Why Spelunky is the best game I’ve ever played

izzy neuhaus
Nov 7, 2014 · 18 min read

This is a repost of a blog I wrote in early 2014. It is no less true today…in fact, I’ve only fallen more in love with Spelunky.

I’ve been trying for days, weeks even, to come up with a way to open this review/gushing/whatever that was as perfect as the game it’s about, but I’ve decided that it’s simply not possible. So, I’m just going to make a really bold statement to summarize what I’m probably going to spend the next couple of days writing about:

Spelunky HD is quite possibly the greatest game I have ever played.

Now, I’ve played a lot of video games. Like, a lot. I’ve been absorbing all sorts of different titles for nearly two decades and for at least one of those decades, I’ve slammed my head against the wall every time someone who doesn’t know the insane depth of my hobby asks what my “favorite” game is. I hate that question. I really do. It’s so trivial to others that I could very easily just drop the first name that comes to mind and carry on with the conversation, but to me, it says a lot about who I am as a person. Maybe video games aren’t such a defining thing for most people, but I’d argue that anyone with any sort of passion would also cringe if they were asked the same question about whatever is most relevant to them. “What’s your favorite book?” “What’s your favorite movie?” “Who’s your favorite child?”

Up until very recently, my answer to that awful question is: “Well, I’ve got a top 50 list somewhere, but if you held a gun to my head and demanded I give you only one, I guess I could maybe give you my top three.” (I’m talking about video games again, not children, just in case that wasn’t clear). You may think I’m blowing things out of proportion a bit, but you could very easily find my top 50 list (which I’m now realizing is more like a top 70) on the sidebar of my old blog with barely any effort and I have literally spent hours agonizing over what a potential “top three” would include.

The bottom line is, I take this stuff pretty seriously.

After spending some time (like, 60+ hours of time) with Spelunky HD, I feel like I may finally be able to have a short answer to that dreaded question. Why does this matter to you? Well, as with any form of art or entertainment, taste is subjective and I don’t believe that everything I like is perfect and flawless nor do I think that Spelunky is, without a doubt, the single greatest game that has ever existed. Objectively, however, I think that it’s pretty damn close to being perfect and flawless and, if you’re the type of person who’s at least a little curious about what a perfect and flawless game might be like, you are doing yourself a great disservice by not giving Spleunky a chance.

This is the part where I tell you to go try the game before I inevitably spoil some of its wonder for you in the below paragraphs. I’m not going to go all out and tell you everything about the game (in fact, that would be impossible, because I don’t even know everything about the game), but I do think that you would be better off just going into it like I did: with little to no expectations (though I may have already ruined your chances of doing so by opening with “SPELUNKY IS THE BEST GAME EVER”).

Please join me now, as I analyze my current obsession and determine whether or not Spelunky HD truly is the “greatest game I’ve ever played”.

A little background

The original Spelunky (created by one person, the amazing Derek Yu, in Game Maker) was released for free in 2008 for PC, but my story begins with the high definition remake that released on the Xbox Live Arcade in 2012 (the HD remake was also recently released on Steam for PC, as well as the Playstation 3 and Vita). Upon starting the game, I was placed in the shoes of a nameless spelunker in search of great riches. The HD version’s brief tutorial gives you a tiny bit of story from the perspective of a previous explorer who never returned from his journey below, but if I’m being honest here, the story is nothing to write home about. During the tutorial, you’ll get acclimated to the controls and basic mechanics of the game. This includes movement, attacking with your whip, dropping bombs, and tossing ropes. It doesn’t take long to get used to these functions, but it may be ages before you’re able to use them all to their full potential.

The walls are shifting…

If you manage to die in the tutorial levels, you may notice that the game starts you right back at the beginning of the level you died on, allowing you to give it another go. The real game is not so kind. Borrowing from the roguelike genre, death is permanent in Spelunky. If you die in any level at any time, it doesn’t matter how much treasure you looted or what items you have (well, with one exception…), the game will start you over from scratch. That’s right. Level 1–1, four health, four bombs, four ropes. This may be somewhat alarming to those of you who are used to the safety of checkpoints, but you may be even more alarmed to find that level 1–1 doesn’t look quite the same as it did the last time you were there.

Rather than creating a finite number of stages that you can practice over and over again, testing your memory over your skills, Spelunky takes the randomly generated approach that’s made Minecraft its millions. However, even Minecraft doesn’t do it quite as brilliantly as Spelunky does. You can examine the level generator from a technical standpoint and see how smart the game is, but even just playing the game just a few times, you’ll quickly realize how much more intelligent the system is over something like Minecraft.

