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Playing Spelunky for the first time: a friendly interrogation

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Imagine a world in which you have never played Spelunky. I bet many of you can’t. For Chrsitian Donlan, it’s impossible. Like so many of you, he’s been passionately playing the series for years.

But there are others who are more easily distracted and seem to miss everything important that comes by. People like Bertie. How he manages this, we don’t know, but Spelunky, to him, remains unknown.

So, as Spelunky 2 arrives on Xbox Game Pass, an opportunity presents itself. An opportunity to see something afresh through new eyes. This is how a veteran and newbie come together for a conversation, and here’s what they have to say.

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Chris: You’ve had to hear about Spelunky a lot over the last few years I reckon – and now you’ve finally leapt in, and into Spelunky 2, as well, which is a proper beast! So to start with: what were your first impressions?

Bertie: I have heard a lot about it! For years, Spelunky was all anyone seemed to talk about. I think that was what put me off. I like to be different. But first impressions? Clean. Zippy. Neat. A lot like Mario if that makes sense? Responsive in that same way, tidy in that same way. Well made. Nice jump.

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But in a different kind of way: brutal. And I feel like that’s the first thing you need to understand about the game, getting used to how unmercilessly and swiftly it can and will kill you – albeit in a very charming way, with cute spiders and snakes. Because once you understand that, you can get on with actually playing it and gradually excavating its secrets.

Our calamity co-op. It makes a huge difference which player controls the screen (the white flag). It’s really tricky playing as the co-pilot.

It’s a particularly important lesson to learn when in local co-op! Talk about tension – and I don’t just mean on the rope! This is absolutely a game where you can hinder someone as much as help them, though within that, there’s also a real sense of actual teamwork improving the more you play.

Have I covered it yet? I worry I’ll get going and never stop!

Chris: I think it’s actually often harder rather than easier in co-op. There’s so much I want to ask you! Have you had any truly memorable disasters yet? Have you got a favourite weapon or item that, whenever you spot it, you just have to get? More than anything have you had that moment where you get a glimpse of the start of a secret – something that raises more questions than it answers? I feel like this is the heart of Spelunky 2 in particular – you spot a thread and you have to know where it leads.

Bertie: Any memorable disasters? Ha ha – how long have you got? Shooting the shopkeepers is a good one. “How is it I interact with them again? I’ll just press X and oh, whoops, no!” They’re absolute beasts. And it is the most embarrassing explanation to give the person you’re playing with as to why you’re both now dead.

Actually, in general, it tends to be a lot of moments like these that I remember – co-op mishaps. Times when one of you has accidentally – or purposefully! – dropped something on the other person’s head and killed them, which happens an alarming amount of the time. It doesn’t take long for you to go from confident to dead.

“Any memorable disasters? Ha ha – how long have you got?”

A favourite weapon? My co-Spelunker really likes the pickaxe because you can smash up the level, getting at gems and gold and all manner of secret things. I really like the boomerang because it passes through enemies and then comes back to you, meaning you hit them more than once in a throw, and you can throw it again immediately afterwards. It’s a kind of aggressive way of playing I learned from the neanderthal henchman, funnily enough, who – change of answer – has probably become our favourite, um, living weapon! He’s like an amped up, no-fear demonstration of how the game can be played.

Have we had a moment where we’ve glimpsed a secret? That’s an interesting one. I don’t know if we have. We’ve seen a kind of boss creature, we’ve moved into some different biomes – I think we’ve seen a fair bit. But I’m not sure we’ve started questioning why it’s all there, if that’s what you mean, or why we’re really doing this. At the moment we’re just focused on staying alive. And those other biomes: they make the beginning one look sedate!

The ghost arrives
Oh bollocks.

Chris: Ha ha! The starter biome feels very controversial with Spelunky 2. I still think it’s a touch too unforgiving – how did you feel it worked as an intro to the game? And what did you make of those sodding moles?

Bertie: Oh god – the gophers? I think they’re gophers here. They are horrible, popping up all over the place, pushing me around. They’re like the antithesis of the positioning finesse Spelunky really deals in. You tiptoe around the danger they barge you into, and then it’s like being in a blender of death, all enemies ricocheting around and spikes shooting through the floor, and traps snapping shut on you. A couple of seconds later, you’re dead.

I feel like Spelunky does that a lot: shoves you. I suppose if it didn’t, you’d probably spend ages inching around like an actual archeologist, taking time to dust and explore everything. Clearly, Spelunky doesn’t want you to do that. That’s why the ghost comes for you, making you panic and run as fast as you can towards the exit. Forget caution: you’ve got to get out.

Spelunky 2 doesn’t want you to settle. I’m even beginning to think that’s why the run-speed is the way it is, which is to say: too fast. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game with a run-speed modifier that slows you down to a more controlled jog. I’ve seen run-speed modifiers go the other way and trigger sprints, or modifiers that make you walk, but those that make you run a bit slower? Nope. And I think that’s because Spelunky 2 knows it’s default run-speed is risky, is dangerous. It’s like it’s always there tempting you to go faster. It’s such a tempting game.

A level in the dark, the hero teetering on the edge
Steady!

Chris: Okay, last question I think. What are the really big things you’ve learned so far? I feel like Spelunky is full of things to learn – I’m still learning for sure.

Bertie: I think the biggest realisation was that we didn’t have to start at the beginning every time we tried again! I know it sounds silly but I still wouldn’t have known this had my co-Spelunker not noticed it. I’d still be replaying from the beginning!

Like you say though, there are many things to learn. It’s in how the items work or who the characters you bump into are and what they do. Or it’s how the enemies behave and finding the safe ways to defeat them. For a while, at the beginning, it was “Why does a ghost always come for us when we smash this vase with a diamond inside?” Ridiculous, I know, but there was a time when I didn’t know! It feels like every session we take away something new (and not just the vase with the diamond in it).

In a broader sense, I’m beginning to appreciate the balance of the game and how it’s tuned to both urge you to keep you moving and to exhibit caution. To that end, I’m getting better at scanning areas for traps before I run in and set them all off, which means I’m dying less from reckless mistakes. Paradoxically, though, I’m also becoming more reckless, although I’ll refer to it as ‘confidence’ and ‘bravery’ if you don’t mind.

Oh and one final thing: I’m learning to be a better co-Spelunker. There’s definitely an art to it. I’m learning to hang back and let someone else lead and to shrug my shoulders when things don’t work out and say, “Hey, it’s OK, I don’t mind that you totally killed me – let’s try again.” Because if I don’t, my Spelunking doesn’t stand a chance.



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