Let’s get real: I’ve only been playing Spelunky for about two weeks and some change now, nearly daily, attempting at least one or two runs. Originally, I had no interest in the game, as it came across as maybe too punishing to be considered fun, and so I always kept my attention elsewhere. But then Patrick at Giant Bomb began playing, streaming his daily attempts to escape the mines, dive deeper down, and get better at the numerous mechanics and tricks, and it was actually quite interesting to watch. Kind of like a horror film, where it’s fine and dandy to watch someone else put themselves into a tough and trying situation, only because it is not you, and you can just kick back and absorb.
What is Spelunky, you ask, not knowing? Well, it’s an indie action-adventure game created by Derek Yu that has you running through caves, collecting treasure, and saving damsels for a high score and an attempt at beating the boss Olmec. It originally started as freeware in 2009, getting remade for consoles and the PC years later. The trick here is that the dungeon levels are randomly generated each and every time, and you only get one shot at it, though there are ways to increase your health and gain a second life. Traps are deadly, enemies are tough and quite unpredictable, and don’t even try stealing the idol in the jungle levels unless you have enough bombs to reach safety.
Some runs in Spelunky last around twenty minutes, and some are over in mere seconds. Like an endless runner á la Temple Run 2 and Jetpack Joyride, the “one more go” mentality is strong here. Very strong. Every death is your fault, and there’s always something to be learned for your next spelunking sojourn. Next time you’ll know that you can’t fall from that specific height, that you can’t jump on the walking Venus fly trap enemies, that bees should just be avoided at all costs, and so on. Visually, the game comes across as quite simple, and that’s even more noticeable when you compare the freeware version with the updated console versions, as not many details change, but things obviously get prettier. That said, this is one of the most complex and strategy-heavy games I’ve played in a long, long time.
I’ve beaten Olmec once. And it happened quite fortuitously. See, there’s this fellow called Tunnel Man who you meet when traveling from one themed group of levels to another. Such as exiting the mines and reaching the jungle. And he can open up shortcuts to these worlds if you give him specific items, like two bombs or a shotgun. However, to open the final shortcut to the temple, you have to bring the gold key you find in the mines all the way with you through the mines, jungle, and ice caves, and it’s no easy thing. Or at least I thought it was going to be grueling. Er, I did it on my first attempt. Even crazier is that after I gave the Tunnel Man his shortcut-opening item I finished the temple levels and got to the final boss, all wide-eyed in wonder and disbelief.
Let’s see. What else can I say about Spelunky? Dat music. Now, you can never really hang around too long in each singular level, as a ghost shows up that can one-hit kill you, so you are trying to move through the world at a speedy–but safe–clip, and that means you’re unfortunately missing out on some fantastic tunes. Everyone will be most familiar with the songs for the mines, and they are moody and down-tempo, with elements taken from jazz and all things 1990s. That jingle that plays when you anger a shopkeeper is both awesome and terrifying. The game’s soundtrack, which you can listen to here, is written and produced by Eirik Suhrke, with some additional friends helping out here and there.
Despite beating Olmec, I’m nowhere near done with Spelunky. Not one lick. First of all, there’s a second secret boss called Yama, and to get to Yama requires a lot of specific steps, and you can’t mess up one of them. It seems tough, but practice makes perfect, and I’m going to at least try. First I have to reach the City of Gold and then Hell. Hmm. But I’m also playing the game on the PlayStation 3, which has Daily Challenges, singular runs where the goal is to get the highest amount of treasure, and leaderboards nicely show how all your friends stack up against you. I’ve recently added a ton of Giant Bomb users to my friends list, which makes this feature much more enticing than when it was just me by my lonesome. And who knows–maybe one day I’ll tackle a solo eggplant run?