You see, in Minecraft, there’s never any real sense of danger. Sure, when the sun goes down, there are all kinds of creepy crawlies that want to take a bite out of you, but even without a single tool in your inventory, you can easily punch a hole in the ground and bury yourself until sunrise. That strategy works less well in caves, but even in that situation, it’s still very easy just to dig upwards until you reach the surface. Also, let’s not forget that the only consequence of dying is simply having to trot back to your previous location to pick up your gear. That can get a little tedious if you were way off the beaten path, but it’s not like your save is going to get erased or anything.

Spelunky, on the other hand, wants you dead. The game is smart enough to give you an unobstructed path through each randomly generated level, but are you smart enough to stay on that path? Everytime you see a wealth of treasure (which will allow you to buy slick equipment to make survival easier), a lonely crate (which contains a random piece of said equipment), or a damsel in distress (which, upon “rescuing” by carrying to the level’s exit, will add another health point to your total), it’s time to make a judgement call. Is it worth using a bomb to blow out this wall and loot that treasure? Is it worth using a rope to climb up to the ledge and grab that crate? Is it worth saving that damsel, even though she’s quite a ways away from the exit and it’ll take a few minutes to reach her?

The first couple hours you play, your answer to all of these questions will likely be “yes!” It’s exciting to explore the entire level and find all sorts of goodies that you never would have seen had you played it safe. But wait, what happens when you run out of bombs and find yourself unable to blow up that giant spider hanging just above the exit? What happens when you use all your ropes and can’t jump out of a deep pit? What happens when you take more than 2 minutes and 30 seconds to rescue that damsel? Well, I won’t spoil that last one for you, but let’s just say that you’ll probably want to have a clear path to the exit ready if you plan on spending more time than that on a single level.

Hey! While we’re discussing the ways your own recklessness can put you in an early grave, let me tell you about all the other stuff that wants to kill you! Just as the terrain is randomized, so are the deadly flora and fauna. Most of them have fairly predictable movement patterns and become less outright scary as you play more, but I’m willing to bet that you’ll still get bit by the lowly green snake late into your Spelunky career (and, as the great Anthony Burch once said, “If you take damage from a green snake, it’s nobody’s fault but your own”).

Add traps into the mix and now you’re really in trouble. Arrow traps, which are fairly common in the Mines (levels 1–1 to 1–4), will take out half of your starting health if you’re foolish enough to trip one. Keeping a stone on hand so you can disarm them from a safe distance is a great precaution, but be careful it doesn’t bounce off a wall and hit you in the head! Getting hit by an obvious arrow trap is pretty embarrassing, but clocking yourself with your own stone is even worse. Also, be mindful of all those breakable pots scattered around the levels. They may have treasure in them, but they’re just as likely to contain a spider or snake you weren’t ready to deal with.

Oh, and if you fall on spikes, you’ll die instantly, no matter how much health you have. Just sayin’.

“Nobody’s fault but your own”

At this point, you’re probably thinking “wow, this all sounds awful…who would want to play a game where it’s so easy to die?” Well, sure, losing is never fun. But what about the thrill of winning?

There are hundreds of thousands of games across the internet that you could access at any possible moment and win with little to no effort. These games might make you feel pretty good about yourself for a few seconds, but the novelty wears off rather quickly. Some games might even keep you hooked for much longer by withholding the thrill of winning and instead making you feel like you’re making progress toward that goal, when, in reality, you’re not accomplishing anything. Those games exist solely to waste your time and, in the worst cases, your money, too.

Spelunky is nothing like those games, which is hopefully obvious from all I’ve said so far, but it also stands out from its ilk as being incredibly fair and respectful to the player. Everything in the game is out for your blood, yes, but all of it can be avoided if you keep your wits about you. Rarely does the game punish the player for simply playing and that’s really remarkable.

Take a second to consider the threats I described earlier. All of them describe a situation in which the player does something stupid and pays for it. Stranded in a deep pit you can’t get out of? Well, you shouldn’t have used up all your bombs and ropes trying to make bank. Took an arrow to the face? Well, you should have taken a few more seconds to examine your surroundings. Fell on some spikes? Well…that one should be pretty obvious.

Anthony’s words about the green snake actually ring true for nearly every aspect of Spelunky. Some enemies and traps are certainly more dangerous than others, but with a bit of common sense and cautiousness, there really shouldn’t be any reason you couldn’t beat Spelunky on your very first try. After all, it doesn’t take much more than a half hour from start to finish, assuming you don’t waste your time treasure hunting or damsel saving.

