A friend of mine recently told me what it’s like to fall off a skateboard in your forties. Listen: it’s an event. You remember it. Oof! And you remember what follows. Woe so thick and painful it is almost mineral. Woe that casts a shadow when you breathe it all out. The fall is quick but the recovery takes time. You ease up off the gritty floor, collect your glasses and the things that were in your pockets, and then you find a spot to sit and you sit for a long while. What are you doing for this long while? You are preparing. You are preparing to start living again, preparing to face the awful prospect of yet more life. Falling off a skateboard in your forties makes you feel like one of the sagging wretches Rembrandt was so good at painting.
From one master to another: Spelunky does this too. The playthrough – often a long one, which in Spelunky speak means, oooh, all of six minutes – that seemed so promising and ended so suddenly, with such brisk and all-consuming calamity. You put down the pad and blink and then you find a quiet corner, hopefully under the speckled shadows of a looming monstera. You sit and let the room tick and creak and settle, and you let time flow around you. Because this is something you need to recover from. You become a Rembrandt. It will take more than minutes to return from this. It can take hours.
There’s a lot of stuff in Spelunky 2 – in many ways it’s A Lot of Stuff: The Video Game – yet one of my favourite things in all of it – one of the things most likely to create the echoing trembles of the Rembrandt Run – is a simple stretch of corridor. Sometimes, while exploring the very first levels of this procedural platformer, a bold attempt to sequelize one of the very few genuinely Tetris Tier games out there, you will come up across this simple stretch of corridor, and you will walk down it and regardless of how good your chances were a second ago, you will meet something that kills you pretty swiftly. Not because of any trap or any gimmick, but because you hadn’t prepared yourself for the specific procedural nightmare that was coming your way. The spider-and-bats knuckleball that beans you. The moles – the sodding moles – who have interacted badly with a spiny lizard. The turkey that tried to help but didn’t help. The corridor is nothing special, it’s just a little too low to allow you to deal with something at speed. Or if you’re second-guessing yourself. Or if you’re second-guessing yourself at speed.
Interesting, those deaths. Spelunky makes death (video game death, not death death) incredibly interesting. I tend to think of Spelunky as a means of teaching virtuous behaviour as much as it is a video game. Granted, this makes it sound shiiiiiit. But in teaching virtues it also teaches you about all the vices. It has to. Generally you die in Spelunky because you’re greedy or because you aren’t paying attention. You die for the same reasons that some people get caught out for tax fraud and others end up rear-ending a bus filled with nuns. Some of these flaws are in you; I mean that the potentials for these flaws are in you. Spelunky 2 has so many converging tricks to draw them out that it can wing it on occasion. It can stage its best stuff in… a simple stretch of corridor with a lowish ceiling. Even then, the ceiling’s not that low. It’s not ostentatious or anything.
I am still dying a lot, up on the moon where Spelunky 2 is set, generally playing as Ana, the daughter of the Spelunker from the first game. It comes in waves, in stages, this dying I am doing. The unforeseen deaths. The experimental, what-does-this-thing-do death. The blasé deaths (my speciality). The deeply unfair deaths that are still – this is Spelunky – the kind of thing you can trace back to a source and thus come to understand the varied steps that lead to your downfall.
If you’re not coming from Spelunky 1, all you need to know is that this is a brilliant 2D platforming game about exploring deadly caves, and the game jumbles the layouts every time you play, while keeping certain elements the same. It’s like getting to know an inventive, voluble liar, but one who has a recurring nightmare that won’t entirely leave their heads and thus stains all lies, all fabulous flights, with the same cherished, feared elements. If you are coming from Spelunky 1 you will be right at home: same sense of character weight, same controls, same basic starting gadgets in the form of ropes and bombs and a whip. Same goal: move downwards from level to level. Same bats. Same spiders. Same snakes. So much is the same.
