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Gaming's Defining Moments - Spelunky

We look back at the platform adventure that helped kickstart the indie roguelike revolution.

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With a sequel in the works and preparing to launch in the nearish future, we thought we'd look back to one of our favourite games, Spelunky, and reminisce about its brutal challenge as well as the impact that it had on gaming in general, which is more substantial than you might imagine.

You see, Mossmouth's action-platformer doesn't look like much at first glance. If you were to judge it based on looks alone, you might typecast it as a simple platformer and get on with your day. However, what makes Spelunky so special is the fact that the simple cutesy art style is a little misleading; this is a punishing game that demands focus and patience from players.

Breaking it down to its constituent parts reveals a number of roguelike mechanics. That doesn't sound particularly revolutionary - Rogue was released back in 1980 - but Spelunky was one of the first of a new breed of non-RPG games that borrowed a number of these mechanics and used them to enhance different experiences in a number of new and exciting ways.

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The obvious place to start is permadeath. The threat of a restart weighs heavy and adds the kind of tension to the experience that you simply don't get if there's an abundance of lives and/or a "continue" screen to get you back in the fight when you make a mistake. In Spelunky you get one run and one run only - and that's the reason why everything you do matters so much. Although you can unlock new starting points by fulfilling certain criteria, you still start each game with nothing in your pockets and the same amount of health points. After that, it's down to you.


We don't want to dwell on Spelunky's permadeath for too long because that would be overly reductive. Moreover, to do so wouldn't do justice to the rest of the smart decisions Mossmouth made while making the game. A case in point is the procedurally generated levels. In a nutshell, the whole game is rebuilt every time and so each new attempt at the game is ostensibly a unique occurrence. It doesn't always work perfectly and we've seen other games excel in this area since, but for its time and generally speaking, Spelunky does a fine job of assembling itself ready for each new adventure.

And what an adventure it'll be. Heading down into darkness reveals all manner of strange creatures and weird beasties inhabiting strange biomes, and there's a nice progression with increasingly deadly foes sent to test you alongside fresh environmental challenges. Each enemy has its own attack patterns to learn and these actions grow in complexity. However, as you master the controls, you're better able to traverse the environment, using it to your advantage to get around the enemies and obstacles in your path. Your most useful attack is jumping on the heads of your foes, Mario-style, but you can also crack an Indiana Jonesesque whip to fend off the spiders and zombies that come at you as you explore.

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While you're out exploring the cavernous depths, you'll often find someone in need of help, who if you rescue will bestow upon you a healing kiss (once/if you've completed the level). Whether you save the dude, the girl, or a cute little (no doubt slobbering) pug, it's up to you who you help although it doesn't make much difference. What does make a difference, on the other hand, is the random items you'll find in the world. Embedded in the very rock itself as well as in the chests that adorn each level are jewels and gold that you can spend in shops on new items.

Maybe you'll want a gun, better climbing gear, or even a new bag of ropes to help you access those hard to reach places - either way, it's always good to stock up on supplies whenever you can as you never know when that extra bag of bombs will come in handy. One of the great things about Spelunky is the number of surprises it has in store for the player, and even after many hours of playing you'll still be discovering subtle details in its design. It's a game that has aged ever so well, and seven years after we first played it we still dip in every now and then and take it out for another spin.


It's also a game that impressed plenty of others, and we're not alone in holding it in such high regard. We're still riding the wave of games that followed in its wake, and over the years we've seen roguelike mechanics find their way into a bunch of titles, ranging from indies dominated by the overall concept through to blockbusters that cherrypick one or two ideas. You might not be able to point at Spelunky and say that it inspired a whole genre, but it has proven to be influential in a much broader sense.

With its procedurally generated levels, permadeath, gameplay variety, and quality controls, not to mention the excellent local co-op mode, Spelunky stands as one of the finest platform games of the last decade and it's still worth playing even to this day. And now, after having waxed lyrical for the past hour or so, we're really, really looking forward to playing Spelunky 2 when it lands later this year (hopefully).


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REVIEW. Written by Christian Gaca

"Because unlike Dr. Jones, our explorer will die. Die a lot...never has the suicide rate been so high in a video game."

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