This cave exploration game has depth in more ways than one.
To Beat: Reach the Ending Screen
To Complete: Complete 6 Loops
What I Did: Completed the Game
Played: 12/16/16 – 12/26/16
My Difficulty: 8/10
Video: Spelunker Longplay
Derek Yu’s Spelunky is one of the most popular indie games of the last several years. In Spelunky, you descend through a series of randomly generated caves trying to seek out the grand treasure at the end of the adventure. The game is a favorite of mine that I have not given near enough time to playing and learning. Naturally Spelunky was inspired by the classic game Spelunker, and when you dive into the game you can clearly see how the indie title leans on the classic game as its base.
Spelunker is a computer game developed by MicroGraphicImage. Designed by Tim Martin, it was released on Atari 8-bit computers in 1983. Broderbund primarily published later ports of the game. The Commodore 64 version was released in 1984, and the arcade and Famicom ports were released in 1985. The MSX got a port in 1986 and Spelunker came to the NES in 1987. There was a Famicom-exclusive sequel named Spelunker II: Yūsha e no Chōsen also released in 1987. Spelunker has also appeared on Virtual Console. There are a few modern versions too. Spelunker HD was a PS3 downloadable game from 2009 that features 100 brand new levels. Spelunker World is a 2015 PS4 and Vita game, and a brand new game based on Spelunker World is set for release on the Nintendo Switch in 2017.
Spelunker is a side-scrolling cave exploration platformer. Your task is to find the great treasure hidden in the deepest reaches of this cavern. You begin the game on an elevator you control with several paths you can take. The idea is to look around and figure out a way to the bottom. The game consists of one giant level that is broken down into four sublevels separated by checkpoints. You win the game when you reach the final sublevel and locate the stash of treasure.
Like most platformers, you use the D-Pad to move around. You can use Left and Right to walk as well as climb ropes and ladders with Up and Down. These controls also move the elevator vertically at the start of the game. The A button is used to jump and the B button uses your items. If you just press the B button you fire an air cannon that takes out the ghost enemies. Hold Up and press B to fire a flare upward. These take out the bats, but you only have a limited amount of them. Hold Down and press B to drop a bomb. These are limited just like the flares. Use them to blow up tall rocks that stand in your way, but make sure to stand away far enough from the blast because it can kill you.
The first thing you notice while playing Spelunker is that your tiny adventurer is awfully fragile. You will die if you fall even a tiny distance, and there are many opportunities for this to occur. On the very first screen of the game, you can miss the jump off the elevator and fall to your doom. Past the main elevator is an auto-scrolling elevator. The side closer to you moves downward, so if you try and hop on too low it will kill you. If you can get on the other side, be careful not to ride the ascending side too high while passing through or that fall will also kill you. Spelunker is quick to teach you that death is swift and careful play is necessary.
There are a few enemies and traps in the caves that should be avoided. Ghosts will randomly appear on occasion and they can move freely through the walls of the cavern to hone in on you. Even if you don’t see the ghost you will know it is coming because the music changes as it approaches. You can defeat it by waiting until it is nearby and firing your air cannon. The other recurring enemy is the bat which guards an area with its deadly droppings. Firing a flare will temporarily remove the bat so that you can pass by. There are also stationary traps such as holes in the ground and geysers that spray periodically.
The cavern is littered with ropes for climbing, and these are notorious among Spelunker players for being problematic to deal with. Mastery of rope navigation is a crucial skill to beating Spelunker. When you jump toward a rope, you will automatically grab on to it. You can climb up and down, but you can also move left and right a small amount when on a rope. There is a narrow range of horizontal movement that lets you stay on the rope, so it doesn’t take much lateral movement to fall off the rope leading to instant death. To properly jump off a rope, you need to press Left or Right and the jump button at the same time. If your timing is off, you will either miss the jump or slide off the rope and fall to your doom. Moreover, if you are jumping from one rope to another, you want to take your fingers off the buttons mid-jump so that you auto-grab the center of the next rope. There are several places in the game with multiple rope transitions where you also need to adjust your position vertically in between hops to properly make the jump. There is a feel to good rope movement that is easy to lose the hang of in the middle of a game. Practice makes perfect!
Another important game mechanic is the air meter. As you play your air meter slowly dwindles away, acting as a timer. Firing your air gun to ward off a ghost will also deplete some of the air meter. If you run out of air, you lose a life, but you also start again with a full air meter. There are also items you can find that restore your air.
