If you are unfamiliar with roguelikes, consider reading my roguelike introduction.
Spelunky is one of the best examples of games that successfully translate roguelike design elements into a different genre. In Spelunky’s case, this genre is the 2-D platformer. I was going to wait to post this until the new, updated version of Spelunky is released on X-Box Live Arcade, but that seems to be taking forever and I got impatient. The original, free version of Spelunky is possibly the best freeware game I’ve ever played, and you should be playing it too.
Spelunky was made by Derek Yu, who is also known for his work on the excellent Aquaria and for running the independent game site TIGSource. He cites classic roguelikes such as Nethack as inspiration, with more inspiration clearly coming from a certain whip-toting archaeologist. The player guides their little spelunker through the procedurally-generated caves using standard real-time platforming controls, looking to find as much gold and gems as possible while evading deadly traps and fighting off vicious creatures. If the spelunker is killed, it’s game over, and the player must start over again in a fresh cave.
At first it seems that these key features — procedural generation and perma-death — are the only real similarities with traditional roguelikes. But Spelunky actually has a surprising amount of detail and depth that it borrows from these older games as well. Various power-ups, as well as spare bombs and ropes, can be purchased from shopkeepers scattered through the caves, but the player can also try to steal items and incur the shopkeepers’ wrath. Picking up gold idols will trigger special traps, but the idols are worth a lot of money if they are carried to the level exit (or to a shop). Both living and dead enemies can be sacrificed to the god Kali at her altars for various rewards. There are even “vaults” that can appear in certain levels, similar to the special dungeon levels in many roguelikes, with different themes and often some special items. And there are a bunch of secrets too, some so convoluted that it is unlikely a player will unravel them without help from the online community.
But most importantly, Spelunky nails the feel of playing a roguelike. Each play is a joy. Death is permanent, but it just leaves the player wanting another go. The learning curve is perfect: in the beginning death comes early and often, but as one becomes acquainted with the enemies and traps, the spelunkers will live longer. Finally guiding a spelunker to a new cave environment, complete with new enemies and other dangers, is a true achievement. And after lots of practice, the spelunkers will consistently survive to the later levels, and possibly even finish the game. Then there are several unlockable bonus mini-games, the ability to build shortcuts to the later stages, and of course those elusive secrets to hunt down.
I played Spelunky countless times, and won a good amount too, but I didn’t stop playing until I had managed a “perfect” run, finding all the secrets and netting an absurdly high final score. Even after all of that, writing this makes me want to go back and play it some more. It’s a truly brilliant game that I can’t recommend highly enough.
And keep an eye out for the updated version coming to XBLA. More than just a graphical overhaul, there’s new enemies and other content included as well, and it’s really looking fantastic.
But for now, grab that free version. It’s open source now, so there are also some mods available, most of which I have not tried. But some players might be interested in Spelunky Portable, which keeps all the saved data in a file in the game directory so it can easily be moved to another computer should you desire to play on more than one machine. You can transfer your data over to Spelunky Portable if you’ve already started playing the standard version.