When it comes to video games, I am something of a glutton for punishment. The titles that tend to hold my attention for the longest are often those that err on the trickier side of the difficulty scale, and although I found overcoming the challenges of Rogue Legacy and Downwell (to name just two examples) to be a wholly satisfying experience, there is one title in particular that encapsulates this phenomenon better than the rest.
Generally speaking, what I enjoy about challenging games – particularly those where failure catapults you right back to the beginning – is the effect that this increase in difficulty has on the emotional stakes involved. Both the highs and lows of playing these games are magnified tenfold; the devastation stemming from falling at a hurdle so tantalisingly close to the finish is a feeling overshadowed only by the utter jubilance that accompanies the eventual triumph. Among a field of many contenders, Spelunky stands tall as a blueprint for what makes for a truly enjoyable challenge.
Its original iteration was released in 2008, but it wasn’t until an HD remake for the Xbox Live Arcade in 2012 that the game was exposed to a wider audience. Developed by Mossmouth, Spelunky is a 2D rogue-lite that sees you explore a series of ever more perilous procedurally-generated caves in search of treasure. Along the way you rescue damsels in distress, collect useful items to help you on your journey, and gradually uncover a wealth of secrets lying just off the beaten path. Although there are ostensibly only 16 levels to beat, reaching the end is no mean feat: more or less everything you encounter in the caves is out to get you, and your character is incredibly fragile.
There are, I feel, a number of key elements necessary to ensure that a difficult game is a satisfying challenge as opposed to an overly-frustrating mess, and Spelunky hits all of these important points. Chief among them is the nature of the difficulty gradient; the learning curve should be steep but ultimately surmountable to allow for the kind of incremental progress that tangibly demonstrates how your skills are evolving over time. Spelunky introduces you to the core mechanics with a gentle tutorial before slowly but steadily ratcheting up the challenge level by level,
Even though you fail a lot, every death is a lesson in how not to play. If you’re willing to learn from these mistakes, then the game repays you with a gradual (but nonetheless noticeable) progression. When I first beat the game without using shortcuts, it was the result of about 20 hours of practice. Coming back to the game a couple years later, I managed that same feat after only six hours. I’m still hammering away, trying to unlock all that the game has to offer, and I’m reaching the finish line much more consistently. It’s a truly rewarding experience.
Setting the difficulty curve at the right level is only half the battle, though. Just as crucial to successful execution is being tough but fair. Spelunky succeeds here too. Although its environments and the monsters that occupy them are harsh and unforgiving, they play by the rules that the game sets out; they can be studied, predicted, conquered. This means that – barring a few instances of truly horrific RNG luck – when you mess up, you don’t blame the game: you blame yourself. For me at least, this reduces frustration and drives that all-important ‘one more go’ feeling that sees you quickly brushing aside the sense of deflation that accompanies failure and mashing the ‘quick restart’ button to play again.
When these two all-important design elements are combined with the right mechanics, the end result is a game that is satisfyingly difficult without ever feeling unfair. And would you believe it? Spelunky makes it three from three. The movement and combat in this game are almost elegant in their simplicity and fine-tuned to the level of precision that allows for genuine mastery. I’m serious: the game is intimidating as hell and makes no secret of how much it wants you to fail, and yet people have beaten it in under two minutes. Others have managed to defeat the ‘true’ final boss with an eggplant. One guy made it all the way through the game without collecting any treasure or killing any enemies. Why? The why isn’t important – it’s that the game allows for the development of those kinds of insane skills.
I’ve long known that Spelunky is a perfect example of how to do challenging games right, but it was only very recently that I sat down and really thought about why exactly that is. Put simply, it ticks all the right boxes. It just works. Try as I might, I can’t get mad at it even after the most painful failures because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s almost universally my fault. Now if that’s not the mark of a great game, I don’t know what is.