July 4, 2012 10:00 AM | John Polson
"There is no game that I wish I had built myself more than Spelunky," shares Canabalt developer Adam Saltsman. While some websites have recently reviewed Spelunky in advance of Mossmouth's XBLA release today, several notable indie developers have been playing and admiring Spelunky for much longer. It seemed more appropriate, personal even, to share their extended experiences with everyone.
Developer Colin Northway played Spelunky throughout its XBLA creation. He had such a serious addiction that he strained his wrists, had to sleep with wrist-guards, and couldn't work for a week. "It was like staring into an eclipse," he explains. The way the game forces constant improvisation over memorization has inspired him as a designer, too.
Spelunky also stirs Adam Saltsman as a developer in that "it is just completely exactly all of the things I love about challenging video games all in one place." While he finds the HD graphics perfect, he says "they sort of only exist as part of a conduit from the guts of Spelunky to the part of your brain that is playing Spelunky."
Spelunky still looks the same to him in many ways, which he says is a good thing. What he sees is a "spice-induced fourth-dimensional landscape of spatial-temporal possibilities, risks and gambles that is shifting with bewildering speed as the world sort of lives around you."
Takumi Naramura of NIGORO admits to spending several hours playing the original Spelunky. "I set a lot of traps to kill a lot of players [in] La-Mulana. This game shows me [the] enjoyment of being caught in a trap. On the one hand I was surprised that sudden death came one after another, and on the other I began [a] new game over and over with a smile."
Game musician Laura Shigihara purchased an Xbox 360 just to play her early copy, and her eyes have been "binging" from extended play sessions. She recalls, "I love that I freak out whenever I'm dealt the spider level, I love that you can switch the damsel to a pug, and I love getting that feeling you had as a kid when you were so excited to get back home just so you could play more."
Matt "Makes Games" Thorson never got into the old, Game Maker version, but finds the XBLA version "a hard game not to watch." Thorson likens it to Team Fortress 2 in the way it elegantly manages to randomly make "many things that all interact in mechanically interesting ways that you're constantly surprised." He believes less-skilled players will get even more out Spelunky, since the "randomness changes the nature of the player's learning from rote to creative and that process is the real meat of the game."
"Spelunky is the quintessential Derek Yu game in that it is beautifully simple, while generating infinite hours of hardcore gameplay," shares Alec Holowka, who worked with Derek on Aquaria. " Rather than aiming for realism, Derek embraces the fact that you're playing a video game. The end result is endearing and draws players in more effectively than a more elaborate art style would."
With such words of adoration, I am stoked to play Spelunky co-op style after this holiday. Those who still need a little more convincing to buy the game, or in Shigihara's case, an Xbox 360 and the game, here are their full testimonies:
Colin Northway: I was a big fan of the original Spelunky and Derek and Andy sent me builds of the new one fairly regularly for bug testing. I've played a _lot_ of the new Spelunky. I did a big Spelunky binge in the Philippines and then went a little bit nuts in San Francisco.
I played so much Spelunky I ended up straining my wrists and had to sleep with wrist-guards and take a week off from working with a computer. My wrists had started to hurt but Spelunky was so much raw fun I couldn't help myself and kept playing despite the pain. It was like staring into an eclipse.
As a game designer Spelunky has shaped my thinking on games quite a bit. All games are puzzle games, it's just that some have to be solved more quickly than others. The least interesting way to solve a puzzle is to just memorize a solution. But when you think about Mario, Megaman or other hard platformers that's exactly what you do. You play a level enough times until you discover, memorize, and can regurgitate one solution. Spelunky destroys that strategy.
In Spelunky you're forced to think of your feet at every moment. Because you can't memorize a path through the game you are constantly improvising. This freestyle play is just a much more fun kind of mastery than memorisation is.
In most games you learn to Waltz. In Spleunky you have to Tango.
