Life in 2021 is hard. I don’t really care WHO you are, or who you THINK you are- we’ve been living in “fight or flight” mode for longer than humans are designed to, and it’s been tough. Life has been a constant parade of bad news, bad vibes, and more global crises than there are wardrobe changes at the fucking Oscars. Luckily, we have things like art, music, books, and video games to get us through times like this, and a little bit of escapism can go a long way these days. Funny thing is though, that’s actually NOT why I love the Spelunky games so much.
In fact, it’s the EXACT opposite.
It’s true, while there are plenty of things that have provided a much-needed respite from the current Apocalypse-A-Go-Go situation were all living through, there’s also another side to the story, at least for me. See, in some weird way, diving into things that force me to face harsh realities actually makes me feel better. Disaster movies, The Walking Dead, stuff like that. Maybe it’s because it paints a slightly darker picture than what’s actually happening to us, and maybe that’s where the comfort comes from. Or, maybe it’s a solidarity thing. Maybe it feels good to be entertained by things that more closely mirror our current cultural trajectory, versus things that still see through fogged-up rose colored glasses. Maybe it’s both, I don’t really know, and it’s entirely possible that I’m just weird and scared like everyone else.
Whatever the case, through all this madness, something I’d been looking forward to for a LONG time (well before the pandemic was a thing) was the arrival of the Spelunky games on Nintendo Switch. I’ll spare you all the long back story here and go for the quick version- I used to write Switch reviews when we first started The Ghost Generation, then I stopped cause it got overwhelming pretty quickly, and now I’m doing it again but more when I FEEL like it instead of trying to prove myself in any capacity. I love video games, and I enjoy writing about them, and it doesn’t need to get much more complicated than that. There, background out of the way. My favorite genre in the gaming universe is what are called “roguelikes”*. They’re procedurally (randomly) generated, “try, die, repeat” affairs (think The Binding of Isaac, Dead Cells, etc. for the kids in the back of the class), usually lovingly made by rad indie developers, and almost always completely awesome. Some people absolutely HATE them, and others (like me) consume them with the voraciousness of a starved wolverine turned loose in an abandoned Kroger.
All this to say, I fucking LOVE the Spelunky games , and the fact that they’re both made by pretty much ONE DUDE (Derek Yu, who you can learn about here) makes them even more awesome. But, I don’t love them for the same reason I love others. When I pick up Spelunky (1 or 2), I’m not looking to escape, at least not ALL the way. See, the Spelunky games are face-meltingly difficult games. I’ve read articles and heard talk that some people have tried for YEARS and never even gotten past the first area. Shit, I’ve spent upwards of 40 hours on the games for this article and I’VE barely gotten out of the first area more than a handful of times. When it comes to Spelunky 2, I DEFINITELY haven’t gotten past the first area yet. Do you know what Im going to say next?
I 100% don’t care.
That’s right, you didn’t read that wrong. I don’t care in the slightest that I haven’t mastered Spelunky yet, and likely won’t for a long while, if ever. It’s almost against our entire cultivated nature as humans, we constantly seek dominion over the people, places, and things around us, but not me. Spelunky can feel cruel, until it doesn’t. Spelunky can feel grueling and void of compassion, until it doesn’t. Spelunky can chew you up, spit you out, and laugh while you suffer- until it doesn’t. I’m sure you figured out where my metaphorical brain was going with all this, but here goes anyway- I’m not sure if, in video games or otherwise, I’ve ever come across a more perfect mirror to life as an adult in 2021 than the Spelunky games.
In the past couple years we’ve seen so many lives damaged, families broken, our very stability a crumbling reminder that we can’t count on ANYTHING except more human failure. It’s bleak out there and not getting a hell of a lot better for the foreseeable future. That’s not “doom and gloom”, just the unfortunate truth. Dying in Spelunky can feel like all of those things rolled into one, and you’d be forgiven for thinking to yourself “why the fuck does anyone love these games so much?!”. The part you’d be missing though, is the unadulterated joy that rushes through you when you DON’T die for the first time. When you make it a little further, when you learn a pattern, when you start to figure out the puzzle of it all.- just…like…LIFE.
The comfort I get from the Spelunky games, and most roguelikes in general really, is that they mirror life so perfectly- but maybe without the abject malice inherent in ACTUAL life. Spelunky is hard, but Spelunky isn’t hard cause it fucking hates you, wants to rob your house, or steal your girlfriend. Spelunky is hard so you can understand how sublime it can be to finally succeed. Spelunky is hard so you can remind yourself that nothing in life is handed to you, at least not anything worth having anyway. Spelunky is hard to show you that you can DO THIS, you just gotta figure out how shit works first- just…like…life.
