Spelunky review

March 29, 2016 by Nate Ewert-Krocker

Boss Fight Books' latest is a take on the modern classic, by creator Derek Yu himself.

There’s a moment in Derek Yu’s Spelunky, the latest from publisher Boss Fight Books, that felt like a gentle indictment of me, personally.

“It’s easy to stop playing before you figure out that there’s more to it than randomly-generated death traps,” Yu writes. “It’s as though the game requires a friend to tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, look again. You may have missed something.’”

I bounced off of Spelunky the first time I tried it. I played for several hours, never getting past the game’s first area, and decided that maybe it wasn’t for me. I appreciated it on an intellectual level, I thought, but it wasn’t going to click with me for whatever reason.

I was wrong, ultimately, and reading Yu’s reminiscence of Spelunky’s development, from inspiration to execution to cult sensation, gave me a pretty good idea of how much I overlooked by setting the game aside.

Spelunky is unique among the Boss Fight Books catalogue because it is the first “autobiographical” release - the first book penned by the developer of the game that’s being examined - and so it has a much different flavor than most of the publisher’s other offerings. The core elements of the Boss Fight formula are all present: personal reminiscence and reflection, analysis of the game’s design and theming, a brief history of the game’s development, and some attempt to distill the game’s importance to the medium as a whole.

Because of Yu’s intimate involvement with the creation of Spelunky (he developed the original game and was half of the team responsible for the remaster, the version that most of us have played), these disparate elements are melded together much more organically, creating a narrative that is more like a 200-page post-mortem than a critical analysis. Yu walks us through his inspirations, from the obvious (NetHack, Indiana Jones) to the positively arcane (a 2008 Hardcore Gaming 101 article about Kagirinaki Tatakai), talks about his philosophy on game design, and narrates the story of Spelunky from its origins in GameMaker to its explosion of popularity several years later.

This unification of perspective means the text has different strengths and weaknesses than some of the other books from Boss Fight. On the one hand, Spelunky gives the clearest understanding of a game’s construction and design of any book the publisher has released so far (and really, how could it not?).

The history of the game’s development and the personality of its creator are laid bare in extreme detail, even going so far as to give samples of the game’s code. Yu isn’t shy about relaying his reactions to the internet’s initial reception of Spelunky, nor is he afraid to comment on the vitriol he witnessed when Spelunky was singled out by Feminist Frequency’s “Tropes vs. Women” series for the sexist nature of the game’s “damsel” figure (“Once you’re made aware of a problem and realize that it affects players,” he writes, “it’s something you want to fix”). It helps that Yu’s prose is always simple, direct, and easy to read. It would be easy to consume the whole of Spelunky in a single sitting, quite unlike the game it’s unpacking.

On the other hand, the fact that Spelunky is so straightforward is in some ways a missed opportunity, as other entries in the Boss Fight Books canon have found their greatest poignancy in the space between author and subject. When Jon Irwin finds the surreal imagery of Super Mario Bros. 2 manifesting in his everyday life, when Gabe Durham tries to parse the disconnect between his childhood religion and the mercenary cynicism of Wisdom Tree, or when the Burch siblings mine the dissonance inherent in Solid Snake for laughs, the Boss Fight formula is at its most potent.

Nevertheless, there’s a wealth of wonderful material in Spelunky. Yu walks the reader through the game’s method of generating random levels, explaining how it tries to tempt the player into exploring off the beaten path to find greater riches. He talks about the origin of “The Chain,” the sequence of optional objectives that lead to the game’s true ending and give it additional depth.

There’s behind-the-scenes explanation of the foibles of development during the indie boomlet of the aughts, including the game’s history with XBLA, PSN, and Steam, the difficulties of passing certification for consoles and the politics that ultimately influence sales figures. None of this is untrodden ground, especially if you follow the industry at all or even if you’ve seen Indie Game: The Movie, but Yu’s narration is so pleasant and unpretentious that Spelunky becomes a much more palatable vehicle for understanding that part of the games community and its history (and if you aren’t familiar with these things, this is almost certainly the best way to educate yourself about them).

Yu’s discussion of his game design philosophy is perhaps the element of Spelunky that best recommends it, from trying to capture the mystery and opacity of the original Legend of Zelda to considering the lost merits of the arcade experience. “For me,” he writes, “video games [sic] have always been defined not by what is known but what is unknown. It’s the trepidation of stepping into that first dungeon or sinking into my first warp zone.” It’s enlightening to see how this perspective led Yu to cram Spelunky full of secrets, and the history behind the now infamous “solo eggplant run” is one of the highlights of the text. These creative insights also help to explain Spelunky’s trajectory - from its initially modest reception to its current status as something of a cult classic - as more and more of its inner workings have been unveiled.

The best thing that I can say about Derek Yu’s Spelunky is that it feels like a friend tapping you on the shoulder and saying “Hey, look again. You may have missed something.” If you’re anything like me, and you set Spelunky aside before delving into its considerable depths, this book is a superb enticement to return, better equipped and more knowledgeable, in search of still greater secrets.

Verdict: YES

Spelunky is the latest from Boss Fight Books. It’s available for $5 as an ebook or $15 for a paperback copy. You can pick up a copy, if you’re interested, here.