Sep 15, 2013
"I see a bat. I couldn't be more prepared for this bat if I tried. OH GOD A BAT IS HERE WHAT DO I DO?"
That was the approximate commentary for my first ever Spelunky Daily Challenge - a game mode exclusive to the Steam edition of Spelunky. Every day it randomly generates a set of levels and every day you have just one chance at getting as far as you can. After you die (and you will probably die) you can see how far your friends made it and with how much cash.
The point of the Daily Challenge is to bring out the competitive aspect of the game and to make it social. In single player the competition was either with yourself or with the environment, but apparently if you add a leaderboard and the potential for watching friends die brilliantly theatrical or weird or stupid deaths, the game instantly becomes twice as compelling. This newfound potential also explains how I came to join the Spelunky Explorers Club, a collection of dedicated Spelunkers all recording their attempts to complete the Daily Challenge and then posting the videos on the internet to accumulate mockery or praise as deserved.
My first Spelunky Explorers Club video is below. It lasts 24 seconds and has been variously referred to as "pro", "inspiring" and "the alpha and omega of the medium".
The club was set up by Gunpoint developer, former PC Gamer gent and taker of transatlantic flight-length Letterpress turns, Tom Francis, as a way to share the wildly varied experiences of the Daily Challenge. It also offers up different ways to measure the success (or lack thereof) of participants by comparing deaths, items bought and narrow escapes, erm, escaped. According to Tom it's "like an old hunting lodge where we (dead) explorers share our tales of adventure."
The dead part is important here.
The game is basically a chocolate selection box of procedurally generated death traps. Spelunky's randomised environments lead to chains of events which spiral out of control and then explode, sometimes literally, into an entertaining demise. YouTube is now riddled with Daily Challenge videos and they're often brilliant fun to watch for those very reasons.
Mine are no exception to the death trend. In Spelunky I die every single day. There is a scenario where you can survive and actually finish the thing, but I don't watch those videos so I couldn't tell you exactly what happens. The reason I don't watch them is actually one of the problems with the Daily Challenge: that of losing the thrill of discovery.
Speaking with PC Gamer editor, Graham, with my friend Matt, and with basically anyone who has devoted hundreds of hours to playing Spelunky in the pre-Challenge era - one of Spelunky's great joys was walking into a level and finding something new. "I think the thing that pushed me through those early days when I was no good at it was a sense of discovery," said Graham when I had finished telling him how cross I was that I still hadn't seen a tree. "I hadn't even seen screenshots of world two. And then when I first got there I died instantly because there were new rules to learn."
Now what happens is the Daily Challenge actively promotes curiosity about what your friends are doing. You want to know how come they got so much further, whether they picked up the mystery box, how they died and so you ask them or you watch their Let's Play videos. The problem is that every one of these comes with a risk of seeing something far beyond what you've managed to find on your own.
That's how I know there are jungles and ice worlds and all manner of other cool, hidden things. It can spur you on by giving you a target to aim for but I want to keep some of the game's deeper levels a secret because I want to retain some of that joy*. As a result I'm wary of anything long or instructional-looking. Instead I gravitate towards shorter videos so as to more easily enjoy the deaths of others. Perhaps it should be renamed the Spelunky Daily Schadenfreude.
*Sidenote: sometimes there is too much joy. The first time I saw a jungle world I was so excited I smacked my leg into the underside of a desk and bruised my knee, as you'll see nine minutes into this auspicious playthrough.
The sharing aspect also opens up the possibility of cheating. According to Tom's system there is " a gentleman’s and gentlewoman’s agreement among explorers not to watch other people’s runs before attempting your own". The phrasing makes not cheating seem noble and honourable which are good enough reasons for not doing it. However, as someone who has tried cheating as a strategy I also feel I should point out that it isn't actually very helpful. The one time I cheated it did me no bloody good whatsoever and I ended up scampering around a mine in a futile attempt to avoid a ghost.
In making and uploading the videos it's also easy to keep a sense of your own progress or learning. Strangers or friends will also pop by to offer tips ("NEVER EVER BUY A TELEPORTER" from Matt, "Always have something in your hands" from Graham, "Damsels have 3HP" from Tom H) or maybe they'll subscribe to your channel and get invested in how you're doing.
You can also watch your own recordings back to work out chains of events which baffled you the first time around. You can pinpoint the exact moment the damsel died and how long you carried on tlking to her and dragging her round the mines, or you can work out whether it was the ghost, the boulder or the explosion of spiders which struck the fatal blow.
It's comforting to know that friends who can speedrun the whole thing in mere minutes still end up dying from the same arrow I did on the first level of the first world. Although I imagine that's less comforting from their perspective.
