Biased Notes Vol. 4: Spelunky

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Observations below are based on the HD version of Spelunky unless specified otherwise.

1. Spelunky is known as a game where you will die a lot. One of the main reasons for this reputation is that it takes time to get used to the game’s dynamic and brilliant use of physics. For example, in the mine stages, a trap will automatically shoot a single arrow at anything that moves in front of it. Many times this trap faces a gap that the player can drop through to get closer to a level’s exit (in Spelunky, the goal is to move downward). So if you run off a ledge without carefully surveying the area, you might get hit with an arrow in midair. Since this hit dizzies you, enemies can take off even more health after you fall to the ground. In some cases, you can be far enough from the trap to narrowly avoid the arrow after activating it, but many times you don’t have the luxury of distance, so you have to get creative with the physics. For safety, you can throw a rock in front of the trap to draw out the single arrow. If you don’t have a rock, some stunned enemies can be thrown, and in a crude twist, you can throw a damsel you’re supposed to save. I often find myself with nothing to throw, so I might drop a bomb in front of the trap. Here’s the kicker, though: if you jump down too quickly after the arrow has been successfully triggered, the arrow can still hit you (for less damage) as it falls down after making impact with something else. Such chain reactions place Spelunky in the same lineage as Boulder Dash (a 1984 classic developed by Peter Liepa and Chris Gray), despite the fact that the latter is a maze game, not a platformer like Spelunky.

2. The HD version of Spelunky has a fascinating soundtrack, but it also demonstrates how a good track might not be a good choice for a particular setting. To focus on the mine levels again, the HD tunes in the mine don’t fit the precarious atmosphere. Instead of evoking claustrophobia, danger, or ominous mystery, the primary tracks for the mine (listen to 1:52 through 5:01 here) bring to mind a developer who is in love with the synth-driven sounds of the 1980s. The single mine song for the original Spelunky doesn’t fare much better (start at 2:46 here), as its sustained notes merely recall nostalgia for 8-bit games like Mega Man. Going back to the HD soundtrack, it’s criminal that the main-menu music (listen to 0:37 through 1:08 here) wasn’t used in the actual game. At the very least, this track’s oppressive spookiness mirrors the devastation that players tend to experience when they start playing Spelunky.

3. One thing I prefer about the HD version of Spelunky is its more up-close camera, which makes the game more challenging and suspenseful. In the original Spelunky, you can see much more of the level layout on a single screen, including the floors below you, meaning that you can zip through the level knowing where you will land. The HD version requires more caution, as you frequently can’t see the floors below unless you hold the down button to shift the camera perspective lower. The HD version’s limited view often leads me to hang off ledges before dropping to another floor, which results in a greater sense of respect for the environment (and for the mechanics of the game).


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