Adam Saltsman: My first um episode with Spelunky was with one of the earlier versions of the free PC one, pre-1.0... the air controls were a bit rough, there was no joystick support, etc. It still more or less blew my mind out of my face. There is no game that I wish I had built myself more than Spelunky. That's not to say that it is like The Greatest Game ever or anything, but for me personally, it is just completely exactly all of the things I love about challenging video games all in one place.
Spelunky also has this weird thing that I need to just sit down and write about because I find it super interesting, but having played a lot of the super pixelated old PC-based Game Maker version, and then sitting down and playing the new, gorgeously painted and dynamically-lit HD version, it's... it's almost like the new graphics don't matter at all. Like... they're perfect, they're exactly just right, and they're absolutely lovely, but they sort of only exist as part of a conduit from the guts of Spelunky to the part of your brain that is playing Spelunky. So like... in so many ways, Spelunky HD "looks" EXACTLY the same as Spelunky, because what Spelunky "looks" like is a sort of spice-induced fourth-dimensional landscape of spatial-temporal possibilities, risks and gambles that is shifting with bewildering speed as the world sort of lives around you.
It's super good.
One thing that does strike me as particularly nice about Spelunky HD is the slightly more perfect sense that you are in something you completely know from before and something completely new, and I think the thing that causes this is just the little label in front of each level - calling the second dungeon "Mines 1-2" is so nostalgic for me, but also throws into focus the fact that this is not the same Mines 1-2 that I just died on a moment ago. There are a million billion different Mines 1-2s - the one I'm playing now will never exist after I die or survive. But ... I dunno. I'm rambling now. It's great. That's it.
Alec Holowka:The first time I met Derek, I was immediately struck with the impression that this was someone who "got it." Not only did he know exactly what he wanted to make and how - he possessed the ability and confidence to make it happen. There aren't very many people like that around.
Working with Derek on Aquaria was a life changing experience for me. His work ethic, imagination and confidence was inspiring. But even more important was how he solved creative problems. Rather than getting stuck trying to come up with a complicated solution to an intricate design problem, Derek would elegantly side-step it by designing a simpler problem to solve. Often this approach would snowball, causing other issues in the game to be simplified and improved as well.
Spelunky is the quintessential Derek Yu game in that it is beautifully simple, while generating infinite hours of hardcore gameplay. His elegant approach is also represented in Spelunky's art style. Rather than aiming for realism, Derek embraces the fact that you're playing a video game. The end result is endearing and draws players in more effectively than a more elaborate art style would.
Overall Spelunky leaves you with the impression that it is exactly what it should be. It is a game created in quiet confidence by a uniquely talented mind.
Laura Shigihara: I enjoyed the original Spelunky, but I've been binging like crazy on the XBLA version. By "binging" I mean several consecutive hours where my eyes feel like they're gonna fall out of my head by the time I'm finished. That's how fun and addictive it is. I love that I freak out whenever I'm dealt the spider level, I love that you can switch the damsel to a pug, and I love getting that feeling you had as a kid when you were so excited to get back home just so you could play more.
I should start by saying that I've been a fan of platformers and roguelikes for most of my life. Perhaps the first game I ever played was the old DOS Rogue on my family's home computer; I loved the Megaman series, and I really enjoy when a game makes you feel like you want to invest in honing your craft and exploring the world. So when Derek and Andy gave us a code to download Spelunky XBLA before the game's release, we actually went out and bought an Xbox just to be able to play it.
Spelunky is thrilling because it puts you in a state of fight-or-flight where you always have to think on your feet. But at the same time, you experience a sense of wonder and a desire to explore due to all of its hidden secrets. And even though it's frustrating to die, it's often funny because of all the ridiculous ways you can end up biting the dust.
Derek and Andy are both great guys. They're creative, hard-working, and passionate about what they do. Spelunky has a tremendous amount of polish, and you can see all the care that went into every little detail of the gameplay, the art, the menus, etc. There aren't that many games these days that capture my attention the way games did when I was a kid, but this is indeed one of them.