Speaking of items, Spelunker has several. The most important items for progression are keys. There are blue keys and red keys, and there are corresponding red and blue doors that you can open with them. There are additional flare and bomb pickups. The air meter refill item looks like a stack of rings and fills you up to the max. There are money bags and coins that just give you points. The most interesting pickup is the miracle item. It resembles a snowflake and when you collect it you get a random award. Sometimes you only get points, but other times you may get a flare, a bomb, or an air meter refill. They can also give you an extra life which is most appreciated!
There are also some special hidden items. You reveal them by jumping at certain spots in the cave. These places are often tucked out of the way and more challenging to reach than the normal path. When you trigger one of these spots, you hear a chime and the item will appear somewhere else visible on the screen. These item drops are random and are unique from any other item in the game. You can find the x2 item to double your score for a brief time. Another item either looks like a potion or a shoe, and it doubles your movement speed for a little while. The next one looks like a bracelet and it makes you temporarily invincible from enemies. Finally, the Spelunker head gives you a valuable extra life. There are also hidden diamonds that boost your score, but you find them from bombing specific walls inside the cave instead of jumping. I never knew about these while I was playing so I didn’t collect any.
I found it challenging to pin a difficulty on Spelunker for several reasons. The game has a reputation for being difficult and I can certainly agree with that. The main issue is that the game has touchy and particular physics, so it takes some time to get the feel of the controls and understand your limits with the jumping. Spelunker also introduces a few unique setpieces and obstacles throughout the adventure that I had to fail a few times before getting it down. On the other hand, the game length is quite short. It only takes 10-15 minutes to get to the end. I waffled between giving Spelunker a 7 or an 8 in difficulty before settling on 7 due to the short game length.
This is one of the few times I don’t have much interesting to say about my history with Spelunker. This was my first time attempting a run through the game, and I have no idea where or how I ended up with the cart. The game is common and not very expensive, but the copy I have in my collection is the only one I’ve owned. I suppose I have spent so little time looking at the game that it hasn’t made an impression on me until now!
Spelunker proved to be an interesting game to run through. At the start, it took me a few days of practice before I could reliably get deep in the game. I don’t know how many attempts it took to beat the game but it was probably a 20-30 times. Beating the game one time was a pretty standard experience, but the real fun begins when you start playing subsequent loops of the game. You quickly catch on that something is different the second time through because the cave walls change to a completely different color. As it turns out, Spelunker has six distinct difficulty loops if you want to be considered a master. I was able to beat all six loops in one attempt which I believe very few people have done.
Here is the breakdown of what is different in each loop of the game. If you want to try the game and figure it out on your own, consider the next paragraph a spoiler. The first loop of course is the standard game with golden colored cave walls. The second loop changes the cave color to a dark forest green and also introduces invisible keys. In all the loops, the keys are in the same locations, so once you realize what’s happening this time through is not too bad. The third loop has gray walls and invisible keys along with a new key collection method. This time you must jump where the keys sits to collect it. It’s important to memorize the exact positions of the keys here because you won’t grab them unless you are standing directly on top of them. The fourth loop has yellow walls and this time to collect the invisible keys you must fire a flare while standing on top of the key. This loop is very tricky because if you run out of available flares and miss just one key you must reset and start all over. Also, the gameplay shifts significantly where you should learn how to get past the bats without using a valuable flare. The fifth loop is the same as loop four except the ghosts move much faster. The sixth and final loop is the most devious of them all. To collect the invisible keys, you must jump and fire a flare at the same time. The timing for this maneuver is precise and it is easy to accidently waste a flare by firing it without jumping. The geysers spray faster too. From here the game continuously repeats the final loop’s difficulty and you can keep playing if you want to keep boosting your score.
Spelunker was not very well received in the US, but it gained much more popularity in Japan. There it gained a reputation as a “kusoge,” which is a Japanese compound word that literally means “shit game.” It received that classification due to the slippery controls and the high level of difficulty. Still, there is a subset of people that really get interested in a game like this, and I too thought Spelunker was a fun game. Certainly, it is a product of its time with the controls, physics, and primitive graphics. It’s the kind of game that can grow on you if you are willing to put some time in and see it for what it is. I like that the level design is structured around the movement and limitations of the player, so with that in place I can better appreciate Spelunker for what it offers.