Trial of Fame: Spelunky

What is “Trial of Fame”?

“Trial of Fame” is our series of articles in which authors and friends of our blog play a ‘cult game’ for the first time in their lives and tell us about the experience. With this, we hope to provide a new interesting perspective on these popular titles.

“Spelunky” by Derek Yu, Andrew Hull, Eirik Suhrke, BlitWorks Games (Tony Cabello, Miguel Ángel Horna, Miguel Angel Pastor Manuel & Miguel Ángel Expósito), Kevin Hathaway, Tyler Vetter, Craig Stuart Leigh, Josh Mulanax, Shogo Ishii, Mark Coates, Ted Woolsey, Jeremy Snook, Chris Charla, Daniel McConnell, Michael Wolf, John Dongelmans, Alex Herbert, Brian McCarty, Gerard Dunne, Ricardo Cordoba, Tom McManamon, Magali Lucchini, Malika Kherfi, Takashi Sasaki, Tingyun Suzuki, Yuko Yoshida, Shinya Muto, Lloyd Bell, Amelia Hannon, Nicholas Hardy, Valeriy Novytskyy, Michael Arvat, Josh Breese, April Culberson, Zachary Cutri, Jason Fox, Clayton K. Hopper, Matthew Howells, Alan Hume, Jacob Martin, Kevin Lourigan, Tyler Lovemark, Risë J. Lugo, Ryan Naegeli, Isaac Price, Masha Reutovski, Bradley Shockey, Rickie Thornley, Marc Williams, Gillian Williams, Jeffrey Woito & Jae Yslas.

“[This game is] a unique platformer with randomized levels that offer a challenging new experience each time you play. Journey deep underground and explore fantastic places filled with all manner of monsters, [traps] and treasure. [You will] have complete freedom while you navigate the [fully destructible] environments and master their many secrets.”

Some games age like fine wine: “Deus Ex”, the “Midnight Club” series, the “Need For Speed” titles from the Black Box era, every single “Metal Gear Solid” and many more. They might have some awkwardnesses and smoother modern successors, but they bring something unique and enjoyable that keeps them fresh for many years after their release. Sometimes the changing times even make them more vivid than they were back then.

“Spelunky” is not one of those games, especially when played on a computer. Compared to today’s roguelikes, it feels mismatched with its original platform, outdated and sometimes even annoying. At the same time, it is by no means a bad game, as it is well designed and technically impressive. However, it has been fully succeeded. I do not think it is a good decision to buy it in 2022.

I feel bad typing these words. Am I out of touch? Should I “git gud”? I am a hobbyist game developer myself, so I know that “Spelunky” was very influential to the industry, both in terms of its features and design. Also, I really enjoy difficult games. As a result, I wanted to really like this game. I delayed writing this article to play more in hopes it would become good at some point, but unfortunately it never did. It was death by a thousand cuts. All the following paragraphs will be minor complaints, but they added up for me.

Screenshot of "Spelunky"

For example, the controls of “Spelunky” are pretty simple with only four interaction buttons besides movement – and that is actually really great! The movement is also smooth and dialed in just right. However, the button mappings are a bit awkward on a keyboard. I attempted messing with it, since they are rebindable, but I could not get my hands to retrain to whatever I was trying and assumed the developers did the best they could with the default bindings (I just rebound my run key from Shift to Left Ctrl to save my poor little pinky). Unfortunately, the awkward controls were only foreshadowing for things to come.

In terms of game design, “Spelunky” is a pure roguelike that revolves around its procedurally generated dungeons. Said dungeons are generated by an algorithm that is straight up sadistic. You can look around to a certain extent, but that is often not enough to predict that a mistake that would normally only cost you a quarter or half of your health points will lead to a terrible chain of events that will immediately knock you out. Sometimes you do not even need to make a mistake! This is funny once, but it is intentional. You will feel repeatedly cheated by this game.

Screenshot of "Spelunky"

What makes this feeling even worse is the fact that, aside from three unlockable shortcuts to further levels, there are no rewards for progress. Only winning the entire game is a repeatable reward, which makes it massively difficult to stay motivated when rolling rigged dice. Unfortunately, this lack of gratifications seems to have been compensated for by the fact that “Spelunky” intentionally sucks at teaching. Sure, there is a compendium of items and enemies you encounter, but most entries of it are far too vague. How the hell was I supposed to know that the teleporter item would teleport me into a wall and kill me instantly? This refusal to teach extends so far that the game does not teach you how to ledge drop, which might be the most important movement mechanic.

I know that obscuring information is meant to make me feel good when I reuse the object that killed me again the second time with great success, but it would take a good bunch of runs before I run into it again. Hence, it was always preferable to stay within my comfort zone unless I was desperate. The game’s progression, satisfaction and greater gameplay loop come from bruteforce learning how the caves can screw you and how you can unscrew yourself.

On top of all the criticisms above, there is also the obsolescence. The sequel “Spelunky 2”, released in 2020, managed to refine the formula of its predecessor and added so much more content. And yet, it is clear why “Spelunky” was such a hit at the time. It was charming and slick in its execution, it was a relatively new type of video game in the midst of the brown cover shooter era and it also rode the procedural generation wave that was, if not triggered, at least made famous by “Minecraft”. There was also a lot less content from indies and small studios back then – and what content there was did not match today’s level of quality and uniqueness.

But now a decade has passed and the genre of roguelikes has evolved significantly. And while I am grateful that “Spelunky” exists, since it popularized the genre that has given me a lot of titles that I actually do like, I have to say that it is nothing more than a dusty relic these days. That is not automatically a bad thing, though, because relics are there to be studied, honored and marveled at. [PLAY]