In my experience, a 10/10 score at the end of a review is not meant to represent outright perfection. It's better to think of games that achieve these dizzy heights as doing just that: elevating themselves to the highest category of praise, reserved for experiences that come with a universal recommendation. When I saw Spelunky on Xbox Live Arcade receive 10/10 in our review last year, I once again imagined that that was the writer's message.
When I played it myself, however, I changed my mind. Spelunky is perfect. I wouldn't change a single line of code that makes jumping around this 2D platform roguelike so pleasurable. I wouldn't touch a single variable in the algorithms that govern its procedural level generation. I wouldn't change a pixel of its gorgeously smooth and chunky cartoon graphics or a note on its horribly catchy, ceaselessly lovable soundtrack.
I've since realised that there is one small detail I would change. I'll come to it later.
Spelunky's dazzling brilliance, which emerges very quickly once you start bouncing around inside its walls, stems from what Gunpoint developer Tom Francis calls "universal systems" - game mechanics that apply to absolutely everything to which they logically should, with no exceptions. You can pick up and throw a stone, so you can also pick up and throw a corpse. Grey stone statues fire arrows at you when you wander in front of them, so they also fire arrows when an enemy hops in front of them, helpfully killing the enemy.
This is a simple game where you have to climb your way down through elegant platform levels to reach an exit, progressing from cute brown mines through thick green jungle to more exotic locations, each tantalising you in the initially fleeting moments you spend there before you're walloped to death and sent back to the start of the game. But every journey is enhanced by the unexpected consequences of these immaculate systems.
Except that's the wrong way to put it. What I should say is that every journey is enhanced by the expected consequences of these immaculate systems.
For example, most games don't let you kill important NPCs. In Spelunky, shopkeepers provide access to power-ups, bombs, climbing ropes and other supplies that ease your progression, but they are a creature in the game like any other, so they can also be attacked and killed. It's hard to do this, because if you attack a shopkeeper then he goes nuts, blasting everything in sight with a shotgun, and so does every other shopkeeper you meet for the rest of your current game. But you should be able to kill them, so you can.
However, this is also how shopkeepers react to all forms of aggression, whether they originate directly with you or not. When you pick up a golden idol, designed to look like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it unleashes a boulder that bounces left and right through the level, tearing huge chunks out of the fully destructible world. This could happen miles away from anything else of note, but if this boulder happens to blunder through someone's shop... Yep, the shopkeepers all go nuts, because that's what shopkeepers do.
A lot of Spelunky's charm lies in plotting your way through these systems and in the interaction between them, whether you succeed or fail. This morning, for example, I found I needed to walk under a giant spider, and I was determined not to lose any of my remaining hearts by taking a hit from it, so I decided I would throw a bomb into its webbing, blowing it up and probably earning a power-up as a reward. Great plan. Still slightly unfamiliar with the keyboard controls (the game works perfectly with a gamepad, but I forgot to bring one home), I jumped, pressed the up direction and hit the bomb key. The bomb flew straight up in the air, landed on my head, knocked me out, then exploded, which fired my (now dead) body sideways into a spike trap. I now realise that I should have motioned right, not up.
Many games throw up interesting anecdotes, and a lot of games end up staying in your head after you stop playing them, but thanks to its universal systems, Spelunky is a game that you can actually play in your head, because you know all the rules. Instead of blowing myself up trying to kill that spider, I can go to the other side of the same room, blow a hole in the floor and proceed downwards instead. The only thing stopping me going beyond that point in my head is that I can't know what lies beneath.
That's because Spelunky's levels are procedurally generated. Like the gameplay itself, the rules of this procedural generation are fantastically well judged. Some of its creations are harder than others, but when you get an easy one then that just adds relief to the palette of emotions the game daubs you with as you play. When you get one where the lights are turned off, the suspense as you move around, only dimly able to perceive threats around you, is heightened no end. The parameters are such that you never get an unfair level and every one you do get has something special about it.
Levels may never be unfair, but death is always just inches away. You can top up your health here and there, but it's easy to take too many hits, and it's even easier to put a foot wrong or misjudge a situation and wind up on another slapstick rollercoaster to the grave as enemies fling themselves at you and explosions fire off everywhere. But even though this is a roguelike, sending you right back to the start of the game every time, the fact that the level generation is so immaculately entertaining means you seldom complain.
Maybe you feel a little frustrated, because the deeper you get into Spelunky the more sadistic the demands are that it makes on you - particularly when it asks you to bring objects to Tunnel Man, a guy who will build you shortcuts to later levels. Progress lost in pursuit of these demands is obviously harder won, but you still lose yourself to one more go as soon as you hit the restart button, hear those first bars of music and pick up your next bit of loot.
Spelunky can be played in a demented form of deathmatch, which almost deserves its own review, and it supports four-player co-op, which is an odd mixture of SWAT-like coordination and utter pandemonium, depending on who you play with. But for me it's always been one of those solitary experiences that is best shared with friends by comparing notes. Sure, you swap anecdotes - it is hard to play Spelunky without something brilliant happening - but the richer conversations are the ones where you learn about the deeper systems as they begin to poke through the skin of each person's experience. Did you know you could do that? Did that really happen? Is it true that doing this results in that? You've got to be joking. I don't believe you. GTFO.
That's plenty of ways to share Spelunky already, but in addition to providing all the XBLA version's DLC arenas and characters by default, the Steam version of this new PC release also introduces a Daily Challenge mode, where the game generates a procedural set of levels every 24 hours, distributes that exact sequence of level designs to every player in the world, and gives us all one chance to set a high score. It's hard to say whether the scoring is fair after only a few days' play, but the feeling of knowing you can't just start over introduces a new flavour of tension to a game that already tastes like all of the others.
I love this game, obviously, but I mentioned that there is one thing I would change. I don't like the damsel mechanic. There's a woman in a red dress in every level who you can transport to the exit to earn a kiss and an extra heart piece. You can also find her in seedy kissing booth shops, where you can buy another heart for a few thousand bucks. Spelunky lets you change the damsel to a guy or even a pug dog, but it still makes me uneasy. Innocently included, it feels out of place in a game that has so deeply understood and overcome many other mistakes that existed in the games from which it draws influence.
It makes me slightly sad to see, because the rest of Spelunky is my perfect game - a creation of rare crystal clarity that sparkles from every angle. I think I could play Spelunky forever, and now that it has come home to PC, assuring its permanence, I believe I will.
10 / 10