Pay attention, dingus.
Everything in the Spelunky games has a clear set of rules/actions. When it’s all working in concert it can be a ballet of chaos so batshit crazy it can be hard to make heads or tails of. But, slow it down a little and pay attention to what’s going on and you’ll start to realize that there’s method to the madness. Then, you start to realize that dying isn’t the fault of bad game design or unfairness in any way- you just didn’t pay attention. It’s on you, just like your free-standing adult life is on you. It’s on you to figure out how YOUR shit works, and I’m again brought back to my point- these “made by one excrutiatingly smart dude” games are life distilled into it’s purest form. Risk and reward, fight or flight, struggle and victory.
At their core, they’re really just impeccably designed action-platformers with procedurally generated levels, but I like my art/media/etc. to be more than just face value. I like it when things MEAN something, or make me feel something. I like to be reminded that I’m a tiny grain of sand on the metaphorical beach of the universe, that notion doesn’t scare me in the slightest. In fact, knowing that I’m a tiny part of the infinite just like everyone else is comforting in a lot of ways, cause it reminds me that I’m probably not the only one struggling with something or another at any given time.
Again, all these points lead back to one central theme- The random nature of the layouts, the crushing difficulty, the complete and total chaos are a reflection of human life. The fleeting glimpses of victory, those times when you see the puzzle before you, and the times when you start to feel yourself adapting and learning, those are too. Life is such a broad spectrum of thoughts, feelings, and emotions- and you can experience a bounty of ALL of them in a single play session of Spelunky 1 OR 2. Spelunky 2 is essentially a fine-tuned, “polished to a shine” extension of the first game, but I’m speaking less to the “typical review” stuff here so forgive me for not going into a ton of specifics- there re plenty of vastly more informative articles/reviews out there about these games, I’m just here to share my weird-ass thoughts on them from my perspective.
Right, back to the point. These are some of the most acclaimed, praised, and loved indie games in history and it’s 100% justified. There’s no empty hype surrounding Spelunky, no praise of Derek Yu’s design genius that’s unwarranted, no corners cut, no shitty design decisions, these games are are “grueling til you wise up, dummy!” just like actual life is and I find so much comfort for my pandemic-fatigued soul in that it’s tough to accurately describe it without going in circles. Spelunky 1 and 2 so perfectly capture the essence of life’s struggles without even addressing it in any direct way, and the difficulty isn’t due to cruelty which is probably what makes it a little more tolerable than actual life in some ways. We’ve become so harsh, so cold, and so angry as a society that I don’t know if we’ll ever find our way back to peace- if that’s ever been a thing in the first place. What I do know, is that I find comfort and peace in things that don’t pander to me, don’t treat me like an idiot, and that aren’t mean to me just for the sake of it. Lots of people and things LIE to us these days, and brazenly at that. Spelunky doesn’t lie, and Spelunky doesn’t cheat. Spelunky is hard because it wants to TEACH you something, to show you something. What that is can be different for everyone, it’s all in your interpretation.
I’m just here because I’ve come to love these games as much as I hoped I would when they FINALLY got announced for Nintendo Switch, but maybe not for the reasons I thought I would. Spelunky 1 is $10 on the eShop, and Spelunky 2 is $20. Trust me when I say this- snagging these two brilliant games is an absolute STEAL for $30, and the amount of longevity, and life lessons contained within, is priceless. It could take you YEARS to master them, if anyone ever really can, and even just the process makes you feel smarter which is a LOT more than I can say for a vast majority of the “content” being cranked out into the world every day. These games were made with so much care, so much attention to detail, and so much wide-eyed wonder that it makes me want to find Derek Yu in real life and give him a super-giant hug. Sure, these games can feel like a lot of struggle. But, the feeling you get when you finally break through to the other side of the struggle is unparalleled- just like real life.
I don’t know if ANY of this was Derek Yu’s intention, or just a happy accident, or me making WAY more out of a video game than I need to- but I really don’t care. I also know that I 100% don’t write reviews like anyone else and if you’ve read this far you MUST be a like-minded weirdo who appreciates this sort of thing. I’d rather tell you how a game makes me FEEL, you can get all the other information from a million different places. What I have to offer separate from anyone else is my perspective, and from my perspective indie games (or games PERIOD) don’t get much more rewarding than the Spelunky series and if ANY of this has resonated with you in any way, I implore you to head over to the eShop RIGHT NOW and get started on YOUR Spelunky journey. I promise, you won’t regret it- and you might even learn a few things about yourself in the process. Muy bueno.