It’s amazing how quickly a game of Spelunky can go wrong. One minute you’re looking at your dollars and health tick up as you rescue another dame and liberate another golden statue, modestly proud, and then a single mispressed key sends you falling onto those insta-death spikes. Sigh, press x, start again. And again. And again.
Generally speaking, when I tell people why I want to do this journalism thing as a life, I say its because I want to let people know about things that are important to me, and why. Oscar Wilde spoke about the Critic as Artist, which is what I aspire to, but also Critic as Your Mate With A Mix CD Of Stuff You Need To Hear. This is something of an exception- Spelunky is not a game I necessarily want to recommend- its addictive and, like any addictive substance, its damaging to your health. But what you’ve got to remember about addictions, to quote Renton from Trainspotting, “is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fudging stupid. At least, we’re not that fudging stupid.” (Thanks, family-friendly-blog-censorship!)
And the pleasure of Spelunky is its unpredictability. You’ll curse it as regularly as you praise it, but there’s a real joy to its randomly generated …everything. Even the opening story, told in three terse, pulpy lines, reveals new variations every time I play.
And this saves the game. Because Spelunky is unrelentingly difficult, something you’ll discover in the first few minutes of play. Every level is packed with enemies and traps, which can be overcome easily – once you’ve learnt the patterns – but their sheer quantity leaves your tiny avatar outnumbered and outgunned. And you’ll die, over and over. My current count, according to the Scores screen, is approaching 300 deaths. Below this there is a box announcing your total “wins”. This is of course 0.
A lot of the stress is taken off by the fact that many of your deaths, especially early on, are laugh-out-loud ridiculous. The first time your bouncing corpse kills three or four enemies, or is batted endlessly between two spike traps is as satisfying as any success you’ve had. And then you begin to discover, and that’s what makes Spelunky so playable and, more importantly, joyfully replayable.
And death is necessary to your discovery- the first thing is realising how you can work the traps, even turn them against your enemies. Then you’ll meet a new enemy, or pick up a new item, and it’ll go wrong and you’ll die, until you figure out just how they work. Even though its a world rendered in pixellated sprites, there’s a amazingly genuine sense of discovery- the kind I haven’t felt in a game since GTA: San Andreas (and the lack of which is GTA4‘s major failing).
It’s a game of accidents, glorious accidents. The most beautiful of which, so far for me, involved setting off an Indiana-Jones-style rolling-boulder trap, dodging it and watching the boulder roll into the nearby shop, trapping the shopkeeper in. “Vandal!” he shouts, as I slowly pick up all of his goods. “Thief!” I’m laughing evilly to myself as I bounce through the level, omnipotent, with spring shoes, climbing gloves and a cape. I’m still chuckling as I reach the end of the next level, where he’s waiting, with a shotgun. BLAM. And all that gold just becomes another high score, listed above the ever-increasing number of kills.(Confession: I wanted to make this a faux-feminist analysis of the game, wherein women are quite literally objects, listed alongside “loot” or “kills”, depending. They’re entirely helpless without you and need to be carried around, lest they run headlong, crying, into a trap. But I just couldn’t help talking about how fun the game is- and also the power of their kisses heals you and they’re near invincible. So that’s the end of that argument.)