Since re-playing Spelunky back in March, I’ve been on it extensively every day since. It’s a bit like Minecraft in that respect. You may only hit it from time to time, but when you do it’s probably for long, intensive bursts. I find it to be hugely addictive, partly because it taps into the simple, colourful pleasures of the arcades and the 16-bit era of my youth, and partly because the game is so beautifully and precisely polished mechanically. (In fact, Spelunky’s mastermind, Derek Yu, has written an entire book about its creation). But behind the simplicity and the chunky little graphics there lies a nest of evil and cunning, designed to torment your soul and turn your hands into sweating, controller-shaped claws. Each game of Spelunky is an exercise in unpredictability and randomness, and beating it does not mean that you have mastered it, or even really completed it, only that you beat it on that particular run. It’s OG gameplay in the old-skool playground, and your knees are going to get scraped.
Unlike in the old days, when you could ‘learn’ a game and memorise your entire route through it (I still have the occasional dream about whizzing through Rainbow Islands), the random level generation means you can’t really do that. This shifts the emphasis from learning to reaction, to being able to predict the unique alchemy of each situation as you encounter it. Spelunky’s objects and enemies operate with a kind of simple physics, and also a quite brilliant system of behaviours that react to each other in often unpredictable ways. What I’d like to do in this article is run through the basics of the game, and hopefully prepare new players for an enjoyable, broken-joypad-free time with it. For veteran players, my goal is only to remind you how great Spelunky is, and to get you to fire it up again as soon as possible. (Alternatively, the Geekycatlady did a great interview with the devs of Heaven’s Hope, or you can go watch that incredible Bananasaurus solo Eggplant Run again).
First of all, if you haven’t bought it already, you can get it through Steam for EUR 14.99 (it’s often discounted too, so maybe wait for a sale if you need to). The replay value from single player alone is infinite, but there’s also 1-4 player local co-op (with a great post-death ‘ghost’ mechanic), an online/AI bot Deathmatch mode with 72 unique arenas, as well as the superb Daily Challenge mode. In this, the entire community all plays the same new map each day for a shot at number one on the global leaderboards. Honestly, value for money here is not in question. There are 20 different colourful avatars to choose from too, 16 of which you must find in-game, trapped inside giant dusty coffins. Let them out, and they’ll run around helping you for the rest of the level before becoming selectable characters from the main menu. Best of all, the entire thing is just 273 mb (that’s maybe a weird thing to be pleased about, but I’m funny about my drive space). Oh, and you’ll definitely want an X-Box pad, or some other XInput-compatible device.
Construction of the Levels
Right then, you’ve purchased, installed and started it, selected a character and are presumably now running around checking it out. Feels like a simple arcade platformer, doesn’t it? You can hit things with a whip, throw bombs, deploy ropes, run left and right, and jump. The Right Trigger on your pad makes you sprint, and you can jump further and a tiny bit higher when sprinting. The levels in Spelunky are generated in a 3×3 grid, with each section being a different configuration of a random template. For example, in the first set of levels, The Mines, there are sections which consist of ladders and wooden platforms, sections which feature a pair of long ladders with treasure in nooks along the sides, and sections which may be basically high-sided and relatively empty, requiring you to throw a Rope or bomb a hole in the floor to get out of them. (There are zillions of different sections, these are just examples). Your progress through each level is usually a matter of zig-zagging through the three ‘layers’ from top to bottom. Sometimes you may want to make a diversion by using your Bombs and Ropes to avoid nasty bits, or get to some juicy treasure, etc. One tactical consideration here is whether it will be better for you to access something from above (by bombing into it), or going down and under and throwing a Rope up to access it from below. It is entirely possible to end up in a dead end, and if you’ve run out of Bombs or Ropes, you’ll have to take the time to back-track. (Did I mention that everything is on a timer, and that if you spend too long in one level, a giant Ghost will slowly hunt you down and kill you? Yep).
The actual platforms and terrain in each section consist of smaller tiles, of course, and the important thing to remember here is that each small square tile has several places you can be on it. In the middle or on the edges you’re okay. As mentioned above though, you can also be right on the edge. What this means is that you’ll wobble and maybe drop what you’re holding (but won’t yourself fall). At this point, you’ll want to learn the drop-and-hang. As soon as you fall or walk off the edge of a tile into space, immediately push back the other way and you’ll turn and cling on to the edge of the tile. This is handy because often, letting go from a drop-and-hang will be enough to mitigate your falling damage. Also, sometimes you’ll get a little configuration like the one pictured below, so with this move you can still get the item without landing on the Spikes (I would say it’s still a risky manoeuvre, but the whole game is one gigantic risky manoeuvre anyway). One other important thing to remember is that walking over a one-tile gap will cause you to fall through it (obvs) and cling on to the facing ledge, but running over it will just keep you running along without falling. This is very handy for running over awkward rock formations, and so on. Also, by pushing and holding up or down on the Left Stick you can look and see a little bit above or below you. This is handy for checking where you’re going to land when you drop down into space, or for looking for treasure you may have missed on your way down. (You can move left and right as you fall too). Note that it’s perfectly safe to do a look when you’re clinging on to a ledge – you won’t fall, just look.
The last thing to mention about the levels overall are the Level Feelings. These are specific themes that are randomly applied to each level, and in true Rogue-like fashion, announced with an on-screen message when you spawn in. For example, in The Mines your character might declare that “My skin is crawling…”. The level will then be crammed with spiders, with spider webs everywhere (interactive and decorative). I also mentioned Darkness levels earlier – “I can’t see a thing!”, says your Spelunker as they step out into total darkness. Darkness levels present a special challenge. You enter the level with a carryable torch at your feet, which you can use to light randomly-placed standing torches. These create pools of light that make things a tiny bit easier to see, but the greatest danger is the fact that you still usually won’t see the mobs before they get you. This highlights the importance of playing with the volume up, because audible clues abound in this game, and can mean the difference between life and death. (Plus the SFX are really ace – the sound of the vases smashing is completely satisfying on a deeply primitive level).
