As I recall my father's last words
As I dismounted my camel
That's when it all started.

Spelunky is a free indie game that takes the random level generation, permanent death and complex item interactions found in games like Nethack and applies them to a 2D platformer. The result is brilliant, addictive, and mind-breakingly hard.

You control a character with a distinct resemblance to a certain archeologist, trying to get to the end of a series of randomly generated levels, killing enemies, collecting treasure and saving damsels in distress. Your character can jump, use his whip and carry a single item, such as rocks or guns, and use ropes or bombs to climb or blast his way through levels. What makes the game really interesting is the interactions of the various items you can find. At it's simplest, this can include things like picking up and throwing nearby rocks to kill enemies, but it rapidly becomes more complex: after a few deaths, I was stealing from shopkeepers, triggering boulder traps to demolish walls and trying to juggle the damsel in distress, a shotgun and a golden idol.

Make no mistake: Spelunky is hard. So far I have died more than fifty times, and I've only just made it into the second area. I died more than ten times in the tutorial. As in Nethack, death is permanent: there are no saves, extra lives or continues. The random level design can result in some horrible obstacles, but never seems to be unfair: there's always a route through a level. As most deaths are due to your own stupidity, this means there's a constant impulse to have "just one more go".

Spelunky is made by Derek Yu, and can be downloaded from


Part of Spelunky's coolness is due to the fact that it thinks of everything. The other part is its nostalgia: it has the look and feel of a DOS game, even though it's a 2009 game. You could say instead that, compared to Counterstrike and WoW, the graphics and sound are chunky. Think of it that way if you will, but I think it's kinda awesome that way.

As BaronWR says, this is a very hard game. However, the sheer silliness of some little tricks the game implements makes me involuntarily giggle. Literally. You throw a dart, it rebounds and kills you. You throw a rock, it rebounds and kills you. You walk past spikes, they do nothing; you fall on them, they kill you. You shoot a shopkeeper, steal from a shop, or throw a bomb nearby, the shopkeeper hunts you down; you kill him, you are "Wanted" in the next level. (Incidentally, after dying 30 times without a win, my goal is now to successfully loot a shop and get to the end of a level, twice in a row. I am still searching for my first win in this respect, as well as in the game itself.)

My ratings:

  • Graphics: 6/10. As I say, reminiscent of the olden days of computing. But that's not all bad, as it saves on space.
  • Sound: 6/10. Again, a little older technology never hurt. Makes the game that much smaller and that much more accessible, as well as much easier to download.
  • Playability: 10/10. Though following a pattern, it pseudorandomly generates all its levels. Essentially, you explore a different cave every time. Its default controls are reasonably easy to use, and the controls are fully customisable. The one con is its difficulty, but this is negated by the strength of its challenge and tongue-in-cheek attitude.
  • Lastability: 9/10. If you don't like this kind of game, you're likely to drop it and run. For the rest of us, it's a nifty little challenge. It is also highly addictive: I have now played it 80 times. (No wins, but still.)
  • Usability: 7/10. It only has a Windows port, though it's scheduled for XBLA in 2010. I'd love to see this ported onto Mac OS X or Linux, however, this seems unlikely. I'm going to try and run some experiments with Wine; hopefully it comes out nicely.
  • Overall: 38/50 = 7.6/10. Unfortunately, the game looks far, far worse written down. It is an excellent game.

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