Two years with Spelunky highlight the pleasures of playing the long game

Two years with Spelunky highlight the pleasures of playing the long game

Yesterday, I found out that Gameological’s assistant editor, Matt Gerardi, had accomplished a video game feat two years in the making. How could I not make that the topic of our weekend-kickoff chat this week? Fair warning: We discuss the depths of Spelunky in some detail, including the different paths to the end. And as always, share your weekend gaming plans in the comments.

John Teti: What are you playing this weekend?

Matt Gerardi: I’ll tell you what I’m not playing this weekend, John, and that’s Spelunky.

JT: So I gather.

MG: I’ve been playing it on and off for a few years at this point, since before the Xbox 360 version came out in 2012. But since getting my Vita, it’s kind of become my go-to game whenever I have some free time and don’t really know what else to play. And Wednesday night I finally reached the secret true ending. 

JT: How many endings are there?

MG: There are two. The normal one comes up after you make it through all the levels as you normally would, just reaching the exit of each and surviving through the four different worlds—mines, jungles, ice caves, temple. And then you have to defeat and giant golden head named Olmec. But there’s a secret ending that can only be reached by going through a very specific set of steps as you progress through the regular game. You still have to fight Olmec, but after that, you go to Hell—the secret fifth world is literally called Hell—and waiting for you at the end of Hell is King Yama, which I guess is the game’s real final boss.

JT: How many times did you try and fail before you reached the secret ending?

MG: I couldn’t possibly give you an accurate number. Hundreds?

JT: Did you look at wikis from the beginning to find out what you need to do?

MG: Not when I first started playing the game. I remember hearing about Yama and these Hell levels for the first time maybe a year after the Xbox 360 version came out. My mind was a little blown. I had no idea there was so much stuff hidden in this game. But I wasn’t really playing it that much at that point. Once I got a Vita and put Spelunky on there, I really fell down the rabbit hole.

JT: Is it the type of thing you could even discover on your own? I guess somebody had to be the first to figure it out.

MG: It doesn’t seem like it to me. There’s one particular step in the process that is really odd. You have to get a specific item in one of the secret levels and then kill yourself and be revived in a specific later level. I would never think to do that!

JT: You read Nintendo Power as a kid, right?

MG: Yeah. Granted, we definitely read it at very different points in its existence.

JT: This is true, and thank you for reminding me of my senescence.

MG: Anytime.

JT: In any case, there used to be this column, Classified Information, where they had cheat codes and other secrets. And in the early days, they had this conceit that the information was uncovered by “agents” working in the field. They really owned the secret-agent vibe by omitting bylines and instead putting “agent numbers” on everything. I thought this was the coolest thing. So I wrote in to have a number assigned to me. I became Agent #358. After I got the number, I had this sense of responsibility. So one Saturday I spent a few hours plugging away at my NES games, trying random controller codes in the hopes of uncovering a cheat. I now realize that most of the stuff in that Classified Information column was fed to Nintendo Power by the game studios, and there was little to no “espionage” taking place. But I still like the idea of being the guy who discovers some awesome game secret. Anyway, Spelunky has a lot of that opportunity for discovery, it seems.

MG: You didn’t discover any NES secrets?

JT: Nope. I never submitted a single hot tip to the Classified Information column.

MG: That stinks. But yeah, Spelunky is full of tons of strange secrets. They all kind of make sense within the game’s world and logic. It’s definitely a “hindsight is 20-20” situation, though. I seem to be kind of obsessed with these dense, secret-filled games. The kind that you can really build a giant wiki around. Spelunky and Dark Souls have been pretty constant in my game rotation over the last few months.

I think it’s the learning process that grabs me. You start out completely flummoxed, but put in enough hours, and the reward is huge. They slowly open up, and even when you think you’ve learned all there is to learn, you find out that you can catch the mummies’ vomit in you skull cup and use that to get a ton of extra health. That’s a hot Spelunky tip for you.

I know, John, you were really into The Binding Of Isaac for a long time. That’s a similar game.

JT: Yeah, I was just going to say, I’m like you. I like learning the game to the point where I’m getting into really fine-grained strategy. The Binding Of Isaac is like a sacred game to me in that respect because you can’t really advance to anything meaningful in that game until you train yourself with micro-strategies that help you get the most out of each level. Because Isaac, like Spelunky, depends so much on health preservation. In Isaac, I got to the point where I understood the level-generation algorithms so deeply that I was calculating expected value for every bomb I was laying down. Like a poker player calculating the pot odds.

MG: That’s pretty hardcore. My Spelunky strategies never got that fine-tuned. I always had goals in mind for the early levels—get as much money as you can without wasting bombs, spend that money on more bombs—but at a certain point in that game, I always end up flying by the seat of my pants.

JT: But you’re well-practiced by that point, too, so I think you’re understating the case. Your “flying by the seat of the pants” in Spelunky is going to be superior to mine.

MG: Oh, yeah. There are strategies I use for specific instances, like robbing the black market, which is full of shopkeepers waiting to murder any criminals with their shotguns. The number of random things that can possibly go wrong in Spelunky is so high, though, that the best you can hope to do in some cases is be careful and hope you’re prepared to handle what might happen. In a lot of cases, your destiny is in the hands of the game.

JT: Yes. I think that is a significant difference between the games. Binding Of Isaac is a somewhat more controlled environment. It trains you to become a diligent planner. Spelunky trains you to become a confident improviser. It’s not so black-and-white as that, but they shade in those directions.

MG: That’s absolutely true. I like Binding Of Isaac, but I never really got into it. I definitely get that sense from it though. It’s more about planning.

JT: Do you have another “big project” game lined up now?

MG: I recently started a new game in Dark Souls because I’ve never finished it with a character that focuses on slinging magic. I’m about halfway done with that run at this point. I’ve also got a couple of those old Japanese strategy RPGs on my Vita that I’m trying to get myself to play. The PSP remakes of Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, to be exact.

JT: You’re never going to play those. Just throw them in the trash. If you have to make yourself play something, the battle is already lost. I’m not knocking the games, either. They’re good games.

MG: Sometimes it’s just a matter of trying something new and seeing that you like it. I was ready to hate Dark Souls. That was definitely an “everyone’s talking about this, you should try it sort of thing.” And now look at me. I’m coaching Drew Toal through it.

JT: Yeah, but Dark Souls was the hot hotness. Final Fantasy Tactics has been around for a while. I bet you’re going to end up playing Nidhogg or something all weekend.

MG: I am planning on having a buddy over to start playing the new Earth Defense Force game. And that will probably turn into playing Nidhogg. You’re right. God, I love Nidhogg.

JT: We were going to do it on The Digest for this month, but my guest critic for that one punked out on me. Which I guess is a good way to wrap up this chat: Hey, everyone, The Digest is back next week. Ryan Smith joined me to talk about Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Broken Age. Also, the most revolting treat yet! I almost throw up!

MG: That sounds like fun.

JT: Everyone enjoys the threat of vomit. It is the universal entertainment.

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