Recently I've been watching (and thoroughly enjoying) The Daily Spelunk. Apart from acting as a constant and painful reminder of my own ineptitude at the delicate art of Spelunky, it's also reignited my fascination with the game.
There is a lot to love about Spelunky. It's perilous pitfalls and precise platforming are almost endlessly intriguing. At turns onerous and agonizing, it's also filled to bursting point with awesome and inventive little touches. And goodness knows, I need as many little touches as I can get. Let's just say that I haven't been at bursting point in a very long time.
But what is it about Spelunky that enthrals us so much? What trickery lies at the heart of the game's appeal? What is it about this roguish little roguelike that keeps us glued to our screens?
I can't speak for anyone else, but I think I've figured out why - in the face of unending defeat - I continue to punish myself.
Let me tell you a story.
My videogame history begins with the Nintendo 64. A divisive console to be sure, but one that has a very definite place in my heart. Nostalgia clouds every memory I have of the N64, so it's probably wise to take everything I say with a pinch of salt. Scratch that. It's probably best to make it a wheelbarrow of salt.
I remember several games from this period of my life. I remember Super Mario 64. I remember Smash Bros. I remember Episode One: Pod Racer. I remember Goldeneye. And, no matter how hard I try scrub it from the corners of my mind, I remember Rugrats: Scavenger Hunt.
But the games that stick out in my memory - the ones that I poured Spelunky-esque amounts of time into - are Banjo Tooie, Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. When I was a kid there seemed to be a mysterious allure to those three games. I always felt as if they, more than any others, contained labyrinthine worlds chock full of secrets waiting to be discovered.
I remember sitting in the playroom, the floor strewn with errant Lego pieces, and watching my big brothers play.
I remember starting my own save file and venturing forth to discover these secrets for myself.
In Ocarina of time it was the Running Man. I remember seeing his gawkish frame jog over the hill for the first time and being utterly befuddled. Why did this character exist? Where did he fit within this world?
In Banjo Tooie it was the ice key. Aside from making like 4-kajillion brilliant games, Rare spent most of the 90's being a giant troll. Stop 'n' Swop. What the fuck was that? Who knows. All I know is that when my brothers and I figured out that the Ice Key turned Kazooie into a dragon, I nearly shit myself.
In Majora's Mask it was everything. Seriously. Every single sidequest and character in that game is brimming with a kind of exuberant enigmatism. The clear standout - if only for it's gleeful absurdity - has to be the hand ineffectually grasping for paper in the Stock Pot Inn. I think that was the first Zelda sidequest I ever figured out all by myself.
In all of these instances I felt as if I had been let in on some grand secret. As if I had solved some intricate mystery. As if I was the only person in the world who had deciphered the game's subtle clues.
Spelunky also makes me feel that way. It makes me feel like a kid setting out on a huge adventure, searching for secrets.
I was blown away when I first realised that letting the ghost run over jewels turns them into diamonds. Surely I was part of only a minority of people smart enough to stumble upon this privileged information. I wasn't. But that's not the point. I felt like I had solved a mystery. And I hadn't truly felt that way since the N64.
And it goes deeper. Watching the Daily Spelunk has alerted me to all manner of spelunking secrets. The City of Gold. The Worm. The Mothership. Snake pits. The fucking eggplant.
One begins to think that with so many secrets discovered, perhaps Spelunky simply holds no more. I wouldn't be surprised if we have in fact discovered everything it has to offer. But to be perfectly honest, I don't care. Spelunky still makes me feel like it's treacherous corridors are bursting with secrets to uncover. And that's what is important.
This, I think, is the game's true genius.
And so I keep on spelunking. I venture forward in an attempt to finally make it to the ice caves. I see countless struggles ahead and am fully prepared to encounter failure at every turn. Sometimes I don't even make it past the first level. But that doesn't matter. The scent of mystery and the promise of adventure spur me on. There are secrets in those caves, and I'm going to be the one to discover them!