Spelunky is mean.
All right, maybe that’s a bit unfair. Spelunky is indifferent. It is a game completely and totally apathetic to your worries and woes, your quibbles and your qualms. It is basically the cool kid at school who is only cool because he just doesn’t give a flapjack about you or your problems. If you don’t like him, fine, and if you do like him, then whatever. Cool kids are just too cool to care.
And you know what? Spelunky is a cool kid.
Spelunky itself is an interesting menagerie of of a roguelike and a platformer. Every level you play is randomly generated based on a range of items and environment-based aesthetics and enemies (though it does appear to generate based on sets of trap layouts, but that’s splitting hairs). Along the way, you’ll collect coins, weapons, equipment, and a healthy respect for arrow traps and shopkeepers. However, if you die, you’ll forfeit every single item you’ve picked up and every coin you’ve pocketed. The only thing you’ll keep is that respect, now probably curdled to fear, but at least it’s a healthy, most non-paralyzing fear.
But perhaps that’s why Spelunky is such an enjoyable game. It is punishing in the most proper way. If you die, it is almost entirely your fault. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is always your fault. The platforming is so well done and the controls are so tight and intuitive that I never once faulted the game for a death and almost always cursed my own dumb, imperfect reactions. Your regular gait is slow enough to where your jumps and drops can be calculated and deliberate, but when you need to just go, you can hit the run button and WHAM, you’re fucking blazing. Midair or whatever, if you want to run, Spelunky will let you run, and it is absolutely fantastic. This is the way a platformer is supposed to feel.
There are, though, just so many obstacles between you and the exit that it will occasionally feel insurmountable. You start out with four hearts to clear an entire world of individual stages. Granted, each stage isn’t that long, but considering that there are roughly 40 to 50 traps, enemies, and damaging drops between the entrance and salvation, you soon begin to wonder if Spelunky could become anymore of a dick.
And then you play a level in the dark. And the answer is yes.
You can collect idols and damsels (customizable to dudes and dogs, too) to gain back or earn additional hearts, but that instead appears to be a façade. These pseudo-side quests are most to deter you and tilt the odds back in the favor of the house, taking up your precious and limited time and forcing you to be a bit reckless and too stupid. Your measured rage and commensurate tact are always butting heads.
But soon the charm comes through and you realize that in the melding platforming dough with chocolate roguelike chips, Spelunky is also folding in other bits and pieces. Horror shows its face when you are down to a single bomb—having used your last rope escaping a flesh-hungry plant—with a ghost on your tail and a stone wall in your way; a shooter shines through when you manage to pick up a shotgun or strange alienish energy blaster; and some Joust-like arcade roots begin to show when you get the jetpack, turning you into a woefully underprepared ostrich and your insulting small whip your lance.
Spelunky may also be the ultimate study in human psychology regarding the balance of risk and reward, cause and effect. The amount of times you’ll have rolled the dice despite knowing they will undoubtedly come up snake eyes is damn near innumerable, but just knowing that you could unlock an new item or character is almost always too enticing. It also doesn’t help knowing that the game is ostensibly masterable; there is an achievement for beating the entire game in less than eight minutes without shortcuts (which you earn by paying a guy who apparently loves digging tunnels for goods).
And sometimes your curiosity is piqued just for the sake of curiosity being able to be piqued. Everything in the world operates under the same rules as you do; enemies can be stunned, damsels can be killed, and pretty much everything interacts with everything else. If you throw a rock at a hanging spider and it lands on a set of spikes, it will die, just like you. If you throw a damsel in front of an arrow trap, it will set off and save you the trouble of looking like a fool. Spelunky isn’t asking anything from you it doesn’t demand of itself.
Of course, all this interactivity doesn’t help when you’ve got three other adventurers running around with you. You can go co-op where you turn into ghosts after you die (which allows you to puff at anything in the environment to either help or hinder any remaining players and soon-to-be-ex-friends) or play deathmatch which invites chaos like clowns to a block party. The deathmatch is probably the most fun in that it offers almost Bomberman-esque action—in fact, you can just crank up the number of bombs you start with and really get the party started—but it’s definitely not as skillful.
The map selection of multiplayer also hints at a hidden depth to the game that I’ve yet to fully explore. Along with the four worlds you explore to “beat” the game, there is also a list of special maps and something simply listed as ???, giving way to the fact that there is a hidden world in the game. It is so ridiculously demanding just to unlock that probably less than one out of a hundred players will unlock it. Even less will probably beat it.
The question, then, is will you? Will you jump on hundreds of bats and explode a thousand times just to reach something so few others have even seen? Will you punish yourself and push your psyche to the breaking point? Of course you will. It’s the same reason people climb Mount Everest or play Dark Souls: to test their limits and prove their worth. Beating Spelunky will become a bragging point for months—maybe even years—to come. Prove your mettle or be shown the door.
It’s time to make friends with the cool kid.