Robert Hornbek

Game Development & Exploration

Spelunky

Posted by rHornbek on November 4, 2009

I first read about Spelunky from an article in Game Developer Magazine that describes it as a game that effectively generates random levels.  The game is independently made by Derek Yu and can be downloaded for free online at SpelunkyWorld.com.  I found the Spelunky to be very fun in a refreshing way and incredibly well executed for an independent game made by what appears to be a single person.

Spelunky_Cave_Enterance

Spelunky opening cinematic.

The gameplay and objectives for Speluky are mostly strait forward and taking pages from classic side scrolling adventure games.  You play as an Indiana Jones clone and travel deep into various caves and caverns to find lost treasures avoiding enemies and traps in the process.  With the help of a tutorial, I learned that I could run, jump, whip enemies and use bombs to destroy portions of the cave.  In addition to this I could plant ropes that would allow me to climb up or down the caverns safely.  It quickly became apparent that I needed to manage all of these features rather carefully to progress, which was nice because it kept me thinking about every move I made.  With each treasure I collected I would generate additional points for my total score at the end of each level.  This appeared to be the primary goal, like classic games, to simply generate as many points as possible before dieing.

Overall the game difficult.  It took me some time to get use to the default controls controls, but changing the key bindings made things a whole lot easier.  Even with a firm grasp of the character’s controls the game is pretty challenging.  You can take damage when falling from too high a distance or completely die altogether.  Enemies move at angles that make using the whip and thrown items difficult to use against them.  And with all the traps and other hazards that can be found in the caves you only get a single life.   The four points of health that you start the game with are easily lost and even harder to restore.

Despite the game’s difficulty it is an incredibly fun experience.  Everything in the game has quality and you can quickly get immersed into everything you are doing.  Even the title screen is interactive, where you simply move your character around an open room and enter doors to start the game, view high scores or play the tutorial.  This adds another level of enjoyment and immersion into the game.  You are limited by resources as well, starting the game with only four ropes and bombs so using each must come with good reason.

Spelunky_Title_Screen

Interactive main menu.

As I progressed through the game I came across boxes that would yield additional items like rope, bombs and even unique items that would grant the character entirely new functions.  One of these items was a pickax that would allow me to dig through the soil instead of using bombs.  Another item allowed me to climb walls and there was even a parachute that would protect me from damage when falling from high locations.  This really mixed the session to session experience because I would not always find the same items or in the same place making for a unique experience each time I played the game.

In addition to finding these items occasionally I would come across a store deep within the caves.  Here I found a couple of funny things.  At first I did not know how to purchase items, so I tried picking them up. This appeared to do something because the store own stepped forward and stood next to me reciting some information about the item and its cost.  I thought maybe pressing the action button would purchase the item and I could leave the store.  Instead this threw the item striking the store owner sending him into a rage.  Immediately he charged me with a gun shotting me dead.  The result was that I had to start he game over.  Of course this was funny the first time, but I could not figure out how to purchase items.  I only figured it out after reading the Read Me file in the game’s main folder.

Spelunky_Shop

At the item shop.

Other things I found in the caves were damsels in distress, blonde haired ladies in red dresses that if saved would restore some of the character’s health with a kiss.  There was even an golden idol that stood atop a pedestal that looked similar to the one at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark that when picked up would cause a giant bolder to chase you through the cave.  Along with various monsters and traps these little details made each level fresh and exciting.

To be clear the randomly generated levels were not completely random and I learned this early on when I began seeing patterns in the levels.  I think this is was what Game Developer Magazine meant when they used Spelunky as an example of an effective use of randomly generated content.  I imagine if the game’s levels were completely random they would not only be less manageable by the user but also far less fun.  Random does not always mean better or more exciting, sometimes it can be rather dull and it requires a little bit of divine intervention to make things a little more interesting.  What the game appears to do is randomly place whole sections of the level that each have an engaging or challenging design.  Some of these sections would have deep pits filled with snakes where others would be filled with platforms or booby traps.  Ultimately I realize why the game was designed the way it was.  Precisely designed environments randomly connected to one another created a well planned challenge in an unpredictable world.

Spelunky_Level_1

Spelunking in Spelunky.

Spelunky is a fun and inspiriting game that entertained and challenged me in addition to teaching me a few things about game design itself.  The game is not flawless in any way, such as not explaining all of the controls properly or at all.  I found myself in the tutorial blowing up my character with the bomb because I did not know how to drop it after activating it.  Killing enemies can be incredibly challenging because of the angle of your attacks and some of the traps are almost impossible to avoid without taking their damage.  And my many battles with the store owner is a testament to how important it is to teach user how to properly use the controls.

I would highly recommend this game to anyone who likes a good challenge.  The game rarely disappoints and having to start the game over each time you die only means you get to experience new challenges.  I would give this game an 8 out of 10.

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