The Daily Challenge hasn't tempted me back into regular solo Spelunky at all. Those games still feel aimless and disjointed to me - at best they are practice for my Daily Challenge. It's the only Spelunky run of the day which matters and it's the one which has given me a way into a game I could never seem to love.
For more on Spelunky, read Graham's review, and Tom Francis' epic quest to reach the grand city of gold.
Straight out of the “designed to make PCG writers feel ashamed of themselves” file, a new Spelunky speedrun was recorded last weekend in which the player rocketed through the game’s many levels, beat final boss Olmec and then dove through the Hell dimension and survived—all in less than seven minutes.
Speedrunner bananasaurus_rex streamed the complete run in 6:52:162, which is the current world record as far as anyone can tell.
Indie Indiana Jones-alike Spelunky has been around for a few years, but the new HD revamp for PC has captured the hearts of the office. Graham gave it a roaring 96% review and a few of us join in on PCG UK alumnus Tom Francis’s Spelunky Explorers Club and post videos of the Spelunky Daily Challenge. Well, I say “us,” but I’m too cowardly to post my pathetic attempts. Compared to the Explorers Club’s cautious, collect-everything approach to the game, the speedrun’s shotgun-toting, jetpack-flying chicanery is an altogether different species.
If you’re new to the booby-trapped world of Spelunky, check out our review and Spelunky’s website. The original version of Spelunky is actually available online for free, so there’s really no excuse.
Sep 9, 2013
I should have been more careful. Having reached the end of one of Spelunky’s procedurally generated levels, I turned my back on the exit, and decided to bomb my way inside a snake pit instead.
Snake pits are one of the game’s most exciting random elements, as they’re level-deep and filled with, yes, snakes, but also precious jewels, mysterious crates and, buried in the rock at the bottom, a mattock. The latter is always too good an opportunity to pass up; with the mattock in my hand, I can mine my way through the destructible blocks that form Spelunky’s world, avoiding traps and gathering gold in my rush towards Olmec, the game’s boss.
I placed a bomb at the bottom corner of the pit’s outer wall. It exploded. The explosion propelled a rock towards me. The rock hit me in the face. I tumbled backwards, stunned, and died on some spikes.
When the free version of Spelunky was released in 2009, it was one of the first indie games to take the tenets of roguelikes – random level generation, extreme difficulty, permadeath – and dust off the genre to make it accessible. It does that not by being any more forgiving than its inspirations, but by combining those elements with the controls and cuteness of a 2D platformer.
In the four years since, Spelunky has become the background radiation of my gaming life. Whenever I need to think, or need a break from something else I’m playing, I’ll boot it up for 20 minutes. Every time, I encounter something new. Every time, my death is brutal. And every single time, I ask questions: what did I do wrong? Was my death fair? What should I have done differently?
I think my ability to find satisfactory answers to all three of those questions is why I keep coming back to Spelunky. I always know what I did wrong. The death is always fair. I should have been more careful.
A lot has been written about Spelunky’s procedural level generation – the ability of the game to construct the varied and challenging terrain of your adventures, and which prevents them from becoming repetitive or frustrating through endless new lives. It is impressive, and the game wouldn’t be as great without it. But it’s the parts that remain the same that enable me to answer the questions above.
Your descent into Spelunky’s underground complex is divided into worlds, each with its own menagerie of creatures, its own traps and special items. The mines are home to snakes, spiders, bats, dart traps and a magical Udjet Eye that lets you see gems in the rock. The jungle has exploding frogs, pools of chomping fish, people-eating plants, and a door buried in rock that leads to a black market full of shopkeepers selling the game’s most valuable items. An ice world and an Aztec world follow, with their own population of aliens, angry yetis and psychic staffwielding Anubis guards.
The order and quantity of these enemies changes, and you’ll find yourself constantly surprised and challenged by randomly deployed special levels, such as the mine where the ceilings are covered in giant spiders, or the ice level where the centrepiece is a tall alien spaceship with a tempting door at the top. There are mysteries out there I still haven’t discovered.
The excitement of exploring a fresh new world each time is paired with the satisfaction of learning a set of rules which are applicable on every level. You always begin with four bombs and four ropes in your pocket, and I know how much gold or gems need to be in an area to make it worth using one of these to get there. I know that I should always whip jars twice to burst them, in case they contain an enemy.
After the hundreds of hours I’ve played Spelunky, I’ve internalised all these universal systems to such an extent that I can close my eyes and continue playing even when away from the computer. The game is so precise and logical that I can build a challenge – plop down three tiki traps, position a bat, a spike pit, and a frog – and then set the game in motion. I can trace the slope of the bat down towards my character, the arc of the frog’s leap.
This is how you tackle every challenge in the game: look at it, play it out inside your head, then try to carry out your plan. Slowly and surely, Spelunky turns its players into Spelunky simulators, and challenges them to resolve that gap between imagination and execution.
