Games of 2012: Spelunky

Cave points.

I am currently reading a book (the telly's broken) titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It's the autobiographical account of one woman's attempt to raise her Western-born children according to "the Chinese model". This involves banning all television, playdates and sleepovers, and insisting on hours of academic drilling and violin practice. The aim is to produce prodigiously talented and successful adults who are ultimately grateful for being forced to work so hard.

It's inspiring. My son, Charlie, is only 18 months old, but I don't think that's too early to start developing his talents in one particular area. I'm adapting the model as I couldn't care less about maths (praise be to the great god Casio for blessing us with calculators) or classical music (sure, Mozart wrote the odd foot-tapper, but he's no Carly Rae Jepsen). I'm calling my plan Operation Tiger Gamer.

Kids today have no appreciation of what it was like to grow up gaming in the eighties. It's all automatic saves here and reasonably short loading times there. They have no idea what it's like to wait for an entire cassette to play itself through before you can start a gaming session. (Respect, however, to Sony and Microsoft, for keeping old traditions alive with all those downloadable updates.)

I've had lots of ideas for simulating the eighties experience for Charlie, from covering the front of the Xbox with wood-effect vinyl to forcing him to "spool" game CDs with pencils. But perhaps I'll just make him play Spelunky.

At first glance, this game owes everything to the decade I grew up in. It's a classic 2D platformer complete with enemies to bash, spikes to avoid and treasure to collect. There's even a blonde princess to rescue. (Yes, there is something dubious about the sexual politics of a game that invites you to rescue a helpless woman by first knocking her unconscious, but I can't get worked up about this. There are much bigger issues surrounding sexism in gaming. This one can go in the box marked "A Bit Of A Shame". Apart from anything else, the box marked "Good Grief, If You Hate Ovaries So Much Why Don't I Cut Mine Out So You Can Spread Them On Toast And Have Them For Breakfast" is overflowing.)

The temptation for an old hand such as myself is to race through Spelunky, bopping bats on the head and popping rubies in your pocket just like old times. However, it quickly becomes apparent this approach is not conducive to staying alive for long. Because Spelunky's levels are randomly generated, making them unique every time, it's impossible to succeed by rote-learning their layouts. Instead, the game forces you to develop skills that aren't often called upon in modern video games, such as observation, patience, forward-planning and perseverance.

The lack of checkpoints is a masterstroke. It creates the same kind of tension games had in the days before memory cards and auto-saves; nothing concentrates the mind like knowing a single mistake will mean starting all over again. However, by allowing you to earn extra hearts and unlock shortcuts, Spelunky stops short of being so frustrating you give up after just 14 weeks of being unable to get past World 2 (I'm looking at you, New Zealand Story).

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And another thing: there aren't enough ladders in games these days.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Spelunky and ye olde platforminge gaymes is the way it defies the Laws of Video Game Logic. According to VGL, the more difficult path always offers greater rewards than the easier one. A load of snakes gathered round a stone pot means that pot definitely contains something worth having. Fresh weapon supplies will inevitably appear just when you're about to run out. And there's always an ideal path through each level, even if it's not always obvious.

Spelunky breaks all these rules, throws in some new ones and trusts the player to work the whole thing out. The result is a game that feels fresh and surprising, even though its core mechanics and visual style have been around for decades. The perfect fusion of old and new makes it perfect for kicking off Charlie's formal gaming education (which has so far consisted of trying to get him to do anything other than squeal at the menu for Zoo Keeper DX while pushing mashed banana up his nose).

In fact, Spelunky is a better Tiger Mother than I'll ever be. It's tough but fair. It's demanding but never asks for more than it knows you can give, and it has total faith in your potential for improvement. Its punishments are harsh, but could always have been avoided if you'd just been a little less lazy or a bit more observant. It's confident that the sense of accomplishment you eventually experience will make up for all the effort, pain and frustration, and that you'll be grateful.

So perhaps the best plan is to leave Charlie in a room with Spelunky and see what happens. I'll let you know how we got on in 16 and a half years.

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