Speaking of Which…
Let’s have a word about damage, falling and lives. You start with four lives. Minor contact with most enemies will stun you, but not take a life. It’s hard to describe, but you’ll see for yourself soon enough. Usually, though, you’ll lose a whole life. The main way of gaining new lives is to rescue the Damsel on each level. This will either be a man, a woman, a little dog or any one of them, randomly (choose your preference from the Options). They’re all cartoonishly sexy (except the dog, unless, you know, that’s your thing), and they all call out for help when you’re close enough to hear them. If you pick them up, they’ll enter a stunned state and you can carry them to the exit. When you also go through the exit, you then get a kiss from your Damsel which gives you the extra life. Then there are Shopkeepers that run Kissing Parlours, wherein you can pay 8,000 for a kiss from a captive Damsel. (You can also try to rescue them from the Shopkeeper, although this is inadvisable as the Shopkeepers are… mental. More on them later). When you (or a humanoid enemy or certain animal enemies) are stunned, you fall on your face and little canaries circle your head for a few seconds, a la Tom & Jerry, etc. You’re immobilised, and this is possibly the worst thing that can happen to you that isn’t immediately fatal. You can also jump on humanoid enemies’ heads to stun them, and they’ll drop any weapons they’re carrying, which you can then pick up. This also works on some animal enemies, like the Scorpion. Handily, head jumps are instant death for Skeletons, Snakes, Bats and Spiders, just don’t do it on the big plants in the Jungle levels…
Also on the subject of enemies and stunning things (hello, Civ VI!): combat. Your basic defence in Spelunky is the whip. You use it to kill mobs that are right in your face, to crack open chests and vases, or to knock things away from you (for example, if you want to drop a Bomb over a ledge but are too far back, you can quickly whip it over the edge). Note that when you whip, the animation begins with you throwing your arm back before lashing out in front. This is important in terms of timing, because you can get a Bat in the face if you’re not careful, and also because you can stun your Damsel with the backswing, and the Damsels can only take 3 full hits from anything before they die (and thus become useless to you (unless you have a Kali altar nearby…). The reason you might have your Damsel stunned on the floor behind you is that you have to put them down before you can whip. So, if necessary, take a few steps away before attacking.
There are other weapons that can be found, bought or stolen from enemies. These include Boomerangs (my favourite), Shotguns, Freeze Rays, Cameras and Web Guns. Shotguns are awesome as they fire a spread of pellets that can take out clusters of enemies in one go (sooo satisfying), but have wicked recoil, so watch out behind you when you fire. Shopkeepers sell them (and also carry them), and fans of The Evil Dead will want to keep an eye on the headstones in the ‘Restless Dead’ Jungle levels… But apart from your whip, you also start with four Bombs. Once a Bomb is dropped (or thrown), it flashes red for about three seconds, then explodes. The blast radius varies a little, but is usually at least two tiles in all directions, so stand back. Note that some elements of scenery, such as the trees in the Jungle level, will be completely destroyed by a Bomb blast, so make sure you’re not hanging on to them if the Bomb is too close. Bombs, like Ropes, can be purchased quite cheaply from Shops, or looted from the many Crates that appear on every level.
The Price is Right
Whilst we’re here in the shops and looting department, let’s talk about money and items. You collect gems and gold from around the levels, with which you can purchase stuff from the numerous Shops. Gold can be left piled in bars on the floor, or appear as ore when exploded from the ground with Bombs. Gems are similarly buried in the ground, left lying around to be picked up, or are found in chests and vases which can be whipped open. All of this lovely loot gets spent in Shops, of which there are several different kinds. There are Clothes Shops, which sell Glasses, Capes, Bouncy and Spiked Boots, and Spiked or Baseball Gloves. These all do different things. For example, the Spiked Boots stop you slipping in the Ice Cave levels, the Spiked Gloves let you cling to any vertical surface (so you can, for example, zoom up and down the sides of a level like Spider-Man), and the Glasses let you see buried treasure and items. The most common Shops are Weapon Shops, which sell the various weapons mentioned earlier, Bomb Shops that sell different quantities of Bombs, and Supply Shops, which sell Ropes, Parachutes and – best of all – Compasses. These are absolutely essential bits of kit that always point towards the exit. (Note that while Crates provide Bombs and Ropes 99% of the time, there is always a 1% chance of getting something else too). There are many, many more items and weapons than what I mention here, but this will give you some idea of what’s available.
Now, the Shops are run by Shopkeepers, who are totally psychotic. When you enter a shop, you’ll get a message saying ‘Welcome to Jim’s Clothing Emporium’, or whatever it is. You stand on the thing you want, press RB, and the sale is made. But you can also pick things up and move them around inside the shop. If you do that, the Shopkeeper will come out from behind the counter and follow you around. If you try to move beyond the wooden flooring of the shop, he will immediately fly into a massive rage. An angry message will appear and he will start leaping around, indiscriminately firing his shotgun in a berserker rage. He can run and bounce and jump faster and higher and further than anything else in the game, including you, so just be careful! Not only this, but if you manage to escape, he will alert the other Shopkeepers in the levels ahead of you. They will guard the exits to every level, and as soon as they detect you getting close to their shops, will also fly into a shotgun rage. This makes your life exceedingly difficult, and although their enmity does decay, it takes forever and you’re unlikely to end the game well when they’re all annoyed with you.