Takumi Naramura:: I took a lot of time to play Spelunky for writing a comment. I set a lot of traps to kill a lot of players at La-Mulana. This game show me enjoyment of being caught in a trap. On the one hand I was surpprised that sudden death came one after another, and on the other I began new game over and over with a smile.
I suppose you took the trouble to remake and port it. We experienced the same trouble. A lot of players will praise your game, though they have been driven to game over. Your efforts bore fruit. Great work.
Matt Thorson: I'm probably the odd one out on this list because I never really got into the Game Maker version (my fault, not the game's). Because of this, pretty much everything past Mines 1-2 has been fresh to me. Alec and Noel [Berry] are staying with Chevy [Ray Johnston] and I right now, and Derek was nice enough to send us a pre-release code about 5 days ago. Since then, at least one of us has been on the couch playing Spelunky pretty much constantly.
It's a hard game not to watch. It's fun to simply think about what you would do to survive whatever mess you've ended up in. You start talking shop with other Spelunky players when you're not playing - how to deal with a giant spider, whether it's worth it to clear out a beehive, etc - and before long you can't resist booting it up for one quick run (read: staying up until 4 AM playing). The only game I can personally compare it to in this sense is Team Fortress 2 - both games have so many things that all interact in mechanically interesting ways that you're constantly surprised. Part of the genius of Spelunky is that it manages to do this elegantly as a single-player game using random generation.
And Spelunky is brutal. I love how utterly non-special it makes you feel. If you're careless with your running or sloppy with your whip a simple bat or unexpected spike pit can end your run. Some players may feel entitled to some success and be alienated by this, but Spelunky is unyielding. Most games would try to convince the player that the cave they're exploring is dangerous (with backstory relating the tales of doomed previous adventurers, etc.) but in Spelunky it feels dangerous because it actually is. And you've played hundreds of those previous adventurers who were impaled or bitten or burned or crushed to death within it, so you know that when one of the spelunkers does somehow make it through, something special has happened.
I say it's brutal and I'm pretty good at platformers. I recently beat the game on an "Iron Man" run and I'm probably one of the few people to face both Derek and Andy in a series of deathmatches and win (at GDC, my first time playing it, and I will never let them forget it). I could be wrong, but if anything I think less-skilled players will get even more out of it. The randomness changes the nature of the player's learning from rote to creative and that process is the real meat of the game. Part of me wishes I could have been even worse at Spelunky when I started playing it.
Steph Thirion (surprise!): Spelunky is to me one of the most exciting things happening in videogames today. Instead of a mostly linear experience, Spelunky offers a rich system on top of an ever-changing landscape; there are so many possibilities in this system that you can never run out of unexpected situations and chains of events, or of new objectives. This means the player has to constantly improvise. And it's bold in how challenging it is, which makes the players really give a fuck. The result is a true sense of adventure, like you've probably never felt before in a platformer, and in a game that is always new every time it's played.
Noel Berry(!!): When Spelunky first came out, I was still just getting into making games. Spelunky was one of the first independent games I saw that truly inspired me and made me realize that I really wanted to make games. The simple and elegant design mixed with the never-ending and always different (and very difficult) levels lead to some really awesome gameplay that you could keep getting better at the more you played.
The new Spelunky takes all that, and goes a step further. Everything feels so awesome in this game. It makes me want to keep playing forever, as I dive deeper and deeper into the shifting world that makes up Spelunky. I love the new graphics, which fit the game perfectly, as well as the interesting environments introduced. One of the coolest things I find with Spelunky is the difficulty, and the learning curve associated with it. When you first start playing, you suck. It's a constant struggle to get past the first level. But after you've landed on spikes, been bitten by bats, and shot by the ruthless shop keepers about a dozen times, you start to get the feel. And then suddenly you're in level 2, and then you've made it all the way through the first environment and you're freaking out at all the new stuff that loves to kill you. And every time you die (which happens a lot), you just want to get back to where you were as quickly as possible so that you can keep exploring.
[Thanks to everyone who "signed" this letter, and thanks to Derek Yu, Andy Hull, and Eirik Suhrke for bringing Spelunky on XBLA.]