Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Spelunky review – Respect the game

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” — Edward Whymper, first person to ascend the Matterhorn

I've heard mountaineers in documentaries describe how the world's highest peaks command the respect of those who attempt to climb them. You hear people talk about Mt. Everest as if it were some cold and indifferent god. It is not there to cooperate. To those it beckons, it does so without intent. And even for those climbers who prove themselves worthy enough to reach its top, they tend to speak not so much of their own triumph over the mountain but rather of being humbled.

Like a wild nature unto itself, the world of Spelunky on the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) makes me feel insignificant as a video game player. It has no regard for my level of skill. If it rewards me with easy progress, I am happy. If it punishes me with overbearing obstacles, I try my best and am not surprised—or overly unruly—when I meet my grizzly end. That's just the way the cookie crumbles.

The game has been described as a rougelike platformer. The first half of that description refers to a sub-genre of role-playing games, derived from an actual 1980 game called Rouge, in which the game procedurally (or semi-randomly) generates new maps or levels for each play-through. Also, death in a roguelike is considered permanent. When you lose, you have to go all the way back to the start. No progress is spared. The objective may be to reach a predetermined end of the game, but if not that—since such an outcome is unlikely—then to simply make it as far as possible before dying will suffice.
In Spelunky you play either as a cartoony Indiana Jones lookalike or some other equally cute alternate character. You descend your way through a series of 2D levels, past all manner of enemies, hazards, and booby traps. Each level is composed of various tiles or building blocks, algorithmically arranged in a unique manner. There are some patterns that remain the same. The entry door goes somewhere at the top. The exit door is somewhere at the bottom. And there is always an available path to that door, however treacherous it might—or rather will—be.

The way you choose to traverse the maze is determined, in part, by your initial underlying goals. Do you try to collect as much gold as possible? Happy hunting. Do you simply try to beat the game? First of all, good luck. Your journey, should you reach your goal, will follow this rough outline: Four levels in the underground mines, four levels in the jungle, four levels in the ice caves, followed by three levels in the temple and a final boss room. There's also a shortcut system that you can build by completing each of the four main areas and donating a specific resource to the “Tunnel Man” in between stages. But there can be other goals as well, such as the ones set forth in the game's insanely difficult achievements, as well as secret paths I have yet to fully discover. Insane, I tell you!
But your playing style can easily change mid-way through the game based on your current health, as well as the resources made available to you as you explore. You start each game with four hearts, four bombs, four climbing ropes, and a whip. From there you can find or buy other items, and just about everything you pick up can also be thrown as a weapon. Get your hands on a shotgun and you may decide to wipe out those jungle enemies head on. Find a pickaxe or load up on more bombs and you might try blazing an entirely new trail altogether. It all depends on what the game throws your way. If I happen to be in the jungle levels and I see that I've ended up near a nest of giant bees, you can bet that I am going to throw a proportion of my caution to the wind in favor of a more frenetic pace. Seriously, those bees can be panic-inducing! But if I likewise happen to stumble upon a trapped damsel who will reward me with an extra heart if I successfully bring her to the exit, I might put myself in the path of harm for that very chance.

Every scenario in Spelunky is a risk-reward scenario. Mostly risk. You will quickly realize that death is swift and not even a stockpile of, say, eight hearts can assure your survival. The slightest misstep can instantly end what may have been your best play-through, often in ways you hadn't foreseen. It could be as graceless as a tiki man knocking you with a boomerang into a bed of spikes or as elaborate as being thrown around like a pinball by a bunch of yetis.
And yet even as it kicks your ass, Spelunky is addictive fun. It compels you to get better. You won't memorize the levels themselves, but you will memorize patterns and situations. If you lament your untimely death in one play-through, only to succumb to a very similar type of death several play-throughs later, you will curse not Spelunky but yourself.
There seems to be a recent mini surge of these procedurally generated games like Spelunky. I've been reading about a space game called FTL. Another is The Binding of Isaac (be sure to read an excellent column about that game here). The same underlying concept drives one of my favorite games of the year, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, which I previously wrote about. I think you can also identify it in those mobile-platform running games like Canabalt, which arrange an unpredictable path meant to keep you ... on your toes, I guess. It's that very randomness that makes those games so easy to pick up again. Every start is fresh and uncertain, but hopeful—always hopeful!
Spelunky also benefits for its attention to precision controls. For being such a game of patience and caution, the the character moves paradoxically fast, especially in a sprint. Character movement carries the goofiest physics that nevertheless become better controlled through sustained practice. There are situations I can memorize. I know that when I sprint from one ledge to another ledge separated by a gap two tile spaces wide, I'll end up hanging onto that opposite ledge.

Compare this to a much older game I've also been playing, which is Super Castlevania IV on the Super Nintendo, also a whip-wielding platformer and a great game in it's own right, I've determined. But in the physics and mechanics department, it's a game from a primitive era. Every jump feels accompanied by the weight of an invisible lead ball chained to the ankle. Spelunky may have its retro aesthetics, but it takes full advantage of modern mechanics.

Although I make my way down, it's as if Spelunky gives me new mountains to climb. I've finished the game once using the shortcut to the last four levels. My current goal is to beat it using no tunnel shortcuts. I've come close twice, only to be instantly killed both times by a crushing block on the penultimate level. It's frustrating, sure. But it's pointless to argue. I used to get exceedingly frustrated, for example, at the random “dark” levels. This is a scenario in which the entire level is almost pitch black outside the radius of a small halo of torchlight. The trick is to take this torch and make your way carefully to other torch beacons that help to illuminate other parts of the map. You can imagine how suddenly this random occurrence can diminish the player's likelihood of success. Enemies pop out of nowhere. Uncertain jumps can turn into health damaging free-falls or worse. But it can be done. And when it is done, it feels good.
The thing is, I've gotten to a point where I no longer fear these occurrences. I accept them like I accept a change in the weather. Is it fair? No. But Spelunky doesn't care. And if it laughs at me, I can only laugh back and face its cruel indifference like a challenge. The game commands respect because your virtual life depends on it. Just don't believe for a second that the respect is reciprocal.
The Score
  • Rolling Stone Magazine gives Spelunky 3-and-a-half-out-of-5 stars.
  • Pitchfork gives it an 8.7.
  • Roger Ebert says games games can't be art.
  • I say it's the best new game I've played this year.

Spelunky was made by indie developers Derek Yu and Andy Hull and is a remake of a free game of the same name that Yu originally developed for the PC. 

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