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Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 47: Spelunky

It occurs to me that Derek Yu may be a saint.  And if not sainthood, surely he holds some revered position that implies near-superhuman charity and grace.  Derek, you see, is no stranger to developing excellent games - his 2007 title Aquaria was the Seumas McNally Grand Prize winner of the 2007 Independent Games Festival, and is a great Metroid-esque action game with a unique control scheme that's (in my opinion) well worth your time and money.  You should play it.

But last year, Derek made an action adventure game that easily stands among some of the finest of all time.  A game that looks and plays like the best titles the 16-bit era of videogaming ever produced, but lives in a genre none of them lived in.  It's a hybrid of platforming and Roguelike dungeon-crawling that will delight and humble you.  It's simply sublime.  And he gave it away.

For this week's "Best of Indie" installment of Free and Worth Every Penny, we examine Spelunky, easily one of my favorite freeware titles of the last 5 years.  If you've paid attention to the patterns between my entries in this column and Mike's, you may have noticed that I have a pretty serious fondness for Roguelikes and their derivatives.   You might call it an affinity.  I'd appreciate it if you didn't label it an obsession, but if you want to use that word, I'll understand.  Something about randomly generating an unforgiving world and then giving the player just enough in the way of tools (and usually not nearly enough in the way of instruction) to conquer it taps into the most addiction-prone pieces of my psyche.  So I'm prone to ramble on about games like Desktop Dungeons, or Super Space Rogues, or ro9, or Torchlight...  you get the idea.

Spelunky is nothing like any of those games in terms of presentation - 16-bit sidescrollers provide the visual inspiration here, and the controls feel much more like those of a Capcom title from the 80's than a methodical turn-based dungeon crawl.  But make no mistake, from a game design perspective Spelunky is a Roguelike through and through, and it's one of the best to come along in a long time.

You won't start Spelunky in traditional Roguelike fashion, picking a class and other attributes.  No, your hero here is always the same, an adorable Saturday morning cartoon version of Indiana Jones, equipped with a few lengths of rope and some bombs - and, of course, his trusty whip.  From that point on, though, the similarities to games like Nethack are deliberate and delightful.  Each level is randomly generated, and fraught with peril - an arrow trap or a fall from a great height poses as great a threat to your adventurer's well-being as enemies do.  Randomized, too, are your rewards, with breakable pots, crates and chests holding the promise of treasure (a promise that is, on occasion, a lie).  The variety is almost overwhelming - you'll have the chance to stumble on or purchase climbing gloves, spring shoes, parachutes, a jetpack, and all manner of other useful items to help you in your quest.  Damsels in distress wait for you to rescue them...  or use them as bait to distract your enemies.  And golden idols tempt you from conspicuous pedestals - if you think you know what happens when you pick those up, you're exactly right.  As in most Roguelikes, you have only one life and no saves, so tread carefully.

Yes, the blonde is just as annoying as the one from Temple of Doom.  Saving her is profitable...  but optional.

Luckily, for a game with so many challenges, the control scheme is simple and extremely precise.  When I compared it to a Capcom sidescroller, I meant it;  Spelunky sometimes demands as much precision as a Mega Man game, but it gives you the tools to live up to the challenge.  Running, jumping, climbing and attacking are all performed with only a few buttons, and the game handles equally well with a keyboard or a gamepad.  It's a tremendously scalable game, as well, and while it looks great blown up to 4X and fullscreen on my desktop, it also plays just fine in a window on my underpowered netbook.   An included config utility helps you tweak it to fit whatever settings you need.

I want to take a moment and make note of some of the little touches in Spelunky, the details Derek Yu put in there just to let you know he cares.  Arrow traps are triggered not just by your character, but also by any thrown object or other character;  how and when to set them off becomes a strategy all its own.  Shopkeepers, in classic Nethack tradition, may be robbed.  In the same tradition, there are dire consequences for doing so - but of course, they can be avoided if you're clever.  Most of each level is destructible, and you can use bombs and other tools to forge your own path.  Experimentation with attacks and enemies will sometimes yield fruitful results;  blow up a giant spider by catching a bomb in its web, and sticky bombs are your reward.  The secrets and unlockables in this game run deep.  There's a Wiki out there, of course, but I'm not going to link it.  You can find it when you're ready...  first you should discover some things for yourself.

There's a lot more I could talk about - how delving deeper into the dungeon reveals entirely new tilesets, enemies and traps;  how tense the levels without easy access to light sources can be;  how much you'll come to dread the words "A chill runs down your spine!  Let's get out of here!" - but the bottom line is that Spelunky is an incredible achievement and it's amazing that we all get to play it at no cost.  I was very happy to hear earlier this year that Derek is revamping the game to sell on XBox Live Arcade.  I certainly intend to purchase it when he does, but the original is and will remain free to download.  If you haven't, you should do that, right now.

Spelunky is...

  • one of the most polished freeware games I've ever played.
  • tremendously challenging, and equally addictive.
  • an excellent blend of genres, full of both creative experimentation and loving homage.
  • a permanent resident on the hard drive of every PC I own.

It's easy to make it a permanent resident on yours, too;  it's a less-than-10MB download, and it's zipped up to make it portable.  (I keep my Spelunky folder sync'd to all my machines via Dropbox.)  Derek has even released the source code, if you're into that sort of thing.  Like I said:  he just might be a saint.

Windows only - get it here.

"Free And Worth Every Penny" is a column I collaborate on with Mike Bellmore at Colony of Gamers.  This piece also appears there.

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