Jan. 28, 2009 - Issue #693: Hungry for Change
Infinite Lives: Neo-nostalgia
My mother’s computer sits on the same desk, in the same room, in the same house where my younger self spent thousands of flower-of-youth hours in front of his first real computer. This desk; the desk I’m sitting at now. When we got that Tandy 1000 in 1984, it came with a dad-stipulated “no games” rule, a rule that was first eroded by the creeping “educational games” exemption and then completely obliterated by friends of the family handing off massive stacks of bulk-copied floppies. From then on, this desk was my portal into the multiverse of 16-colour digital fantasy.
Today, a sunny and frigid wintertime Saturday like so many spent in starflight, crypt-delving and chopper-piloting, I’m thinking specifically of two favorites of that time: the Epyx edition of seminal dungeon-crawl Rogue, and Broderbund’s Lode Runner. On the screen in front of me is Derek Yu’s Spelunky, a freeware platform game that takes almost everything a maladjusted 11-year-old loved about those games (and games like them), remixes that with the frothy cloud of two decades of game-design convention, twists it all around a spindle of inspired insight and serves it up as some kind of (bullshit prefix overload alert) neo-avant-retro cotton candy.
Presented in the popular (almost mandatory) pixelly graphics style reminiscent of the classic Commander Keen/Duke Nukem vein of shareware games, Spelunky’s mechanical fundamentals are on the surface pure platform: exploring subterranean levels, climbing ladders, dodging critters and leaping chasms in search of gems, gold bricks and jeopardized sweethearts. Chuck some rocks, bomb some walls, lash out with your dinky little whip ... that sort of thing. But after a few minutes of play, as Spelunky’s roguelike elements make themselves felt, you’ll realize you’re into something much deeper than your usual run ‘n’ jump knockoff.
The key roguelike feature is the “procedurally generated” levels—every time you play, you’re getting a brand-new experience prepared right at your table. As with Rogue and its cousins, sometimes you’ll get lucky—a cakewalk cavern loaded with easy-pickin’ loot and pushover challenges—and sometimes you’ll get mauled by a giant death-spider before you can say “run run run runrunRUNgoddamnit!” By itself, this might just be a cool feature that keeps replays interesting, but Yu’s gone further into what makes the roguelikes so addictive by investing Spelunky with their feeling of mystery and exploration, the sense of not only being in a new level every time you play, but of being a a whole new world that needs figuring out.
Spelunky begins with a tutorial that teaches you how to move and jump, how to pick stuff up, and how to use your character’s handy bombs and ropes. Beyond that you’re on your own; only by playing and dying and playing and dying and playing again will you figure out what items do what, how various weapons and tools behave, how traps work ... everything. All of Spelunky’s rules and mechanisms—all of which work perfectly, many of which are hilarious—are revealed through experiment, and the experimenting itself is pure gaming joy.
It may seem weird to talk about “spoilers” in the context of a game with no plot or story, whose levels are unique to each playthrough, but ... SPOILER ALERT! I want to talk about specific examples, here, but I don’t want to ruin it for you; if you haven’t yet, go download Spelunky (derekyu.com; Windows only) and play it for a few hours while the rest of us talk about something else and wait for your return.
So ... did any of you see that crazy shit on The National last Friday, where they had the panel of savage entrepreneurial bastards from Dragon’s Den dishing out a hypothetical $20 billion economic bailout package? I thought Buzz Hargrove was going to have a fucking aneurysm when Kevin O’Leary made his “take out the tubes and let Grandma die” speech.
Oh, you’re back! So? Cool, huh? How long did it take you to figure out you could use the distressed damsels as throwing weapons and human shields? Did you try to rob a merchant ... or did he just come after you with his shotgun when you inadvertently wrecked his shop by triggering a giant Indiana Jones boulder that destroyed half the level? How deep did you make it? After six hours and dozens of deaths I only made it three caverns in, myself ...
A winter Saturday in the old computer room, Mom and Dad out running errands, and me alone rocking a masterpiece old-school enough to activate all nostalgia circuits, new-school enough to be totally captivating. Old feelings re-experienced rather than merely remembered; the only thing missing is the earthy smell of zit cream and a little Wham! on the turntable. V
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