Of course, my claim is completely theoretical. I’d really love to see someone finish the game exactly once, proving my theory, but I know it’ll never happen. Why? Because we’re human! We’re human and we make stupid, human mistakes. Greed and curiosity are traits that can make Spelunky really fun to play, but also incredibly difficult unless you learn how to keep them under control.

As previously analyzed by people way cooler than me, good roguelikes are special in the way that they don’t waste your time with meaningless stats and busywork. It’s not about how many hours you put into the game or how many times you’ve died, it’s about what you’ve learned from those hours and deaths. In the realm of the game, do you know what spiked boots do? Do you know how to kill a giant spider safely and efficiently? Do you know how to rob a shop without getting murdered by the surprisingly agile shopkeeper? Did you even know you could rob the shops?

Spelunky is a game about making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and trying again. Spelunky is a game about being human.

Risk and reward

Survival is one thing, but success is an entirely different beast. As I stated earlier, I believe it’s (theoretically) possible for someone uninitiated with Spelunky to play the game exactlyonce and win, at least in the sense that the game will never place you in an unwinnable state (this is not accounting for human error, hence the word “theoretically”). If the only goal is to survive until the end credits, it’s trivial to complete the journey. Every level has a path to freedom that require no additional resources for the player to utilize and every enemy can be avoided or dispatched with some level of patience and cautiousness. Even the final boss can be destroyed without the use of any additional items or resources (though it is a hell of a lot easier with a lot of bombs on hand).

Of course, in all likelihood, no one will ever do that. Upon entering the Mines for the second time (I’m just going to assume you accepted and failed my “win exactly once” challenge the first time), you’re probably going to go out of your way to gather all the treasure you can get your greedy little paws on. You’re probably going to blow up a wall and rope up to a crate to see what’s inside. You’re probably going to save the damsel because you want to be a hero.

All of these things will probably get you killed at one point or another, but that’s just the nature of the game. How are you going to enjoy everything the game has to offer if you don’t take chances? More importantly, how are you going to get a higher score than your friends? The whole motivation behind the spelunker’s journey below is to come out of it wicked rich, so, as the player, that’s your motivation as well. Why risk your soft, easily bruised body trying to explore these mines if you aren’t going to benefit from it? That’s not very human of you.

To quote a rather famous teacher: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” If you really want to get ahead in the world of Spelunky, those are words to live by. While dying may eradicate any progress you made in that particular run, the skills and knowledge you learned from that run will stick with you forever…or at least until you forget them and die a similar death down the road. One of the greatest challenges in Spelunky is simply being able to recall every past lesson learned and apply that information to subsequent runs. If you can do that, however, you’ll start to figure out what works and what doesn’t. That’s how you earn the big bucks.

However, as you delve deeper into the world of Spelunky, you may find yourself asking more questions than the game answers.

Secrets in the age of the internet

The beautiful thing about Spelunky is that it’s so mysterious. I mean, by the nature of the game, you’re likely to spend a long time in the Mines simply because it’s so easy to die while you’re learning how to strike the right balance between being careful and being cocky. As you become more accustomed to the threats in the Mines, however, you’ll eventually get past those initial levels and find that there’s a completely new environment after it with its own slew of unique enemies and traps that you’ll have to learn how to overcome. Which is awesome.

Beyond the four standard areas that you’ll likely trounce (or be trounced by) hundreds of times over, there are also a handful of levels that are not required to beat the game. Some of these levels can be even more insane than you might expect, but conquering them can yield some pretty insane rewards. While these locations typically don’t take a ton of effort to return to once you know where they are, you’ll still likely be scratching your head trying to figure out how to get to them the first time many hours into the game. I never thought so much unique content could be packed into a game that takes less than an hour to beat, and yet, here I am with 70+ hours (before you ask: yes, I have played another 10 hours since I started writing this) under my belt and I’m still finding new reasons to play.

To help you further grasp the crazy depth of Spelunky, let me tell you with complete honesty that I learn something new about the game nearly every single day I play it (or watch Anthony Burch and Tom Francis play it, I suppose). This, I think, is maybe the most remarkable thing about Spelunky.

Remember the good old days when the internet was young and not spoiling everything for everybody? When dubious rumors about how to catch Mew without a Gameshark in Pokemon Red/Blue ran rampant and kids at recess discussed the mystery of the unobtainable Ice Key in Banjo-Kazooie? Spelunky is jam packed with odd little mysteries like those and they make the game that much more compelling.