That’s a hard challenge to overcome. I’ve filled a mental wiki with Spelunky tidbits, but I still occasionally make a mistake and die on world one, level one. Spelunky keeps me from being bored due to its level generation; it keeps me from being frustrated by always acting as I expect that it should; and the endless opportunity to screw up has thus far kept me entertained through over five thousand deaths.
That gives me thousands of examples of these systems at work. On a recent run, I reached the ice world. Where the mines and jungle levels are defined by tight spaces, the ice world is open, with slippy platforms floating in an abyss. Luckily I had the cape, which allows you to press jump in mid-air to float and gently steer yourself towards your desired landing site.
As I drifted towards the exit on one level, I failed to notice a rock sitting on top of a jump pad.
The jump pad hurled the rock into the air, where it stunned me, and knocked me onto the ledge just above the pad. The rock fell back onto the pad, and before I was able to move it was again launched against my head. And then again, and again, until I was dead, defeated for the second time by a supposedly inanimate object.
Spelunky places you in ridiculous and terrifying situations with far more regularity than is reasonable for a game with procedurally generated levels. Whether I’m angering a shopkeeper in the same second as I enter a door into a black market full of them, or parachuting into the abyss, or being trapped alongside my own bomb in the worm level, I’m simultaneously laughing, groaning and drafting a message to a friend to talk about it.
This latest version – a PC port of Spelunky HD, the from-scratch rebuild of the free PC original – adds an extra feature to the Steam edition that makes all of the game’s systems seem even more compelling: Daily Challenges. Each day a version of the world is generated that is the same for everyone, and which can be played only once.
This has spawned a community around the game that never existed before. I spend a portion of every day, after I’ve run my own Daily, watching YouTube videos of how my friends tackled, overcame and eventually died against the same combination of challenges. It’s pleasing to know you did better, heartbreaking to know you did worse, and gut-wrenching to know the gift-wrapped mystery box you decided not to risk buying on the second level contained the jetpack, the game’s best item.
These videos are an extension of the anecdotes that Spelunky players have been sharing with one another since the first version of the game: anecdotes that centre on the player’s death – The Failure with a Thousand Faces – but they’ve never been more exciting.
Spelunky represents half a dozen game design philosophies that I wish more games would copy. It isn’t easy, but it is accessible. It’s not scripted, but you tell stories through it. It’s challenging, but those challenges are always fair. Its procedural generation makes it replayable. Its Daily Challenges and local co-op mode make it an experience you can share, and I’ve played the latter for dozens of hours all on its own. Even the PC port, after an early patch, gives you all the options you’d want in terms of resolution and windowed modes.
I could go further, and wax lyrical about how that bat descent angle is carefully calibrated to mess with you; about how the level generation still hasn’t had enough good things said about it, and about how the game crafts scenarios that tempt you into taking risks; about the poignant deaths of its idiot AI slaves; about how cute the rescuable pug is.
Spelunky’s moving parts are simple – the free version was built using the entry-level game development tool, Game Maker – but they click together in ways smart enough that they’ve kept me joyfully exploring its depths for years, without ever reaching the bottom. You don’t need to be careful about this. Just buy it.
Expect to pay: £12 / $15
Release: out now
Multiplayer: 4-player deathmatch or co-op
Aug 16, 2013
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - firstname.lastname@example.org (John Walker)
Here’s some splendid news. Earlier this week I had a little grumblefest about the state of Spelunky’s PC port, with a lack of resolution options, and very poor windowed mode support. I also had a dig about the unskippable intro animations that were also a pain in the 360 version. Whether it was in response to my moaning, or something they were doing anyway, the really good news is that it’s all fixed! And as a result, Spelunky feels splendidly at home on the PC.
Aug 13, 2013
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - email@example.com (John Walker)
First impressions are pretty important. Especially when you come sauntering over to the PC after a year of absence. Spelunky, beginning as a PC game, upped and left for the 360 as an advanced version last July. And it was brilliant. It’s now back, promising an even more advanced version for PC. So how is the transition?>
Aug 9, 2013
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - firstname.lastname@example.org (Nathan Grayson)
Are you ready to be positively buried> under amazing games? Well too bad. Games are largely distributed via non-physical means now, and that’s a weird thing to do with them anyway. Take your sick, fetishistic disc orgies somewhere else. (Note: RPS does not actually discriminate against fetishes. Just physical media.) There are, however, a lot of brand new, positively excellent games suddenly populating our hobby’s infinitely expanding sea, and you should really just probably play all of them. I quite liked what I played of Papers, Please, the consolefolk enjoyed Guacamelee, and everybody with air in their lungs and a beating heart in their chest loves Spelunky.