Spelunky: A Game Design Gold Mine
Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 11:24PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Enemy Design, Indie, Level Design, Mechanics, Misc Design & Theory, Platformer, Review, Roguelike

Spelunky is an indie platforming game by Derek Yu. I stumbled across it, downloaded it, and was quickly absorbed into the game. The best part about this game isn't that it's free. It's that the design is solid according to the principles of Classical game design. Uncovering the intricacies of Spelunky requires a close examination of the game. Fortunately, we are well equipped with the language and the theory necessary. Let's drop a rope into this investigation and start pointing out the design gems.

Structurally, Spelunky is very similar to Super Mario Brothers. Both are 2D, contain platforming elements, enemies that can be killed by jumping on them, and power ups. And like Super Mario Brothers, the player, enemy, and level elements are designed to create a triangle of contrary motion. To understand how excellent the design is of Spelunky, we must understand how the core of the game works.  First up...




In general the player mechanics are all very intuitive, direct, and independent. This is almost irrelevant considering that Yu gives players the ability to customize their controls or use gamepads. I synched up my Wiimote to my PC and found these controls to work quite nicely.

The most important and impressive part of Spelunky's mechanics design is how dynamic the BOMB and ROPE are. The BOMB simply explodes after a short period of time. Just about anything that gets caught up in the explosion blows up including the player, enemies, and the level. Blow up the sides of ponds to drain the water/lava. THROW a bomb at a shop keeper to set him off in a gun toting rage. THROW a bomb to hit targets like you're throwing a rock. It won't explode until the timer runs out. You can even use the light from the explosion to temporarily illuminate dark areas.

In fact, the entire game features an extremely high level of polish and attention to detail. A fire frog enemy will lose its flame if it happens to jump into water. Leaves from plant enemies flutter down and float on top of the surface of water. Upset a shop keeper and wanted signs will be posted of your face in every shop for the rest of the game. The angry shop keepers will even leave their shops and patrol the level exits hoping to catch you. BOMB shiny areas in the walls or floors and the gold will be freed for the collecting. The list goes on and on.

Another interesting design feature of the BOMBS and ROPE mechanics are that they're limited. Players start the game with 4 of each and, unless they find/buy more, that's all they get. Unlike in games like Super Metroid, players can't simply kill/farm enemies to replenish their supplies or find recharge stations. Supplies are much harder to come by. Working with a limited supply of these powerful and versatile tools (explained below) makes each one more valuable to the player.



There are a lot of different enemies in Spelunky. Collectively, the enemies vary in size, health, strength, speed, movement pattern, rarity, and special abilities. One of my favorite design features of the enemies in Spelunky is some of the enemies can hurt/affect each other. The man-eating plants can eat cavemen. The fire frogs create explosions like normal bombs. The arrow traps can be triggered by and kill enemies. The spikes can impale shop keepers. The aliens can kill yeti. The list goes on. It's such details that help make the core design of Spelunky so dynamic.



The world of Spelunky is quantified to the block unit like in Super Mario Brothers. The player avatar is the size of a block. Enemies are designed to take up space by the block. Boxes and chests are a block large. Even the WHIP, BOMB, JUMP, and ROPE mechanic are measured in blocks. Because of this design feature, everything in Spelunky fits together like puzzle pieces.

Spelunky is also features a type of suspension that is completely intuitive, yet has been missing from many games. When exiting one level with an item in your hand you get to take it into the next level. You can even grab a rock on the first level, carry it throughout the whole game, and throw it in the face of the last boss. It's your rock. The game doesn't get in your way of doing whatever you want with it. It's this simple level of suspension that is very effective at connecting the gameplay from one level to the next and across the whole game. Like in Super Mario Bros (more specially SMB3), you can hold onto some of the best powerups forever as long as you don't die/get hurt.

The gold,gems, pots, crates, damsels, and other level elements, like coins in SMB, give players incentives to go out of their way. In Mario's case, coins are arranged to encourage more difficult, interesting, and superfluous JUMPing. With Spelunky, the elements encourage platforming through exploration and terrain transformation.



Level design is where the core design of a game is put to the test. Without levels, players wouldn't have a place to stand on, enemies to fight, or an environment to give context and relevance to the mechanics. The levels in Spelunky have a variety of features that accentuate the well designed core (player, enemy, and level elements) as well as keep things fresh for the player.



The powerups in Spelunky are almost all designed to augment the players offensive, defensive, and movement (platforming) capabilities. Click on the link above for specifics on each powerup item.

All of the powerups work in unique ways. Many of them can also stack on top of each other to create a super powered spelunker. Once you obtain a powerup, as long as you can wear it or carry it, you're free to take it with you to the end of the game. This kind of suspension is very similar to Super Mario Brothers with the biggest difference being that in Super Mario Brothers, one hit from any kind of enemy will take away your powerup. I guess there's some things that are harder in Super Mario Brothers than in Spelunky after all.


In the end, Derek Yu very much succeeded in creating a fast paced, roguelike platforming game. This game is interesting and stands a very good chance of ending up on my GOTY list by the end of the year. After playing and dying more than 300 times, I have many stories to share. And with a level editor included in the package, I am free to create platforming and puzzle challenges to my heart's content. As evident with Spelunky, the tenets and principles of Classical game design are what fill a game with a certain depth and richness. It is these principles that are of a very high value these days. For those of you who haven't tried Spelunky yet, I wish you happy hunting. You'll find gold no matter if you make it out alive or not.


Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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