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Indie Nation #46: Spelunky

1:00 PM on 01.09.2009 // Anthony Burch

Have you ever played a game that was so incredibly punishing, yet so ridiculously fun and rewarding that you couldn't help but play it for hours and hours despite losing at least two hundred lives in that span of time?

Have you ever played a game that was part roguelike (random dungeons, exploration, RPG elements) and part action-platformer? 

I have, because I've played Spelunky.

This, the newest title from Derek Yu (of I'm O.K. fame), is one of the most frustratingly addictive games I've played in years. The game is completely  and unrepentantly unforgiving, but incredibly replayable thanks to its procedurally-generated levels and some surprising, imaginative touches in nearly every aspect of the design.

I don't want to say anything more and waste your time, because you're probably going to be spending the next few hours (or days, or weeks) playing it nonstop, anyway. Go here to play it (PC only), and feel really goddamn proud of yourself if you beat it. I sure couldn't.

As always, you can also hit the jump to hear my thoughts on what makes the game so special. You probably don't need to, though: you'll know exactly what makes the game so great after spending an hour or so with it. Also, I spoil some stuff.

Holy shit, man.

Holy shit.

It's the little touches that make this game, except they're not little at all -- they're just not told to you from the get-go, which makes the process of discovering them all the more wonderful.

In case you can't tell, this means that you should stop reading until you've either played the game and explored its mechanics to some degree of fullness, or tried it and decided you didn't care for it. Or if you own a Mac.*

When I realized the only way to get health back was by saving damsels in distress, I thought the game was kind of interesting.

When I found that every golden idol sprinkled throughout the maps would spawn an instadeath boulder upon my grabbing it, I liked it even more.

But it wasn't until I robbed my first merchant that I fell in love with Spelunky.

Spelunky circumvents one of the most irritating cliches in the history of videogaming, and it does it with style, finesse, and legitimate consequence. I may sound silly for saying this, but I think it's one of the cleverest design choices I've seen in a game of its type(s). We've all walked into some town in an RPG or met a cloaked stranger sitting in an alley who would offer to sell us some incredibly necessary items, presuming we have the cash to pay him. As we spend hours and hours stomping enemies and opening chests to find the necessary gold to pay off these capitalist assholes, we can't help but wonder: "Why don't I just kill the sonofabitch and take his merchandise for myself?"

Spelunky has the courage to actually answer this question. 

Upon meeting any merchant in the game, you have three choices:

1. Buy your goods with money like an upstanding citizen

2. Grab one item from his shop and run out like a thief in the night

3. Kill that greedy sack of crap and take everything in the store.

Now, this surfeit of options gives the player a sense of freedom in how to deal with a relatively familiar videogame trope, but that's not all -- each decision has its own unique, interesting, strategic set of consequences.

If you pay for stuff like a pussy upstanding citizen, you'll have to spend much more time exploring the (incredibly dangerous) levels searching for extra treasure to finance them, which will probably decrease your life expectancy by a factor of, say, twenty. 

If you try to run away with an item without paying for it, the merchant will chase after you with his insta-kill shotgun. He's incredibly fast and agile, and considering that you have no extra lives, healing potions, or save slots, you probably don't want to risk earning his ire while you're still holding a jetpack instead of, say, a gun.

If you try to kill him, however, then things get really interesting. Assuming you can kill him, which is incredibly difficult on its own unless you have a shotgun (which you won't, since merchants are the only characters who actually carry them), you'll have to deal with being a criminal. Wanted posters emblazoned with your adorable, pixelated face will adorn every merchant's shop in every level you run into, for the rest of the entire game. Merchants will shoot you on sight, rather than do business with you. Other merchants -- perhaps twin brothers of the one you killed -- will occasionally camp out near the exit of a level, simply waiting for you to try and escape before ambushing and killing the fuck out of you. Murdering a merchant is incredibly useful in the short term considering how many useful items they have, but it also means you'll have to deal with some serious reprecussions later on. 

The decision to give the player all these different options in dealing with merchants just plain floored me. I'd never considered that something as simple as buying inventory items could be handled with such deftness, responsibility, and subtlety. Again, you're never told that killing the merchant is an option: it's just something that you try sooner or later and, unlike 99.9% of other videogames, Spelunky actually rewards you for the attempt while simultaneously introducing new, complex consequences.

I could probably go on and on about Spelunky. At the time of this writing, I've died 312 times and have only reached the final boss once. I've opened all the shortcuts, but I'm just not goddamn good enough to reliably get through the last world. I played it and played it for hours on end after first downloading it, until I decided to put the game down forever and delete it from my hard drive in order to prevent myself getting legitimately addicted to it.

Of course, the process of writing this article has made me want to download it again.


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