And then you start to die. You start to die an awful lot. Because in amongst the stuff that’s the same is stuff that is wildly, aggressively new. And yet! Even then it still meshes beautifully with Spelunky’s existing clockwork. And by beautifully I mean vindictively. And by vindictively I mean that I often have to turn Spelunky 2 off to sulk for an entire day while I think about my place in the world. This game is a beast.
Let us talk of some of the new things. Reader, I am making a list. I am checking it twice. And at the top of it, this list reads: moles can do one. Moles erupt from the ground, which means that the ground itself, at least a certain type of ground, is no longer safe – it must be modeled in the mind along with all the other emergent horrors. And actually, gathered members of the press, it’s not just moles. It turns out that the new four-way spike-traps in the jungles can do one as well, taking something awful and making it worse. How much worse? Four ways worse. A fork that is all tines and no handle! Screw that. The spiny lizards can do one. Are you a lizard or a wrecking ball? Both?! The witch doctors can really do one, conjuring deadly skulls that can pass through walls. Speaking of which (of witch?), the new variation on the mechanism that triggers the ghost can do a ghostly one. And… And… None of this is criticism, of course. In Spelunky part of me lives for the things that can do one.
This is just the surface. But the surface can still kill you 300 hours in. And it will. Then there are the weirder elements. I like to read Spelunky as a highly personal, even autobiographical work in which many of the stranger details would make sense if I only had more context – if I actually knew Derek Yu, the game’s creator, for example, and understood what he had been through. It’s fun to approach things this way. What did Wall-E ever do to you, Derek Yu? And flame-throwing ladybugs that ride up and down on chains? Dude: what happened?
Both of those examples come from just one of Spelunky’s new levels. It’s a level that – tell me if this is familiar – at first seems impossible and then slowly starts to become manageable, until it is filled with rich promise while still being, intermittently, impossible. The first Spelunky had a delicate design here – a design that existed not despite the procedural scrambling but because of it. The mines were always where you got your bearings. The jungles were a big test and a big leap, and then the ice caverns beyond them were a bit of relaxation prior to – oh cripes – the temple.
Here there’s something similar, except at the end of each environment you get a choice – which place to go to next? So after the starter Mines-alike, you get a tricky, awful place that is somewhat familiar or a place I absolutely love, which is less familiar and merely somewhat awful. Tricky! Onwards and outwards, the choices pile up. Familiar, unfamiliar, sheer horror. One of the levels is so beautiful I might actually bust out crying.
A big thing has been made of the fact that levels have two sides, as it were – you can go through a door in Mines and be behind the scenes, in a separate room and able to see other separate rooms buried behind the bedrock. This is a huge change! And it leads to some very clever stuff! But in your first 10 or so hours, it matters much less than the garden of branching paths that makes up the course of the campaign as it exists when you’re still learning the basics.
I say that because, once you’re no longer learning the basics, you’ll discover that the campaign is a lot more flexible now. One of my big revelations 200 hours into the first Spelunky is that the game isn’t difficult to play so much as it’s difficult to learn how to think about. There’s this place in the first Spelunky called the City of Gold. It’s difficult to get to – a bit of a secret – until you learn how to think about how to get there and then it becomes possible. The game becomes a big shopping list and you just have to focus on the right items. This is how Spelunky likes to bed in its secrets. There will be little oddities scattered throughout many levels, and they are nodes, really, and you just need to work out which of them join up. This carries over. For example, in Spelunky 2 an item in world one – this is as much of a spoiler as I can bring myself to reveal – allows you to trigger… something… in one of the possible world twos. But only one of them? And then? What then? And what of the other world two?
To put it another way, I’ve come to feel there are two main ways to approach Spelunky. The first is that you follow its will and simply react, following the contours of what the game has decided is possible today. It’s the “when life gives you jetpacks” approach. The “play the hand you’re dealt and love it” approach. The second approach is to fight against the will of the game and impose your own. Three caves in pitch darkness, no bombs left and I’ve started to smell…