These mysteries range from large to small and while those on the “large” end of the spectrum can probably be easily spoiled by checking out the Spelunky wiki, the small ones will likely have you going “WHAT I DIDN’T KNOW THAT” even hundreds of deaths later. Some of these can seem incredibly frivolous, but actually add that much more to the depth of the game. I don’t want to spoil them for you, but if you want to get a rough idea of how much the game has to offer, Destructoid promoted a twopart mega-guide to Spelunky from the community blogs that you can check out (and I’ve even found a few things myself that aren’t noted in those articles).

Again, for the sake of a better Spelunky experience, I wouldn’t recommend actually reading any of the aforementioned articles, but the sheer length of them should be pretty telling. I’m sure some will argue that there’s more to see in huge, open-world games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto and they’re absolutely right…but how many new gameplay mechanics are you going to discover 50 hours in?

In terms of pure gameplay depth, I’d be hard pressed to think of anything more impressive than Spelunky.

No wrong way to play

Just as there are many ways to fail in Spelunky (which is especially evident now that someone has brilliantly come up with a way to bet fake internet dollars on the demise of livestreamers), there are also many ways to succeed. Another great thing about the game is that it’s so open to unique challenges, be they imposed by the player’s own goals or fueled by achievement lust. There’s no shortage of Spelunky speedrunners (attempting to complete the game in record time), high scorers, or other players who create their own rules and try to complete the game according to them.

Speedrunning is a pretty common practice across all video games, however, it’s an especially interesting task to undertake in the world of Spelunky. There’s an achievement that asks for a totally reasonable (well, reasonable if you’re not me) 8 minute completion time, but the world record sits just above two minutes. Two minutes. In a game where no two levels are ever the same. Crazy.

Anthony Burch (maybe if I say his name three times, he’ll appear) has been taking note of interesting and unique ways to play video games (this one in particular made me tear up and you really should read it) and recently highlighted another staggering accomplishment in the world of Spelunky. I don’t want to ruin it for you and, to take that precaution one step further, I suggest you avoid even clicking this link (unless you already know what relevance the word “eggplant” has to the game or you just hate fun and aren’t ever going to play Spelunky anyway). Just know that it was no small feat and that I’d likely have to play for hundreds of hours before I’m even close to being able to pull something like it off.

Hell, sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever even get all the built-in achievements in this lifetime.

It’s also worth noting that the PC release of Spelunky HD includes an incredibly cool mode called the “Daily Challenge”, in which the game generates a new world each day that’s the exact same for every player, but you only get one attempt to play it. The fear of knowing that you only have one shot at greatness combined with the fact that everyone else is experiencing the exact same traps and creatures as you gives Spelunky a feeling of community that most games fail to produce. It’s really cool to watch videos of other people tackling the same Daily Challenge and laughing at them as they miss all the cool things I noticed (although, they usually make it farther than me, so maybe I shouldn’t be laughing so much).

Oh, there are also some sweet multiplayer modes exclusive to Spelunky HD which let you play the main game with friends or kill them all in claustrophobic deathmatch arenas. Any way you slice it, there’s a lot to do.

The best of the best

Alright, look: Spelunky HD is really good. Like, really, really good. I don’t know how I can put it any more simply.

If I’m being completely honest with myself, I can’t say with any great confidence that it is, indeed, my absolute favorite, but I do believe that it’s quite possibly the most perfect at what it is: a video game. Yes, I love the clay architecture of The Neverhood and the brilliant dialog of Grim Fandango. Yes, I am waiting with bated breath for the 3DS remake of Majora’s Mask. Yes, I think the Mega Man Battle Network series is the most clever and unique spin-off in the Mega Man universe. Does that mean that I think that any single one of those games perfectly encapsulates the essence of what a video game is? What it strived to be before we got too bogged down by ham-fisted narratives and quick time events?

Spelunky is perfect in the way that it has everything you could ask for in a classic, arcade-like video game experience. It’s a test of skill and reflex. It’s easy to learn and hard to master. It’s endlessly mysterious and rewarding.

Most importantly, it’s fun.

I will continue to love the titles I listed earlier despite their flaws and I will continue to look forward to what the future of gaming has to offer. I won’t hold games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead next to Spelunky and criticize them for not being everything that Spelunky is. Hell, even after this long deliberation, I still can’t answer that stupid, horrible question of “What’s your favorite game?”, but you know, if you were to ask: “If I only play one video game ever, what should it be?”

I would likely respond, “Off the top of my head? Spelunky HD.”

Originally published at eaneuhaus.com.

    izzy neuhaus

    Written by

    game dev. writer. musician. they/them. genderfluid. extremely online. extremely tired.