If you have patience, Spelunker HD Deluxe is a weird treat

Anybody down there?

As I get older, my favourite kind of game is probably the inscrutable platformer you used to get on home computers back when I was a kid in the 1980s. Jet Set Willy. Gumshoe. Booty. The settings were often reduced to a spectral gantry propped against a plain black backdrop, the themes were obscure and presumably highly personal, and death was frequently cheap. But these games transported me further beyond the screen than any have since. Their mystery is palpable. They are magic.

And now I'm playing Spelunker HD Deluxe on the Switch. It's a game with DNA from that era, updated in certain aspects, wonderfully, maddeningly antique in others. And to me, at least, it's magic, too. It's fussy and weird and you can die by walking off a ladder the wrong way; it is emphatically not the game you would recommend to just anybody. But I think I love it.

I've wanted to play Spelunker for years, because I love Spelunky so much. Both are games about descending into the darkness of caves. Both are games that involve ropes and bombs and pursuing ghosts. But Spelunky, as you probably know, is a perfect clockwork thing in which every consequence to every action can be learned and understood and - theoretically - foreseen in future runs. It's a glitchless wonder, in which you do not die from walking off a ladder the wrong way. Spelunker is much older and much odder. But you can see the bright flicker of brilliance within it. I believe that.

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I properly love a 1980s videogame cave.

Spelunker was created in 1983 by Tim Martin, Robert Barber and Cash Foley, and made its way across home computers and even to the NES and MSX. To have encountered it back then! To have hunched over the keyboard, to have kept a pad and pen to map its unchanging spaces. In Spelunker, you explore treacherous caves looking for ways to get deeper and deeper down into the earth. There are doors to open with colour-coded keys, all manner of enemies to avoid, and along with managing your lives you need to keep yourself topped up with air. Mussorgsky drops by in the original game to set the whole thing going with a song. It's a game that is quick to draw you into its murky world.

Playing it now in a slightly altered form (Spelunker HD Deluxe has 3D graphics or the original 2D sprites available, but I gather it's also redesigned most of its levels) what stands out initially is how cheap it can be. That's cheap in the sense of things being achieved in a discreditable manner. There's the walking off a ladder thing - instant death if there's a gap nearby. Walking off any ledge that should be survivable will kill you instantly too, if you don't jump first. Sometimes you do jump, and the drop is just a few pixels too much for you so you are killed instantly. Stand too close to a bomb - it can be hard to tell how close - and you might be killed instantly. But these things are quirks. Things like patches of disappearing earth, which are intermittently not that visible in the 3D version, are definite design choices - and they kill you instantly as well.

Get past that, though, and a game of clunky richness awaits. A game that is rich, I would argue, because it is clunky, like a quart of moonshine or the paintings of Rousseau. Spelunker may look modern-ish with the 3D graphics, but when it moves, when it thinks, you can see that it comes from the era when videogame grammar was still being constructed. It's a trip.

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There is multiplayer support across various modes, but it can be hard to find players.

A wonderful trip. And like Spelunky, it's secretly all about learning. I spent an embarrassingly long time on the game's first level before I realised that the rock blocking my path could be exploded, if only I had a bomb. And hadn't I just picked one up? Then there's the business of discovering that the Heechee-style twisty collectable tops up your air supply. The business of discovering that your air supply is running down in the first place. The business of discovering that you can use a can of compressed air - I think that's what it is - to blow away the huge ghost that sometimes follows you. The business of realising that you can commit the whole game to muscle memory because it does not change - the anti-Spelunky, a single run mounted in a gilt frame.

There is beauty here, too, I would argue. Beauty in the way the rolling boulder for Raiders makes an early appearance - a perfect ally in a game that first appeared in the early 1980s. A beauty in the way that - look close - the light bulbs strung up around the place flicker and dim as if their connections are questionable.

At times, playing Spelunker this past week took me back to the early days of gaming so strongly that I found myself dazzled by things that probably shouldn't be dazzling: a platform that swung to-and-fro! A lovely moment with some water. What can I say? I have been drawn in tight by this game. It has muddled my mind. And then, eventually, I find myself back on the surface, back in the daylight. Spelunker is not for everyone, but if you click with it, it's pretty memorable stuff.

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About the author

Christian Donlan

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.

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