How Spelunky kept me playing for an entire decade

There’s something beautifully slapstick about Spelunky. Over hundreds of hours of play, I’ve seen the poor Spelunky man impaled on spikes, explode into a thousand pieces, crushed by falling objects, eaten by man-eating plants, hurled against walls by over-friendly yetis, and shot by shopkeepers who, for some reason, don’t take kindly to being robbed.

I looked it up. I got my first Spelunky Xbox 360 achievement on 16 August 2013. One hundred and sixteen days later, I had died 1,000 times according to the “addicted” trophy – that’s an average of just under nine goes per day, maths fans. Twelve days after that, I finally beat the game – something that only 2.4% of Xbox gamers managed, apparently.

But I didn’t stop there. Y’see, Spelunky is a game with such rich depth and layered secrets that there’s an alternative ending: the Hell Run. To do this, you need to grab something off each of the four main worlds, and then use them in a very specific way to find a secret exit out of the ‘final’ boss level, opening up a whole other deadly section. On 3 May 2016, I became one of the 1.3% of PlayStation gamers to make it out this way – but with plenty more deaths on the way.

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted a change of platform there and, no, it wasn’t a mistake. The game has followed me across three console generations, four jobs, two house moves and, given I still play today, nearly a fifth of my life. How has such a simple game got such longevity?

Spelunky. Credit: Blitworks

First of all, Spelunky subverts the platforming genre in a number of intriguing ways. The most obvious of these is that all of its levels are procedurally generated. While the basic structure is the same with each play (four map types split evenly and sequentially over 16 levels), each stage is generated as you go, created to a specific set of rules that make it completable, but impossible to predict.

In thousands of plays, I’ve only encountered two or three stages where there was no path through without use of a precious bomb, which is a miracle of procedural generation. You can see how levels are made in this marvellous breakdown here, if you’re interested, but the upshot is the levels are random, but with the feel of something designed by hand.

In a traditional platformer, even the toughest stage can ultimately be overcome via a heady combination of perseverance and muscle memory. You know the order that things are coming, and when to press the buttons. With Spelunky, the levels and enemies will be different each time, so instead of memorising patterns, you’re forced to learn various strategies that can be applied to the hand you’re dealt. Gradually you inch further forward, and things click into place as the grammar of the game seeps into your consciousness.

Then there are the power-ups, which can completely transform your abilities. The jetpack, for example, takes away the need for your limited quality of rope as you can simply fly to out-of-reach places, while the shotgun makes even the most terrifying enemy drop with a couple of shells. These can make or break your run.

Spelunky. Credit: Blitworks

Most have their drawbacks, though, so as not to make things too easy: the shotgun not only uses your hands, meaning you have to temporarily drop it to pick up anything else, but also has horrendous kickback, invariably knocking you into spikes if you’re not careful. The teleporter can take you instantly through walls to unreachable places. It can also send you straight into the wall, killing you instantly.

Because these elements are randomised, you can’t use them as a crutch. If you don’t get your favourite power-up – the climbing gloves that let you scale walls, say – then you’ll just have to make do with what you have and adapt, making the most of a bad lot. In the world of Spelunky, the old idiom is subverted: what kills you ultimately makes you stronger.

Like the best brutally hard games, Spelunky walks the tightrope between punishing and unfair with impressive poise. You die a lot, but 99% of the time it’s your fault. Maybe you got too greedy and tried some overambitious parkour moves for a crate. Or perhaps you dawdled too long and fell victim to the one-touch-kills ghost that appears like clockwork after two-and-a-half minutes. You learn to look before you leap swiftly, and if you forget that rule, the game will make you relearn it the hard way.

That combines neatly with its ‘one more go’ charm. You might think dying over and over again is a pretty good incentive to call it a night, but you’d be wrong. Temptingly dangled over your head is the promise that, when everything falls into place, the game is very short indeed. In fact, there’s an achievement for completing the game in under eight minutes (unlocked: 20/08/2017) as a permanent reminder.

Spelunky 2
Spelunky 2. Credit: Blitworks

Then there are the many, many tricks that the game doesn’t signpost, letting you find them yourself through play. Those tables that appear randomly in levels? They’re altars for sacrifice. Drop enough living or dead bodies on there and you’ll get a free item. Drop a whole genocide’s worth of enemies on there and you’ll get the power to convert enemy blood into health. Drop a gold idol on there, and you’ll get a golden monkey pal who literally excretes jewels and gems for you to stash away. Not hugely hygienic, but profitable! I still doubt I know everything about it – it took me six years to learn that you can float down onto spikes without dying. Six.

The game is funny too in a cartoony, slapstick, unpredictable way: the random layout of traps and enemies seem to conspire against you like a malicious Rube Goldberg machine. A yeti once threw me in such a way that I bounced off multiple enemies and landed unconscious on one of the aforementioned altars. I was promptly sacrificed and my body replaced with a baseball glove reward that I was just too dead to claim.

I’ll give you just one example of how these things can combine, long before I’d got my head around the game’s complex laws of cause and effect. A shop had a shotgun that I needed but couldn’t afford, so I picked it up and shot the vendor. That’s a perfectly legitimate tactic in the morally grey world of Spelunky, but you have to be prepared for the consequences – namely that your face appears on a wanted poster on every level going forward, and each stage will feature at least one shotgun-toting shopkeeper seeking revenge.

Sure enough, after my robbery, I spotted a shopkeeper patrolling the exit. I thought I’d try and bomb my way through the floor for a quick escape, but in doing so I uncovered a hidden door, where I could literally run away from my problems. Adios, sucker!
That smugness lasted precisely ten seconds when it turned out the next level was actually the Black Market: a hidden area filled with shops and usually amicable shopkeepers.
It was a massacre.

Spelunky 2
Spelunky 2. Credit: Blitworks

Spelunky 2 arrived last September – a little later than promised, but you can’t rush perfection. The marvellous thing about it is that it keeps many of the same rules as the original, but adds more complexities along the way, so it’s familiar yet strange at the same time. Almost exactly a year after release, I’ve completed the game the normal way, but the Hell Run equivalent still eludes me.

If my performance in the original provides a solid benchmark, I should manage that in 2023, but even then my adventure won’t be over. At this point, it would be more surprising if I wasn’t still playing Spelunky 2 in 2029, and you can’t give higher praise than that.

Alan Martin is a freelance journalist and occasional contributor to NME. Read the rest of the Remastered series here.