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Ben Hornsby Ben Hornsby
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'Spelunky' is a 2D jump-and-punch with randomly generated stages. You jump high enough that you can land one block higher than you started or grab onto an edge that's two blocks up. Your whip attack spans the length of a single block in front of you, and it doesn't hit above or below. Bombs and ropes, which must be stumbled upon and collected, allow you to twist the stage's layout to let you get where you want to go. The game is inspired by 1985's nail-hard 'Spelunker,' though the characters here move with a momentum much more like Mario's. Sprinting around with a rock and hucking it at an enemy is a kind of mechanic homage to shell-throwing in 'Super Mario World.'

That 'randomly generated stages' part is The Thing About 'Spelunky,' though. The game is about the precision with which each of its obstacles is designed, and the smooth way all of these obstacles click together in each stage. Every screen is a new puzzle, and the complexity that you can comfortably handle goes up as you learn the ways that the enemies and items all interact together.

In an overt puzzle game - let's say 'Portal,' that's a pretty good puzzle game - the puzzles feel like jigsaw puzzles, or crosswords. Or a Rubik's Cube - that's pretty much the best-case scenario. Rubik's Cubes are worth applauding, when they're clever enough, and when they have clean, confident aesthetics (and minimal levels of embarrassing dialogue (and no DLC (and no sexist overtones))).

'Spelunky's' levels, on the other hand, are a different kind of puzzle. They are puzzles in the sense that putting together a sentence is a puzzle. 'Spelunky's' level design is a complete, nuanced language. I don't mean language like 'the player's verbs are jump and whip.' I mean language like you look at the screen and read something that the game has taught you how to read. I mean that the more familiar you are with 'Spelunky's' language, the more of its words will make sense to you. Many great games never move past making sense, and many of them are still great, but 'Spelunky' is level design literature from the first screen. I once said that playing 'Super Mario Bros.' as a child probably taught me how to play guitar; if I'd been playing 'Spelunky' when I was 6 years old, I'd probably be writing novels instead of videogame reviews right now.

That the levels come at you randomly is remarkable, because they work so well. The bigger surprises are cute; darkened stages are lit by a tiny handheld torch; sometimes a level is just full of snakes for no reason. But seeing patterns emerge in the minutiae of the level design is what's really fascinating. Simple arrangements of blocks and enemies start to form nested rhythms with each other. You don't see individual notes coming, but you start bouncing along to the chord progression in your head without even knowing that you're doing it.

And then every four stages the game switches keys. The mine gives way to the jungle, which is filled with obstacles that deliberately disrupt everything you've become comfortable with. The ice caves come after that, which remove an element that is so integral to the game up until that point that it probably wouldn't even occur to you to appreciate it. Learning each new area lets you look at the previous ones in a new light, and building up to your dozenth attempt to clear the temple is - well, it's something.

In 2008 I played the freeware version of 'Spelunky' by myself for an hour, and it was better than anything else that came out that year. After playing the remastered version for 40 hours with friends, I guess it might be the best game of 2012, too.

Also the bottom option in the settings menu is definitely Option of the Year 2012. 

four stars out of four 

Ben Hornsby always picks Damsel Style 2.'


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