Sunday, November 6, 2011

Spelunking for Treasure and Damsels

Spelunky, a free indie game by Derek Yu, may be the most addicting game I've played in a long while. A 2D platformer/roguelike, your goal is to make it to the bottom of each level, collecting as much treasure as you can and rescuing damsels along the way, all while avoiding traps and enemies. The levels are randomly generated to be unique every time, which is essential because the game's challenging difficulty means that you will die. A lot. And that's what makes it so damn fun. Throw in some interesting items and a monetary system, and you've got a game that keeps bringing you back for "just one more try."

For the more detailed description, continue reading the full article.

The game consists of 16 levels broken into four sets of distinctly-themed areas. The first set of levels resembles a typical cavern system with brown rocks everywhere; the second set consists of jungle motifs with trees and vines; the third set contains floating blocks of ice everywhere; and the final set is something like an ancient Egyptian pyramid.

Each area has its own unique enemies and types of booby traps (as well as general level design algorithms) that make each one unique, throwing new challenges at you. It does a fine job of making the game feel new and different each time you reach a new area, because the gameplay does in fact change rather significantly from area to area.

Some screens from the first three areas (click for full size)

The game does give you a number of different items to assist you, though. You always start out with a whip (a close-ranged weapon for fighting enemies), some ropes (which you can throw and use to climb up or down), and bombs (mostly used for blowing up the terrain, but also usable as weapons). But as you explore the levels, you can find more items (or buy them from occasional shops with the money you've accumulated). Other typical items include a pistol, shotgun, climbing gloves, spike boots, parachutes, pick-axes, web shooters, jetpacks, etc.

In order to beat the game, you have to make it through all 16 levels and defeat the final boss. It's a very daunting task, considering that you can only take four hits before you die and get a "game over." This is where the damsels play into things: rescuing one and carrying her to the exit of the level restores one hit-point. But if you have enough money, you can also buy kisses from damsels in certain random shops, as well.

Carrying a damsel to the exit is a little more challenging than it may seem, because you can only carry one item at a time. In order to throw a bomb or a rope, you have to drop the damsel, who will panic and starting frantically running around the level, sometimes getting herself killed if she runs into a booby trap. Certain items (like guns, for instance) are always carried in-hand, but other items crop up in levels like keys (which you have to carry to a chest) or a golden idol (which you carry to the exit for a huge cash bonus) also require you to drop the maiden. You sometimes wind up juggling multiple different items at once, which gets to be a fun challenge.

The money that you collect is primarily used to pay the "Tunnel Man," a guy you meet in-between area transitions. For a large fee, he can make a short-cut to each of the four areas, allowing you to skip straight ahead from the main lobby. The fees are so expensive that it will take you several donations before he can complete it, which is nice because it gives you a sense of long-term progression. Even if you inevitably die, you feel like you're still making progress if you were able to pay the Tunnel Man a little.

A video demonstration of Spelunky in action.

Besides the differences between areas, you also occasionally run into random encounters that change the levels up. Sometimes all of the enemies will be undead skeletons; other times the bottom of the level will be filled with water; sometimes the level will be completely dark and you'll have to carry torches around to see. On top of these little changes, there are also several secret areas that you can access for extra challenge and enjoyment.

Spelunky balances the fine line of psychological reinforcement through risk vs reward; your main goal is to get to the Tunnel Man, but the more money you have, the more you can pay him. And yet, the more valuable treasures are usually in more dangerous places. So you end up torn between wanting to go for greater riches, and wanting to avoid unnecessary risks to make it further in the game.

Playing Spelunky provides the same kind of stimulation as gambling; the thrill of risks and the payoff of an exciting reward. It requires a fair amount of skill to succeed, and provides a lot of fun stimulation whether you're playing for just short term satisfaction, or for long term progression. It's all-around a mighty fine game that you should be able to get a lot of enjoyment out of.

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