to survive unless you have found strong enough items earlier in the game.
Spelunky never really feels like this. It’s nearly always because I’ve messed up. I’ve tried to go too quickly, I didn’t look down before I jumped down, I wasted all my bombs in the first level, I stood too close to the snake infested jar when I smashed it open etc. Spelunky generally doesn’t feel as luck-based as other rogue-likes I’ve played, and it doesn’t ask for the same mechanical expertise as something like The Binding Of Isaac so often does.
It’s not perfect though. There’s one particular memory that came to mind as I was writing the previous two paragraphs, one memory that still makes my blood boil. The scene is this: I’m playing Spelunky, it’s going well; I have a lot of loot, plenty of health and several items. Suddenly I spot something I’ve haven’t encountered in my previous six hours of play: a companion for sale. I’m unsure about how much help he’ll prove to be but I think there’s no harm in trying him out. Right? How wrong I was.
I set off with my new partner, I forget his name – it appears to have been burned from my memory, let’s call him Jerome. All is going fine so far, Jerome even collects a gem for me – what a gent! However, things go downhill very quickly. I see an area I want to get to below, but it’s blocked off by a thin wall. So I jump down and place a bomb on the floor to blast my way through. As I go to jump back up, out of harms way, Jerome drops down and lands on my head, knocking me unconscious right on top of my bomb. The bomb explodes as I stand back up, killing me.
As rage engulfs me I furiously close the game, vowing never to buy a companion again and mentally adding Jerome to my list of enemies, right below Omar…