Spelunky Makes Me Want to Stab But I Can’t Stop Playing

The brave adventurer lets the damsel take the lead.

I made it through this year’s Steam sales largely unscathed, if only because I already own most of the games that went on sale. I did still pick up a few things (because I have no willpower), but the one game that has captured my attention the most is Spelunky, a “procedurally generated” platformer that is maddeningly difficult, occasionally cruel, full of cheap deaths, and surprisingly addictive. I’ve already put in more than eight hours of playtime, and I’m starting to wonder why I do this to myself.

Spelunky has a lot of mechanics designed to make you throw your controller at the wall. Health is limited and hard to refill. Dying means starting over completely. Checkpoints are non-existent and short-cuts require beating every world multiple times under specific conditions. Half the monsters in every level can kill you with one hit, and most of the traps you come across cause instant death. Sometimes the levels are dark or under water or full of the undead and oh if you take too long a giant ghost starts chasing you around until you die or manage to escape. You get the picture.

So why do I keep playing? It has to be some kind of stubborn bloody-mindedness. That’s the only thing that makes sense. I’ll sit there for hours, swearing at the screen, convinced that if I play through just one more time I can make it to the next world. I never would have thought I’d be the sort of person drawn to games so punishing, but something about them is strangely addictive.

That said, when a game is frustrating because it’s poorly designed, I delete that fucker without hesitation. Case in point: I also bought Ys I and II Chronicles because I didn’t realize they were incredibly difficult, esoteric JRPGs that seem to delight in tedious grinding. Ys has this weird combat system where you attack enemies by bumping into them, which I guess would make it feel more action-oriented if it weren’t for the fact that you start with 20 HP, no equipment, and not enough money to buy both armor and a shield, which is required to progress past the first town. The only solution is to fight endlessly spawning enemies that can halve your HP in a few swipes and only offer 6 gold for your trouble. You need at least 100 more gold to buy the right equipment. So, basically, complete bullshit.

This leads me to conclude that the reason why I enjoy games like Dark Souls, Spelunky and even Super Meat Boy is that they’re all well-designed experiences that trust you to figure out how to stand on your own two feet. They’re fun once you start getting the hang of the mechanics, and if you die a thousand times, it’s because you made a mistake, not the game designers. That said, I doubt I’ll ever manage to actually beat Super Meat Boy. That game is ridiculous.

Anyone else enjoy playing ridiculously difficult games, or do you avoid them like the plague? When a game is difficult, does it make you more likely to throw in the towel or buckle down and power through until you’re victorious? Let us know in the comments.

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Someday I will die under a pile of books, movies and music. Until then, I'll eke out my time spent in sunny Los Angeles, California by working on the Great American Blog Post.

2 thoughts on “Spelunky Makes Me Want to Stab But I Can’t Stop Playing”

  1. I’ve been working at the grindstone with Binding of Isaac as it works under similarly generated levels and enemies, with rogue-like enemies. The first time I played I barely made it through the first floor and died the next. It’s a tough game but the more items you start unlocking and discovering what stacks for stat increases (the RPG element of it) the more addicting it gets to play. You start trying different run builds to see if you can tank through to the end. I’ve heard that Rogue Legacy works under similar mechanics like Spelunky or Isaac.

  2. Yeah I played rogue legacy a ton, its exactly the same. Extremely hard enemies and difficulty in staying alive. But it is never cheap, and every play through as you get better equipment and stronger makes it more satisfying. Just like Super Meat Boy, i havent finished it 😛

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